Sunday, 18 September 2011

Tottenham 4-0 Liverpool

One of the most unpleasant games to watch as a Liverpool fan for quite some time.

First of all, it needs to be said that Tottenham were absolutely superb - the pace they hit us with at the start was irresistible, each player looked sharp and fulfilled their responsibilities dutifully. They were professional and disciplined when they needed to be, but never stopped entertaining their fans. Harry Redknapp's tactical performance was absolutely perfect - he made the most of our weaknesses, and used his midfielders and strikers well to drag us out of position. So congratulations to Spurs.

Also, I don't know if perhaps there were one or two slightly harsh yellows (although I'm not even sure that there were), but on the whole the referee did his job well and I would be hugely disappointed if the referee's performance came to be used as a shield against criticism of Liverpool. That's the Wenger way, and it means problems don't get solved, they just keep recurring.

So Liverpool retained Henderson in the starting line-up, but dropped Kuyt to make way for the return of Andy Carroll. Tottenham lined up more-or-less as expected, except that Aaron Lennon was not fit to start, so Nico Kranjcar came in on the right wing:

Liverpool's narrow 4-3-3 was problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it played into Tottenham's hands vis-a-vis an obviously important match-up: Bale vs Skrtel. Bale is an orthodox winger in the sense that he likes to start from a deeper midfield position and accelerate towards the full-back, so you either need the full-back to come very deep to mark him, or (more intelligently) to use a deeper winger (i.e. Kuyt or Henderson could've done this) to track back and stop him before he can reach full speed. As it was, Downing, with an attacking remit and a tendency to drift inside onto his stronger left foot, was nowhere to help out Skrtel. Skrtel was eventually sent off (although the team-shape had been sort-of rectified by moving Henderson to the right after 15 minutes). The point is, Liverpool's midfielders played extremely narrow, all getting dragged into closing down Modric but ultimately getting caught in no-man's-land, leaving Skrtel and Enrique seriously isolated. See this heatmap from ESPN Soccernet (Bellamy, number 39, a late-substitute, is the anomaly):

Another big issue was the passivity of the shape. I've talked about passivity before, and how it is increasingly important to be assertive and aggressive in the modern game. Hodgson's Liverpool were very passive, sitting and waiting for the other team to come to them, whereas Benitez's teams were assertive and aggressive, very rarely letting teams settle. On this occasion, with Lucas sitting in the deeper holding role, Henderson and Adam should've been responsible for stemming the play from Modric and Parker, but they dramatically failed to do so. Adam's timing of challenge is occasionally terrible, and his decision-making and discipline is a serious weakness of a player who can be very important when on his game, but often ends up being carried by the rest of the team. He was sent off. Meanwhile, Henderson was painfully anonymous. I have tended to defend Henderson against criticism, but he simply was not suited for today's game, and it was disappointing to see quite how much he let it pass him by. He just wasn't aggressive enough, and he really, really needs to improve in that sense if he is to be a long-term success at Liverpool. Ultimately, Liverpool's passive formation (with a holding anchor-man midfielder) didn't suit the fast-paced closing down they had clearly been told to do, so players got tired, frustrated, and made rash challenges.

So, from a tactical point of view, Dalglish's plan failed miserably. Lucas kept getting drawn out from his deeper role to close down Modric (who, smartly, stayed fairly deep to dictate the flow of the game) - but the distance he had to travel to get close to the excellent Croatian playmaker was too much for him to disrupt Tottenham's flow. Instead, a space opened up where Lucas had been, meaning that Adebayor and Defoe could comfortably receive the ball to feet (Modric ultimately completed 98 passes, while Adebayor made 65!). With three central midfielders against Tottenham's two (for the first 15 minutes), we should've been able to dominate possession, but our midfielders were simply in the wrong positions, trying to fulfil the wrong roles. Thank God Gerrard will return soon.

From an attacking point of view, we could mostly never get going because we couldn't get near the ball. But when we did, Carroll looked isolated, as Downing and Suarez were caught somewhere between trying to provide cover on the wings and trying to support the lone target-man. Carroll came in for a lot of criticism on Twitter, and perhaps from a tactical point of view he wasn't an ideal player to have on the wing when we needed to keep possession, but I didn't think he was that bad, and I assume Dalglish thought he would offer a goal-threat from set-pieces. He also didn't resort to throwing strops and making rash tackles like some of Liverpool's other players. The real villains today, in my opinion, were Charlie Adam, Martin Skrtel (although, in a foreign position, he should be afforded some leniency), and Dalglish and his coaching staff.

On Twitter, Liverpool fans have also been searching for positives. Some people have suggested Jose Enrique played OK, but I actually think we should've been brought down to Earth with the realisation that he isn't the perfect left-back we might've thought we'd signed from some of his performances. His positioning was often poor, and Tottenham were often as much of a threat down our left as down our right. It says a lot that Sebastian Coates (on after Daniel Agger's injury) was probably our best player, although he was positionally at fault for two of Tottenham's goals. Still, he did a decent job in difficult circumstances, and I would include the necessary lunging foul on Adebayor in that assessment. Carragher wasn't bad either, but he kept Adebayor onside for the fourth. Lucas did his best, but needed another combative midfielder to help him - it was interesting that we started to look slightly calmer once a fellow-enforcer (Jay Spearing) had come off the bench.

All in all, everyone made mistakes, and we would've lost this game against this Tottenham side pretty much regardless of red-cards and defensive errors, but many of us have been left particularly frustrated by some baffling tactical decisions by Liverpool's management team. Hopefully we can learn from these mistakes and bounce-back at Brighton on Wednesday.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Kristoffer Peterson - "I'm not afraid to shine"

I got Sweden U17 star Kristoffer Peterson's thoughts on Liverpool's academy, his motivation and his prospects for success. Read all about it on the new football blog The Trawler.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Man United vs Barcelona - Brief Preview

So much has already been said about this cup final, there's not a great deal more that I can add. Jonathan Wilson has written some great pieces (for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated) which discuss the potential benefits of a 3-man United defence - but he naturally concludes that Ferguson won't risk such a dramatic change in strategy, especially not one which requires him to break up his preferred centre-back pairing of Rio and Vidic (United have conceded just four goals in the competition this season! - although, Barcelona have scored 27...).

And Michael Cox has previewed the game excellently, as well as highlighting some important lessons from the previous final of 2009. He points out that one of Ferguson's biggest problems is that, with Darren Fletcher unfit, a midfield pairing of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick is nowhere near sturdy enough to deal with Barca's Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta(-Messi) central midfield. He also questions whether Chicharito ought to start for Man United - something which is likely to be Ferguson's most significant tactical decision.

And elsewhere, everyone's favourite Champions League-winning manager Rafael Benitez lent his name to a dazzling double-spread preview in The Times.

So I'll just offer my own humble prediction of how each side will line up, and, consequently, where the game might be won or lost.

Everyone knows more or less how Barcelona are likely to set up. With Abidal unfit, Mascherano will probably come into the defence and push Puyol out to left-back. The consensus on United, however, is that they will start in their usual 4-4-1-1 formation, which they have used for most 'big' games in the second half of the season, with Chicharito up front and Rooney just behind. However, I think this line-up makes more sense, and I think Ferguson will be tempted to use it.

It allows Park, the ultimate harrying 'defensive forward,' to close down Busquets, who, as Sid Lowe has pointed out, is absolutely integral to Barcelona's play. During (inevitable) periods of sustained Barca pressure, Park can drop deeper onto Xavi, allowing Giggs to pull wide and track Alves, while Rooney can drop onto Busquets. This allows Nani, one of United's shining stars this season, to stay permanently higher up the pitch, where, if the ball breaks quickly into the left-channel, he can be one-on-one with Mascherano who he can beat, or at least draw fouls and bookings from. It might also encourage Alves to stay deeper, which would severely hinder the fluency of Barcelona's attacking play. As such, Nani would become the only player without a serious pressing remit, but would be regularly afforded space wide, and would be able to isolate one of Barca's weakest links (as strange as that may sound when talking about Javier Mascherano - he is not a natural centre-back).

From a defensive point of view, of course it still relies on United's back-four remaining solid - retaining shape is absolutely vital, because Barca's players will wait and wait for their chance to capitalise on any players being dragged out of position. David Pleat wrote in the Guardian that Rio ought to be brave in stepping out of defence to track Messi, but Messi, playing as a false-nine, tends to drop into the centre-right position, which would mean Vidic would have more responsibility for him. If Vidic is left too exposed, though, and is constantly dragged out of position, he is liable to get in trouble with the referee.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Aston Villa vs Liverpool - Tactical Preview

There are a few points of interest in this game. Gerard Houllier had his 'emotional homecoming' at Anfield in December of course, and although he sadly won't be present on Sunday, another ex-Liverpool favourite Gary McAllister will be in the Villa dugout. Also, it's no secret that Liverpool have been sniffing around Ashley Young and Stewart Downing for some time now, and a move to Anfield for one of both seems to be on the cards this Summer. The travelling fans in red will be hoping that Villa's two creative wingers save their best for next season however, as Liverpool continue their push for fifth place (which now relies on Tottenham failing to beat Birmingham City at White Hart Lane on Sunday).

At this stage of the season, it's always difficult to predict line-ups, but a win for Villa could theoretically take them as high as ninth-place (from their current 13th), so they're likely to put out their strongest possible team. A solid defensive performance and two good Darren Bent finishes won the points for Villa away at Arsenal at the weekend, so I suspect they'll stick with much the same line-up, with the exception, perhaps, of Fabian Delph who was playing only his second game of the season after a return from injury (and also might be a bit worse for wear: he said the Villa boys were planning to have "more than a few pints" to celebrate their Emirates victory). I suspect he'll be replaced by either Gabby Agbonlahor or, more likely, Marc Albrighton in a 4-2-3-1 (which often looks like a 4-4-1-1), but it's possible that Emile Heskey (who tends to feature in most home games) will regain his place  upfront alongside Darren Bent. McAllister might also want to give Michael Bradley (in place of Reo-Coker or Stiliyan Petrov) one last run-out before his loan agreement expires, and Ciaran Clark has been agitating for a return to the first team.

Dalglish, on the other hand, may well name an unchanged team, despite having endured a surprise defeat to Tottenham in the last game. Raul Meireles has returned to training after the injury he suffered at Craven Cottage, but it seems likely that Maxi Rodriguez will retain his place on the left of midfield, and Dalglish will want to persist with his favoured Carroll/Suarez strike-partnership while they are both fit. There is a possibility that Fabio Aurelio will return from injury to take John Flanagan's starting place, and Spearing might be dropped in favour of the more creative Jonjo Shelvey, who has impressed in recent substitute performances. But, in all probability, the teams will line up like this:

The two team shapes are clearly quite similar, and in these situations games can become a little stodgy and stunted, so both sides will be relying on their expensive January signings to make the difference. Darren Bent has been caught offside more regularly than any other player this season, and he spends an awful lot of his time on the shoulder of the last defender. This paid dividends against Arsenal's poorly organised defence, as Bent was able to break their shoddy offside-trap for both of his goals (although the finish for his first goal was genuinely excellent). As such, you can bet that Dalglish and Clarke have been working on Liverpool's defensive line in training this week. Bent also relies on Villa's creative players to provide him with chances, so it seems likely that Lucas and Spearing will have been given instructions on how to deal with Ashley Young's intelligent play, especially if he is given the free role behind the striker, and Downing has been a creative force for Aston Villa too this season, so Liverpool's right-back (most likely Flanagan) will have to do a good job of stopping his crosses from deep.

From Liverpool's point of view, if they do keep the same team, certain aspects of their game will need to improve substantially from the Tottenham game - most significantly in terms of the transition between defence and attack, which was poor at Anfield on Sunday. If Aston Villa do a good job of stifling Suarez, as Dawson and Sandro managed to do with some success, then Liverpool might look stolid and one-dimensional. For this reason, another cameo appearance or even a starting place for Shelvey seems likely, as he is a player who can stretch and bisect otherwise sturdy defences with his smart passing play.

On the whole, a low-scoring draw seems a likely result, but Liverpool have recorded a few surprise thrashings in the last few weeks (away at Fulham, for example) so I wouldn't bet against a victorious end to the season for Dalglish's team.

Addendum: 21/05/2011

Some leaked team news suggests that Johnson, Maxi and Carroll are all left out for Liverpool, with Aurelio and Meireles returning to the starting line-up, and that Jonjo Shelvey has a place in a 5-man midfield behind Luis Suarez. To me, this is excellent news, and should see us employing a shape similar to the one we used against Fulham. We lacked a player with Shelvey's creative abilities against Tottenham (until he came on, that is), and hopefully he'll be able to demonstrate to the Liverpool fans how effectively he can dictate play from the midfield. Here's a revised tactical lineup:

Monday, 16 May 2011

Liverpool 0 - 2 Tottenham Hotspur

Liverpool lined up as expected, with Glen Johnson at left-back and Andy Carroll returning to the starting line up at the expense of the injured Meireles. Ledley King started for Tottenham for the first time since October, and Younes Kaboul came in at right-back.

This was a fairly even if unremarkable game, neither side had many clear chances, but ultimately Tottenham made the most of their breaks, while Liverpool weren't able to raise their game to the level of recent weeks. The home side's build-up play was bitty, and there was very little of the flowing pass-and-move football which had livened up Liverpool's past few games. Some will lay the blame at the feet of Andy Carroll - wrongly, in my opinion, as he performed fairly well, and his build-up play was fine. There is, however, a question to be asked about whether Carroll fits into Liverpool's best (in the sense of being the most effective) eleven.

But that is a question for another time. The main problem for Liverpool on Sunday was their inability to deal with Tottenham's patient pressure and possession football - not that it posed a real threat to Pepe Reina, but it was disheartening to see that Tottenham were able to comfortably dominate for large periods, especially in the first-half. Part of the problem lay with the defensive shape which, although sturdy, didn't easily allow Liverpool to turn defence into attack. This diagram shows what happened when Tottenham held possession in Liverpool's half:

The back four would squeeze very narrow, and the two wide midfielders would track their opposing wingers very deep - Maxi in particular had clearly been instructed to double up on Aaron Lennon. In the main, this neutralised Tottenham's attacking threat (their goals came from a deflected shot from a corner and a dodgy penalty decision, after all), but once Spurs were a goal to the good, a more pro-active approach was needed. Modric's dynamic playmaking dominated the midfield where white shirts outnumbered reds 4-to-2 on occasion, with Pienaar drifting in from the flanks and Van der Vaart dropping deep to receive the ball.

The problem was that Liverpool didn't have the personnel available to them to diffuse the pressure and grab a hold of the game. I am not, generally, overly critical of the current squad, but we missed a ball-playing defender like Daniel Agger (who is injured), and, perhaps more crucially, a real quality midfield playmaker in the mould of Alonso or Aquilani who could hold onto possession in tight spaces and pass the ball out from defence when under pressure. We also didn't have the kind of wingers who could carry the ball up the pitch, so Spearing and Lucas tended to attempt risky direct passes more frequently than they perhaps should have. Sandro did a good job of anchoring the Spurs midfield which limited the opportunities for easy passes to Suarez in particular. And their backline stayed deep even when Tottenham had possession which meant that Liverpool couldn't diffuse pressure by hitting simple balls over the top or into the channels for Suarez or Carroll to chase. There was quite a large gap between the two front-men and the two defensive 'banks of four,' and it is possible that the inclusion of an extra attack-minded central midfielder (like Jonjo Shelvey, who was impressive again in his brief substitute appearance) in place of Andy Carroll might've given Liverpool a better chance of winning the game.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Liverpool vs Tottenham Hotspur - Tactical Preview

Tottenham’s post-Real Madrid meltdown has been so severe that certain Spurs fans have felt compelled to question Harry Redknapp’s future at the club. They have, after all, won just one of their last thirteen games – a run which has included home draws against Blackpool and West Brom, and, most recently, a defeat at Eastlands which ended their hopes of regaining a Champions League qualification spot. Redknapp has, in my opinion, done a decent job at Spurs on the whole, and doesn’t necessarily deserve too much criticism after two seasons which have been Tottenham’s most successful in recent history.

He has spent around £90m (less circa £20m in sales) since he took over from Juande Ramos, combining some astute signings – Gallas, Van der Vaart – with a few expensive mistakes (Robbie Keane being the most irrefutable example). It’s also worth remembering that he inherited a strong squad which included the likes of Gomes, Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, Huddlestone, Jenas, Modric, Bale, Lennon, and Pavlyuchenko. He should be credited with helping to bring on Bale as a top-class winger, and also with intelligently deploying Modric as a central midfield playmaker. Their wage bill is surprisingly low (the seventh highest in the league, according to the Swiss Ramble), so their fourth-place finish last season and subsequent European cup-run can be seen as an impressive overachievement in that sense, which would also imply that their current position of sixth is more-or-less their par for the season.

There is no disguising, however, that Tottenham’s squad is a big one, with plenty of talent (Tony Evans remarked on this week’s Game podcast that Alex Ferguson would’ve won the league with the players available to Harry Redknapp). As such, despite Redknapp’s suggestion that he might not be all that bothered if his side fail to qualify for the humble ol’ Europa League, he is still under a certain amount of pressure to prove that he is the man to take Tottenham forward next season.

Liverpool are in a comparatively optimistic mood, to put it mildly. Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke signed three-year contracts yesterday, and although I have nothing to add to what Paul Tomkins and Scott Murray wrote in their articles yesterday, the fact that Liverpool finally seem to have a good management structure, and to have the right people in the right positions at all levels of the team is something to celebrate.

It’s fairly difficult to predict who will start the game on Sunday. From Liverpool’s point of view, Andy Carroll and Raul Meireles have both been carrying knocks which kept them out of all or part of the game against Fulham, but I’d expect Carroll to start if fit, so it’s likely that Meireles will be rested/dropped to allow Maxi to continue his recent run of goalscoring form. Dalglish will probably line his team up in the fluid 4-4-2 which has been so successful for him in recent weeks. 

Various Tottenham players are carrying injuries, but Redknapp still has an abundance of midfield and attacking players to choose from. He seems to like to give each of them a run-out every now and then, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Palacios started over Sandro (especially as Redknapp has looked frustrated with the latter’s lack of positional discipline in recent weeks, and will want someone to do a solid job of restricting the supply to Suarez), and it’s difficult to guess whether he’ll choose Crouch or Pavlyuchenko up front. I think he’s most likely to go for the line-up that faced Man City after Palacios’ 32nd minute injury, minus the injured Gallas, who will be replaced by Younes Kaboul (or Ledley King, who is apparently returning to 'fitness,' whatever that means):

The wing battles are likely to be key on Sunday. Young Danny Rose played fairly well at left-back against Blackpool and Man City, and not just in an attacking sense – he’s fast and technically gifted, but can deliver a well-timed tackle when he needs to. However, it’s possible that Redknapp will use the fit-again Sebastian Bassong at left-back for extra experience and defensive reliability, but it depends on whether he wants to adopt an adventurous or a conservative approach – Rose would be more likely to push Kuyt deeper with his overlapping runs, for example.

And Aaron Lennon caused Paul Konchesky some real problems back in November, but his pace is a test for any full-back, so Dalglish is likely to switch the more experienced Glen Johnson to left-back to deal with his threat. Johnson is naturally right-footed though, and Lennon likes to beat his man on the outside, get to the byline and deliver crosses, so a left-footed starter would be preferable. For that reason, it is possible that young Jack Robinson will get a recall at left-back at the expense of John Flanagan, with Johnson retaining the right-back role in which he has performed so well in recent weeks.

The importance of Luka Modric to Tottenham’s attacking play can hardly be overstated, so Liverpool will have to come up with a plan to deal with him. It’s likely that Spearing will be given the job of closing him down, limiting his supply to the strikers and wingers, but Lucas must sit deep and stay close to Van der Vaart who can become a peripheral figure if unable to find space in his preferred attacking midfield position. And if Liverpool don’t want to leave Tottenham’s third midfielder free, most likely Sandro, then Suarez will have to track back and close him down. 

Spurs are likely to leave space between their midfield and defence for Suarez to exploit, but Liverpool’s recent attacking play has relied on precise direct passing from Lucas and Spearing, as well as constant energy and movement from the attacking players. If Tottenham maintain a narrow midfield, Liverpool might be more tempted to use the option of playing direct balls to Andy Carroll’s head, which can be effective if done well, but should only be a plan B while the resurgence of Liverpool's swift pass-and-move football is bearing excellent results. 

On the whole, most signs (momentum, recent form, etc) point to a home win, but there's no denying that Tottenham have some quality which can cause Liverpool problems. How Dalglish and Clarke decide to deal with Lennon's threat may well be key.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Fulham 2 - 5 Liverpool

Pass and move is very much the Liverpool groove again. The result was beyond doubt within 15 minutes thanks to some frankly abysmal Fulham defending and, more pertinently from a Liverpool fan's point of view, a display of scintillating attacking football by the away side. Fortunately, the whole game was an enjoyable spectacle, as Fulham attempted a spirited come-back after half-time but Liverpool continued to attack with real purpose, and it feels like there are a surprisingly large number of talking points to be drawn from what might have been a fairly inconsequential Monday-night Premier League fixture.

Andy Carroll, still carrying an injury, was not included in the squad, so Maxi retained his starting place.  He took his chance by, unbelievably, scoring another hat-trick - the first two goals were a reward for his anticipation and movement (known in the industry as 'being in the right place at the right time') but his third was a 25-yard scorcher. He now has seven goals in three games, which is remarkable for a player generally regarded as tidy and dilligent but lacking in star quality. 

Zamora was on the bench for Fulham, with Dembele starting up front (although you wouldn't have known, totally anonymous as he was until he was shifted out to the right, to feed off Zamora's knockdowns, in the second half). Otherwise, they lined up as expected, but were generally poor apart from a 20-minute period after half-time. Gudjohnsen stayed too high up the pitch, which allowed Carragher (on his 666th Liverpool appearance) to do a stellar job of marking him out of the game. Fulham's midfield pairing of Murphy and Sidwell was too lightweight to deal with Liverpool's midfield three. Davies stayed wide, and was also a very peripheral figure.

Fulham were punished for adopting an extremely attacking mentality from the off - it's hard to know whether this was their initial game-plan, they might have been forced to readjust after going a goal down within 35 seconds, but they played wide, pushed up and committed midfielders and full-backs to attack. This left a lot of space for Kuyt, Maxi and Meireles to break into, and Suarez exploited Fulham's dodgy back-line superbly, punishing them time and time again. He looks dangerous whenever he gets the ball at his feet. Indeed, opposing defenders will now be having nightmares about getting exposed one-on-one with El Pistolero.

It's amazing to think that the general consensus, both amongst fans and in the media, is that Liverpool should be buying a lot of players in the Summer - but it's hard to imagine who can be dropped/sold if they do. They have scored 17 and conceded just three in the last five games. Even £35million Andy Carroll will struggle to regain a starting place with the team in such a rich vein of form without him, which is a testament to the fast-paced pass-and-move relationship which Suarez and Kuyt in particular have developed. Steven Gerrard, too, should have to prove that his early-season lacklustre form is well behind him if he is to regain one of the midfield starting spots when he returns from injury. It's quite incredible how effective Jay Spearing in particular has been with Lucas in the midfield these past few games. Glen Johnson (two assists and a faultless defensive performance tonight) is now routinely showing the form which has made him England's number 1 right-back, and although a world-class left-back should be sought this Summer, John Flanagan has been reliable when called upon.

When Meireles picked up a second-half injury, Jonjo Shelvey came on in his place and immediately impressed in his cameo appearance, particularly in terms of his ability to pick a pass, and his interplay with Suarez. Hopefully if he stays injury-free next-season he'll be able to make a bigger contribution. He is another who will soon be competing for Gerrard's place in the starting line-up.

I had also planned to write something on Skrtel (who has been widely overlooked for Liverpool's player of the season, even as 2nd or 3rd choice, despite having performed solidly in nearly every game this season), or Reina (who made his 150th consecutive start for the club), or Carragher (who, after tonight, has made more appearances than any other Liverpool player besides Ian Callaghan). They will all have to wait for another time, though, as tonight we should just rejoice in the fact that glorious attacking football has returned to a Liverpool team which, despite being tipped for a relegation battle earlier in the season, is now impressing with every single performance and looks odds-on to claim fifth-place in the Premier League.