Liverpool's Tactical Confusion
Football coach who writes on tactical theory and philosophy for a number of sites and publications including LiverpoolFC.com and JedDavies.com.
What are the tactical issues Liverpool face in implementing a slow build up approach under Brendan Rodgers? Today on the blog Jed Davies discusses the task confronting the club.
The fundamental differences in playing style between La Liga and the English Premier League are what cause Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers struggles with the implementation of successful ‘tiki-taka' more than anything else. Sure, Liverpool do not have the profile of player at present to even enable such a style of football to take place, but this can be resolved within Rodgers’ reign. What cannot change is the very nature of the English game.
Counter Attack - The English Approach
The English Premier League and all those beneath it in the English pyramid are essentially leagues made up of counter-attacking teams - this was something that a Premier League coach put to me recently. I was left a little stunned by those words, “a counter-attacking league!”, not because he generalised every team in the league or even because of the general negativity towards being a ‘counter-attacking’ team but because if we step back and think about it for a moment, he was right.
Manchester United are widely known as the “crossing kings” of football, they’ve scored more goals using this as an assist method than any other team over the last ten years, not because they have better wingers, but because the team is built around the process of the counter attack. They break beyond the opposition and get men in the box, all the while the opposition are still getting back and trying to position themselves to defend the cross.
The response to this threat is to do what QPR did against Tottenham Hotspur in recent weeks: to sit deep and play with opportunism going forward and at worst settle for a draw. By sitting deep, QPR did not allow Spurs to play to their strengths of counter-attacking and crossing against an unprepared defence. Instead QPR were defensively prepared for crosses throughout the whole game and Tottenham struggled to produce the result they wanted. Manchester United however (unlike Tottenham) do and have always had players to break down a low-block and win games - Rooney, Scholes, Van Persie etc.
Wigan vs. West Brom, November 2012. Here we had a game whereby West Brom realised Wigan were a team that relied on attacking down the flanks and combined that with a slower than average build-up of play (to win the possession statistic). West Brom responded to this by sitting deep and forcing Wigan to play the ball out wide time-and-time again, all the while West Brom were perfectly positioned defensively waiting for the crosses to come into a 6”4’ Jonas Olsson and a 6”3’ Gareth McAuley - 44 crosses in total were sent in by Wigan and they were only the ones that got past the primary block of the full-back. The counter-attack was then employed on the likely occasion of the ball being caught by Boaz Myhill or headed away by an outfielder. The tactical match-up led to West Brom taking an away win, 2-1. West Brom, despite only having 44% of possession, controlled the game from start to finish, they controlled the game with and without the ball.
While Wigan vs. West Brom is hardly a game that most will reflect on as a highlight at the end of the season (I can doubt it was even first on Match of the Day that evening), the game highlighted the problem that Liverpool will continue to have under Brendan Rodgers - even with the right profile of players. That’s not to say Liverpool under Rodgers won’t succeed (and I think they will) but that wont be without many obstacles put in their way.
Counter Attack vs Slow Build Up
The slow build-up play of Liverpool is the defining issue at present. It is necessary for Liverpool to play that way to achieve the approach that Rodgers desires but it cannot be combined with the reliance on wide play. In the ideal theory, a slow build-up team concentrates it’s attacking play around what coaches call ‘zone 14’. Zone 14 is consistently the zone on the field that yields the most assists season on season and is consistent in every league and competition throughout world football (see supporting article at end). What a slow build-up team should attempt, in the ideal theory, is to pick their “moment of disruption” from this zone of the field as often as possible (the words of coach Juan Luis Delgado).
A counter-attacking team of course, is able to succeed in assisting from wider-positions because they have the unique opportunity of the possibility in out-numbering the opposition in their own penalty area (see Stoke’s ability to do this at Stoke vs. Liverpool December 2012). The following two images are ideal theoretical representations that detail the relationship between build-up play and the assist location.
A team with a slow build-up would therefore be expected to ‘make the pitch as big as possible’ when on the ball and ‘as small as possible without’ (as phrased by David Winner in his book ‘Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’). This idea is correct, but only really relates to the first few phases of build-up play when in possession. The Ajax team of the 90’s did however, play with far more width than the Barcelona team of today do. Barcelona instead, concentrate their possession to zone 14 and as a result score more goals per game than any other team influenced by total-football (see Cruyff and Michels’ goals per game at Barcelona compared to Guardiola and Vilanova).
On the contrary, a counter attacking team will look to turn this relationship almost on it’s head. The counter-attacking team will ask the opposition to push forward in possession and employ a slow build-up, that way the counter-attack team can break beyond the opposition with pace and outnumber the out of position opposition inside their own 18-yard box. The relationship between the choice of build-up play and areas of concentration of play is therefore clear cut in the theory.
Letting Go Of Old Habits
So here’s the issue - Liverpool have failed to ditch their crossing habits but are a team with a slow build-up (pre-Rodgers and present). In the 2012 season, Liverpool put in more crosses than any other team, 1102 and required a staggering 421 crosses per game to score a single goal. This means that Liverpool FC during the 2011/12 season needed 14.5 games to score a goal assisted from a cross - a tactic they employed blindly with total faith.
The reason Liverpool performed so poorly on this statistic is simple, you cannot be a slow build-up team AND a crossing team, it just doesn’t work in any league anywhere. Forget the low completion rate in crossing (typically 20-30% and far fewer end up in the back of the net), this isn’t a question of whether crossing is a good methodology or not, it’s a statement about the combination of your attitude to build-up play and your methodology of assist attempts.
Having analysed a considerable amount of Liverpool games this season we can see that this problem is evident. However, I would argue (in Rodgers’ defence) that this is (again) a question of having the incorrect pool of player profiles available to him. Liverpool (like Wigan) lack the players who can play in advanced positions centrally and pick out a pass in a condensed zone in front of them, they lack a David Silva, or a Xavi or Iniesta (or Isco!) - and the problem here is that these players are both scarce and extremely expensive. And it is due to this inability to play through teams that sit deep that leads Liverpool to playing wide and resorting to crossing and giving the ball away (leading to an opposition counter attack). The Wigan vs. West Brom scenario returns.
Therefore, this article puts forward two issues. The first being that you simply cannot combine (with success) a slow build-up approach with a dependency on crosses as a methodology of assists. Secondly, there is a real shortage of players to enable the slow build up play to work and the English Premier League, whether you like it or not, is full of players who will excel in the counter attack against such a style of play - big strong defenders to win the balls coming in and fast advanced players to break beyond the opposition in the counter attack. While the ‘counter attack’ may not be winning the fan’s vote, it’s a tactic that does win games.
Follow Jed on Twitter: @TPiMBW
Jed is a football coach who writes on tactical theory and philosophy for a number of sites and publications including LiverpoolFC.com and his own site JedDavies.com. Jed will have two books on tactical theory and coaching published in March 2013.
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Your theory on a short passing team to a crossing team might have an arguement but as for Liverpool, they were playing with Andy Carroll in mind so I'm not convinced with stats from last year's would really be convincing, as i don't think there is any team in this world that is a crossing perfect team with a goal at the end product. There is likelihood that a cross will come to nothing while a short pass might end up with a goal, that is in every football team. However, a theory is a theory, it is the end product that counts.