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.