By Naveen Maliakkal
Last season, Liverpool rode a particular approach to a second place finish in the English Premier League. With the individual talents of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez, and Raheem Sterling, Liverpool played a style that maximized the amount of opportunities their star players could play with the ball in space, with the 4-diamond-2 keeping those talents close enough for them to interact. To create this space for their attackers, they operated as a counter-attacking side. They wanted to control the space around the ball as quickly and as high up the pitch as possible. This would increase their ability to win the ball high up the pitch, shortening the distance they had to travel to reach the opponent’s goal. Also, by trying to control the space that the ball occupied further away from their own goal, they looked to minimize their reliance on controlling spaces occupied Steven Gerrard, the back line, and Simon Mignolet. This led to a title run that came crashing down at the end of the season, as Liverpool’s flaw were revealed.
Against Chelsea, Liverpool faced a team that was more than willing to sit deep and avoid Liverpool’s best individual talents and eat up the large amount of space that other teams, including Arsenal, had afforded them. Unlikely other English Premier League teams, who often lack the proper compactness and coordination as a unit to prevent Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling to shine, Chelsea had the ability to effectively control space as a unit. What also helped Chelsea was Liverpool’s inability to control space when they had control of possession. While Liverpool had players suited to exploiting space that their opponent did not control well due to their attacking shape, they did not function well as a unit to create and exploit openings against an organized deep-lying defense.
An obvious issue in Liverpool’s shape was that they were often too spread out. While a team wants to “make the pitch big”, a lack of compactness in possession poses some significant issues. Obviously, the larger the distance between players, the farther the ball has to travel. This means that ball has less of an ability to change direction. With a possession-based side’s need to move their opponent’s shape quicker than their opponent can react, in order to create openings, Liverpool’s lack of compactness hurt their ability to do that.
Their poor positional play also led to a lack of options available to individuals. Not only does a lack of compactness force the ball to travel farther, but passing lanes can become easier to defend because the ball has to travel a longer distance. Since options can be taken away from the player on the ball with such ease, ball movement suffers, as players wait for an option to appear. Again, this hurts a team’s ability to move their opponent’s defensive shape, and against Chelsea, this inability to penetrate led to them resorting to long-ranged potshots, particularly when they fell behind 1-0.
Against Crystal Palace, Liverpool’s inability to kill the game with their possession or hold a team off by defending in a compact organized manner showed. With a 3-0 lead, the game remained open. So while Liverpool had the lead, they lacked control over the match (much like Arsenal against Anderlecht after Mikel Arteta went off injured).This lack of control meant that they could not reduce the variance of the potential set of outcomes—they played right into the hands of David vs. Goliath. Ultimately, their inability to create options in possession to help them control the ball and their lack of quality defensively as an entire unit cost them a title.
Going into this season, they lost one of their great individual talents to the transfer market. Maybe the loss of Luis Suarez forced a rethink by the rest of the league, along with the Chelsea match and the Crystal Palace match. This season, teams seem to have a better understanding of why Liverpool had such success, and have taken it away. With teams willing to give Liverpool control of the ball, they have given themselves a greater ability to exploit Liverpool’s ineptitude when it comes to controlling space with the ball and limit the amount of times that Liverpool’s individual talents find themselves with plenty of space¹.
While Liverpool could rely on their star players to bail them out against such sides, the loss of Suarez to Barcelona, the loss of Sturridge to injury, and the large workload placed on Sterling has eroded the chances that a moment of brilliance bails them out of a poor performance. Combine this with teams not giving Steven Gerrard the time and space he needed to provide whatever value he can to his club, at this point in this career, along with the ineptitude of Liverpool’s center backs on the ball, and defending Liverpool has become a rather simple task this season.
Defensively, they still have the same problems they had last season. They remain a rather open side when they do not have the ball. Their increased time on the ball against an organized defense exacerbates this issue. While their poor positional play hurts their ability to move the ball, control space, and their ability to control the ball, it also decreases their ability to control space once the ball is lost. Liverpool’s players often have to travel too far of a distance to eliminate passing lanes, put pressure on the ball, and win the ball, in order to avoid exposure of their lack of quality at the back of the team.
Brendan Rodgers has yet to figure out how to best play with this team (the number of signings Liverpool made over the summer does not help that issue either). He has played around with formations; he has gone through various starting XIs; he has vacillated between placing an emphasis on pressing to not placing an emphasis on pressing. With this lack of certainty in approach, it becomes difficult to predict how Liverpool will set up for the match on Sunday².
They could go back to the 4-diamond-2, with an emphasis on fullbacks playing high up the pitch to help press Arsenal. This would look something like their approach at Anfield last season. If they do go with this approach, it seems that Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo would represent the best options to play at FB given their athleticism and potential effectiveness in attacking transitions. In midfield, Steven Gerrard could return to his deeper role with two more energetic players in front of him, in Emre Can and Jordan Henderson. Occupying the positions at the diamond and the front two would probably be some iteration of Philippe Coutino, Adam Lallana, and Raheem Sterling. They will look to concede possession to Arsenal. Instead of pressing high, they may look to press once the ball gets past the half-way line and into Arsenal’s midfield. With the 4-diamond-2, they could look to clog the center of the pitch, with their pressing fullbacks looking to eliminate options and/or close down players on the wings.
With the likes of Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez playing at the front, such an approach would be riskier than it was last season, as Arsenal have a greater ability to exploit the offside space that Liverpool concede if they try to remain compact in their shape. If Liverpool look to eliminate the amount of offside space by having deeper-lying backline, then Arsenal have two quality outlets in Danny Welbeck and a fresher/fitter Olivier Giroud, who can drop into the space between the back line and midfield. This can give Arsenal an onside space “out” ball in the face of pressure, allowing them to better control the space that Liverpool would concede with this particular approach.
Another possible set-up for Liverpool could be the kind of 3-4-3 that they used against Manchester United and Bournemouth. This formation seems to be Rodgers most recent effort to play matches the way they did last season. While the pressing looks disorganized, it is energetic. The effectiveness of this pressing depends quite a bit on the lack of technical ability, ball movement, and positional play of the opposition – the opponent’s inability to control possession. They want their energy to create errant passes and poor touches. The turnovers they create will allow them to better get Raheem Sterling in space. Their playing style in possession still relies heavily on quickly getting their individual stars the ball, to let them exploit space as an individual.
Against Bournemouth and Manchester United, they did do well to disrupt their opposition. However, outside of Michael Carrick, neither team had players who one would look to if one desired control of possession. Against a team that could play through or beyond their pressure, they risk conceding control of important spaces to their opponent. Just as with the 4-diamond-2, Arsenal have an ability to exploit a lack of compactness, either exploiting the offside space or the onside space that Liverpool concede.
Another aspect of Arsenal’s play that could punish Liverpool’s 3-4-3 is the positioning of their fullbacks. Instead of playing with a narrow diamond in midfield, if Liverpool look to play two wing-backs and the wing-backs must track the fullbacks, then Liverpool have gifted Arsenal the ability to easily gain control of the midfield zone.
Arsenal could look to push both fullbacks high up the pitch, forcing Liverpool into a back 5, with 2 players in midfield to control the midfield zone. With Liverpool’s three center backs all lacking the ability to defend in wide areas/turn themselves into half-backs. Arsenal could push their fullbacks up the pitch, drop one or two of the front 3 into the midfield zone, along with Cazorla playing a deeper controlling midfield role. This could give Arsenal a 4-on-2 or a 5-on-2 in midfield, allowing them to dominate the midfield zone. In particular, they could look to exploit the spaces to the side of Liverpool’s central midfield duo—the half-spaces. Either Liverpool’s midifielders do not respond, allowing Arsenal to control a dangerous space close to Liverpool’s goal, or Liverpool’s midfielders respond, conceding space either in the center of the pitch or in the other half-space. As long as Arsenal position themselves in such a manner that they can move the ball quickly enough to exploit this space, then they should find success against Liverpool.
Lallana and/or Coutinho could look to drop into the wide midfield roles, helping the probable duo of Lucas Leiva and Gerrard to try to control space in the midfield zone. However, this would give Arsenal a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-1 at the back, depending on the positioning of the holding midfield. Unlike Liverpool, whose center backs have little ability on the ball, in Chambers and an unpressured Mertesacker, Arsenal have a greater ability to do damage with the ball at the feet of their center backs. If Liverpool look to drop Raheem Sterling into a deeper position, then Arsenal also benefit, as an overworked Sterling will have to make longer sprints to pose a threat on the counter. If Sterling runs out of gas during this match, Liverpool would take a significant hit with respect to their ability to create goals.
This approach does potentially leave Arsenal vulnerable to a run in behind their back line by Raheem Sterling. For this reason, Arsenal need to remain compact in their shape when they have the ball. With the fullbacks high up the pitch to push the wingbacks into the back line, Liverpool have a decreased ability to push the ball to the flanks for the purposes of advancement. Therefore, Liverpool will have to resort to long balls or throughballs to quickly transition. If Arsenal remain compact in their attacking shape, when they lose the ball, they have plenty of bodies to shut down passing lanes and effectively apply pressure to the man on the ball. For all the speed of Raheem Sterling, Arsenal’s control of the space around the ball, both in possession and out of possession, can render that moot.
And that is probably the theme of this match. Liverpool still seem to want to rely on the ability of individual players—a rather English characteristic. Arsenal, as they did once before with Wenger, seem to want to get away from the English culture of football. They seem to want to emphasize the ability of the unit to control a match. A club with an English mentality sees the potential of Sterling going up against Mertesacker or even Calum Chambers and licks their lips. They may even build their team shape and playing style around their individual player exploiting that matchup. A team with a greater emphasis on the unit looks to control the match, such that the instances of a disadvantageous 1-on-1 matchup are limited or does not occur.
And yet, while I praise approaches focusing on the unit’s ability to control a match, even the best plan can go to waste without proper execution. This makes prediction difficult, as even having the correct set-up can lead to a loss. Arsenal could completely dominate the match, only to go behind on a deflected own goal. Liverpool could create one chance and score, while Arsenal create chance after chance only to see a zero on the scoreboard. As Friedrich Hayek said in his Nobel Prize lecture, “The Pretense of Knowledge”, specifically referencing ball games, “…our capacity to predict will be confined to such general characteristics of the events to be expected and not include the capacity of predicting particular individual events.” Therefore, as with the match against Manchester United, the execution of the players in particular unpredictable events may prove more important than the advantages/disadvantages created by the plans of either manager.
Follow Naveen on twitter @njm1211
¹Why it took so long for managers to realize this may speak to something like a general strategical ineptitude on the part of English Premier League managers, particularly ones with poorer squads as the opportunity cost of such a strategy is relatively smaller, or something like the overemphasis on the importance of the individual, in this case, an overestimation of the effectiveness of Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling against an organized and compact side.
²In fact, it is quite difficult to determine what Brendan Rodgers philosophy of football is. I do not know how his Watford or Reading sides played. However, at the English Premier League level, his Swansea sides seemed to me a good example of a side that could control possession, but struggled to control space. His Liverpool sides have gone from a version of Swansea’s sterile possession, though without the talents of Leon Britton, to the counter-attacking side that relied on not controlling possession, to a side that seems incapable of controlling space in either phase of the game. To me, Rodgers represents the need to pump the brakes on judging a manager after a season of unexpected success when their method of success is unsustainable.