I thought I’d have a go at one of those tactical articles that seem to have sprouted up on the Net these days, as football becomes more middle class (and, to be honest, better, as long as you don’t have your nostalgia-tinted glasses on). It’s really long but hopefully you’ll enjoy it (as the high priest said to the vestal virgin). So yeah, an analysis of the Liverpool-City match, with as many mentions of Philippe Coutinho as you’d expect…
There were few surprises in the Liverpool line-up or formation at the start of the game; the players rested against Besiktas regained their places, Lovren started again in place of the injured Sakho, and perhaps most surprisingly Sterling replaced Sturridge at the top of the attack. I say perhaps, because to anyone who watches Liverpool regularly it isn’t that much of a surprise; not only did Sturridge, recently back from injury, play almost 120 minutes against Besiktas less than three days before this match, but Sterling is actually far better (and far more disciplined) in this role, giving more balance to the side than the man from Birmingham.
I feel like this needs an explanation. The 3-4-2-1 that Liverpool play relies massively on the energy and the versatility of the players at Rodgers’ disposal. The basic principle of the formation is to create overloads everywhere on the pitch, defensively and offensively. Having three at the back, with the two side centre-backs being able to step into midfield, gives an overload against 1 or 2-man opposition strike forces, without risking a surplus of defenders; usually a 3-man defence risks having one centre-back neither marking a forward or stepping up to assist the team’s attacks (see: Man Utd’s system), which makes him essentially useless, but with Can and Sakho/Lovren, who are happy to carry the ball into midfield and play nice passes into their own forwards, this problem is averted. You need players with energy and composure on the ball to do this, and Rodgers has them. Likewise with the wing-backs (who are often wingers, in any case); they have to defend when needed, and move into midfield/attack comfortably to provide a threat going forward. They need pace, skill and stamina, and again Liverpool’s wing-backs have it.
But it is in the midfield where the formation really comes into its own. Rodgers sets his 4 midfielders (two defensive, two attacking) in a sort of box shape, which is incredibly difficult to press against. The opposition can either try and press the two defensive midfielders (who have easy get-out balls in the shape of the wide centre-backs or the wing-backs), thus leaving space in behind their midfield for Coutinho and Lallana; or they can sit deep, denying the attacking midfielders space, but leaving Henderson and Lucas/Allen with all the time in the world to pick out passes whilst rendering the opposition’s attacking threat virtually useless. This is true with either a midfield 2 or 3; obviously a 2 can only press 2 players effectively, but even with three in midfield one of Liverpool’s four midfielders will be free.
Pushing in the fullbacks, or possibly centre-backs, against Lallana and Coutinho, might solve this problem, but that is where Sterling comes in. His ability to run the channels, or in behind the defence, as well as his general hold-up play and positional discipline, means that he can exploit the space left by whichever defender moves to track Lallana/ Coutinho. In the City game, this was usually Kompany or Zabaleta (as City were trying to target Liverpool’s left); his assist for Henderson’s goal came from this sort of position.
I feel like I can talk about Liverpool’s tactics (in the first half at least) in generalities because they didn’t seem to have planned
too much to negate City’s tactics, possibly because they didn’t have time between the Besiktas game and their match at Anfield. City, however, had an obvious gameplan right from the start.
Pellegrini’s midfield two adopted the “sit deep and deny space” approach to the midfield battle, whilst Nasri and Silva drifted inside from the wings to occupy, and find space around, Liverpool’s defensive midfielders. In order to bypass Liverpool’s famed press, Toure dropped extremely deep, almost as a third centre-back, and tried to hit long balls up to Silva/ Dzeko where possible. Meanwhile Dzeko tried to lure the Liverpool wide centre-backs out of position so Aguero could run in behind Liverpool’s high-ish line. Zabaleta was instructed to motor forward as often as possible, isolating Moreno and Lovren with the aid of Nasri, Dzeko and Silva drifting the whole width of the pitch. Pelligrini also evidently told his players to hit balls in behind Martin Skrtel in an attempt to find Aguero’s clever runs.
This all sort of worked in the first half, in an attacking sense at least. There were a couple of dangerous moments down the City right, with Zabaleta getting into dangerous crossing positions behind Liverpool’s defence; Aguero hit the post from a fairly simple (though well-executed) bal over the top; Silva found some nice pockets in between the Liverpool midfield and defence; and City’s goal came from a combination of their tactics, Toure dropping deep to hit a long, press-beating ball to Silva, who laid it off for Aguero to find Dzeko running off Lovren and finishing sweetly.
Partially, this was caused by Liverpool’s own defensive failings. Lovren’s main weakness is his positional sense, often miscalculating the space between himself and the other players in the team; whilst this didn’t directly cause the goal, and whilst Can should also have been quicker to cover Dzeko’s run, Lovren left too big a space for the Bosnian to run into. In addition, in the first half Liverpool’s back line was often too high, Aguero given too much room to use his pace; he was unlucky not to score at least once in the game. Likewise Silva was given too much space in between Liverpool’s lines; this came as a result of Lallana and Coutinho’s defensive roles. They were instructed to go with Zabaleta and Kolarov out wide, rather than to stay on Toure and Fernandinho in the centre; in turn, this made Allen and Henderson unsure whether to close the City duo down or stay compact to deny Silva and Nasri, and for the first half an hour they did neither particularly well.
This was nothing compared to City’s problems, however. Not helped by the fact that Kompany is in his worst run of form for
years, City’s back line was penetrated again and again (which sounds like a trailer for a very niche porn film, but I digress). They couldn’t cope with the movement of Liverpool’s front three, never seeming sure whether to press them or drop off; theoretically, they shouldn’t have been in this quandary, of course, but City’s midfield in front of them were dire.
Sitting deep and denying space only works if a) the player doing this job can be bothered to do it (and Toure really did not seem to be, constantly allowing space in behind), and b) if the whole team is actually doing it. Zabaleta’s excursions forward meant that there was a massive space in behind him for Sterling and the magical Coutinho to exploit, which they did multiple times in the first half. Lallana had two chances (one disallowed goal) from balls played by Coutinho from this area, and Henderson’s goal summed it up; Kompany (who had an awful first half) caught in possession, Zabaleta AWOL and Toure unwilling to track back as Henderson burst past him and scored a wonderful long-range effort. It was a mixture of individual and tactical failings, and City were a little lucky to go into the break still level.
Thus far, however, the game was fairly equal. What changed this was the performance of the two managers.
Pellegrini, apparently happy with the way his gameplan was working, didn’t really change anything at half-time. His confidence almost paid off in the first minute, Aguero heading narrowly over.
Rodgers, however, reacted to the first half by making a few small but important tactical tweaks. Moreno dropped deeper and closer to Lovren to negate City’s attacking down the right; he was charged with halting Zabaleta whenever he went forward, and after the scare directly after the restart did this excellently.
In turn, this freed Coutinho up to move more centrally, not having to track Zabaleta’s runs as he tried to in the first half. He dropped a little deeper into a midfield 3, Allen dropping back to patrol the space in front of the defence and Henderson pushing a little further forward as well. Sterling was instructed to push onto Kompany when City had the ball; this made Kompany look more effective defensively (as Sterling wasn’t running at him from deep as often), but negated his efforts to pass the ball into City’s midfielders.
What this meant was that Liverpool could press far more effectively. Henderson seemed to make it his mission to stop Toure
playing any sort of pass to a blue shirt (almost creating two goals in the process); Coutinho pulled onto Fernandinho, dancing around his countryman like a bird of paradise around a large rock; and Allen, with Coutinho deeper and easier to pass too, and with the wing-backs also sitting deeper and giving more options, pulling the strings. From City edging possession in the first half, Liverpool took almost total control in the second; the Manchester club could not get enough of the ball to get Silva, Aguero and Nasri into the dangerous positions they had managed in the first half, and Liverpool deservedly took the lead through another fantastic Coutinho strike.
Pellegrini’s response demonstrates why City need a better manager. Removing Dzeko for Milner sounded good, a way to shore up the midfield and release Toure to go forwards… but he then put Milner on the left wing, when all City’s problems were coming through the centre. Placing Silva as a Number 10 both negated his influence (Allen finding him easier to mark) and did nothing to shore up the midfield (Allen calmly passing around the Spaniard, who didn’t seem to want to track back, and freeing up Can to make some forays forward without having to worry about a second centre forward). Almost immediately bringing on Bony and switching back to 4-4-2 didn’t help either; City had a couple of chances due to Aguero and Toure’s individual skill but tactically Pellegrini was very much outthought by the Liverpool manager.
Rodgers took off a tired Moreno and introduced Kolo Toure to shore up the defence, with Sturridge also coming off the bench to miss an easy chance gifted to him by Henderson’s pressing. Liverpool kept the ball excellently and apart from the aforementioned Aguero brilliance saw the game out calmly. They look poised to snatch fourth from the woeful Man United, whilst City must be looking nervously over their shoulders at the approaching Arsenal….
(A side note: I managed to get through a whole article without insulting E.T. impersonator Paul Konchesky, so congrats to… oh.)