Thursday 31 October 2013

Talking tactics: Rodgers' all new winning formula

Adrian Clarke looks ahead to Saturday's mouthwatering clash between Arsenal and Liverpool

  • Pic 1: Liverpool's average positions v Aston Villa (left) and Newcastle United

  • Pic 2: Liverpool's system is fluid and adaptable

  • Pic 3: Gerrard is getting forward considerably more often than he did earlier this season

Brendan Rodgers' footballing doctrine is simple: control possession, and you control the game.

Since taking the helm at Anfield in the summer of 2012, the 40-year-old has made subtle but continued alterations to the make-up of his side. In search of a perfect balance that allows his players to achieve fluid, passing football that has a cutting edge – without forsaking defensive organisation – the Reds' improved consistency suggest he's making progress. So, ahead of this weekend's appetising encounter with Arsenal we take a look at the development of Rodgers' Liverpool side…

The impact of a new system

Defeat at home to Southampton, coupled with the long-awaited return of Luis Suarez, prompted the Reds manager to shelve his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation in late September, replacing it with a more unusual 3-4-1-2 shape – and it is a move that has provoked an impressive reaction from his players.

While difficult fixtures against Manchester United and Swansea City perhaps skewed the numbers, Liverpool did struggle to monopolise the ball during the first five matches, boasting a lowly average of just 49.3% per game. With a new system in place the last four Barclays Premier League games has seen that figure leap to 57.97%; a statistic which will no doubt please their manager.

Why has this happened? Well, springing like a flower in bloom when possession is regained, Rodgers' men are able to make the pitch much bigger now. With two of the three centre-backs splitting very wide, and both wing-backs taking up extremely advanced positions, the Reds are spreading out and creating decidedly more space in which to pass the ball around to one another.

This control, plus the security of an extra defender, means Liverpool are on the front foot more often. Defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva can focus his attention on what's ahead of him, not behind, and as you can see on the Average Position Maps in image 1 above, the midfield unit as a whole spend more time pressing inside the opposition half, especially on their travels.

With natural wing-backs, rather than forwards that like drifting inside, occupying the flanks the team's crossing output has also been dramatically enriched, as shown in Table 1 below. However, without the ball the side remain a work in progress. Arguably more open to play against the Reds have been leakier at the back while they have been acclimatising to their new individual roles,.

(All per match) Four at the back (first five matches)
Three at the back (last four matches)
Crosses 8.2
Tackles 24.8 19.25
Shots faced      
Goals conceded 0.6 1.25

Greater freedom

'Fluidity' is a word you will hear Brendan Rodgers say time and again, and no matter what tactics a team deploys it is the intelligence and confidence of players who bring that element to the table.

Carefully constructing a side full of adaptable footballers, the Reds tactician has recruited sensibly and under his influence Liverpool have been encouraged to think for themselves; passing and moving freely all over the pitch. A cocktail of positive coaching, player suitability and greater comfort in the approach has helped the team blossom.

The current 3-4-1-2 formation is not rigid either. If Glen Johnson has been caught upfield for example (see image 2 above) Kolo Toure will instinctively slot across the right-back, with the left wing-back tucking inside to form what resembles a traditional back four. Then, to retain the balance Liverpool's attacking midfielder will in turn drift across to the left. Despite switching to three at the back, this type of simple adjustment has regularly occurred all over the field, almost organically.

One individual thriving in this new shape is Steven Gerrard, who is currently ranked fourth in the EA Sports Performance Index. The Reds captain has gone on record as saying that with an extra centre-back behind him, he feels liberated enough to make extra forward runs, and, as displayed in image 3 above and table 2 below, the England international is certainly getting himself into the final third a lot more than he was in August and early September.

Table 2: STEVEN GERRARD 2013/14
  First five matches
Last four matches
Goals 0
Shots per match
Chances created per match 2.4 2.8
Passes per match 62.2 72.3
Passing accuracy 84.9% 88.6%
Passes in final third per match 18.2 27
Passing accuracy in final third 74.7% 81.5%
Touches per match 83 91.3

The SAS threat

Finding a way to pair Luis Suarez with Daniel Sturridge in a two-pronged 'SAS' strike-force has been hailed by some as a masterstroke but in truth the duo are doing little different to what they did last season, when one of them was invariably pitched out wide.

Whether it is dropping deep, drifting to the wings or stretching the defenders in behind, both forwards are just as interchangeable as they were in a 4-2-3-1 set-up, only now they play in slightly closer proximity and have fewer defensive responsibilities.

That said, as outlined in Table 3 below, no strike partnership wins the ball back with as many turnovers as the hardworking pair, who despite being in prolific goalscoring form have actually attempted fewer shots on goal between them this season.

With excellent chemistry and natural unpredictability this is a pairing that would work well in any formation. The latest tactics have improved the side in several ways, but it cannot be wholly credited as the reason behind their spectacular form in front of goal.

SUAREZ Goals per match
Shots per match Dribbles per match
Turnovers per match
2012/13 0.69
5.7 (1st in PL) 2.9 (5th)
2.4 (5th)
5.8 (1st) 3.3 (4th)
4.8 (1st)
2012/13 0.71
4.4 (4th) 1.7 (18th)
1.6 (44th)
2013/14 0.88
3.6 (6th) 2.2 (14th)
2.9 (4th)

Final thought

Liverpool currently boast more fluency and attacking prowess than at any other stage of the Rodgers regime, and will provide a stiff examination for Arsenal on Saturday.

If allowed time to drop back without the ball Liverpool's 'five' defenders will provide a solid platform, but this is the unit's toughest test and the Gunners can create confusion if Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey time their forward runs well when play opens up. Arsenal's clever movement out wide may also force the visitors' wing-backs to retreat further than they'd like too.

Only one Barclays Premier League goalkeeper (David Marshall) has had to make more saves than Simon Mignolet (34) this season and with Wojciech Szczesny not far behind (on 30) this does look set to be a match where both defences will have their hands full. It promises to be a belter.

Liverpool travel to Arsenal in the Barclays Premier League on 2 November. For more details about that match, just click on this Matchday Live link.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke is a former professional footballer who has played at all levels from Premier League down to non-League
  • Since retiring he has become a written and broadcast journalist for magazines, TV shows and for Arsenal
  • In his regular Talking Tactics column, this week he looks at how Liverpool have evolved under Brendan Rodgers