Tactical Analysis: Liverpool vs. Stoke

Before you read on I’d like to make it clear that this analysis is of a real life game, and not from Football Manager. If you’re only interested in FM analysis then look away now. I thought I’d put it on the blog because it’s of a similar ilk to what I discuss and find interesting within FM13.

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The first day of the season finally arrived at Anfield, but what should have been a routine win over Stoke was almost snatched away after a late Daniel Agger handball. However, Simon Mignolet was there to make a dramatic double-save off Jonathan Walters and then Kenwyne Jones to gift Liverpool the three points. However, three points aside, it was a game with plenty of positives to take from.

From the get-go, Liverpool had plenty of chances as Stoke struggled to retain possession. This was mainly due to the excellent pressing from all areas of the pitch. Iago Aspas in particular pressed high forcing a number of errors from the Stoke defense, and Coutinho racked up the tackles, with six for the match.

However, something I found particularly interesting was the composition of Liverpool’s midfield. Throughout pre-season, Brendan Rodgers had been experimenting with his 4-3-3, and this had worked fairly successfully. Despite this, Rodgers went for a 4-2-3-1 with Jordan Henderson selected over Joe Allen. Henderson, who is adept in any of the midfield roles, started on the right-hand side of the attacking midfield trio. This meant that Lucas and Gerrard were left as the double pivot in the centre of midfield as Iago Aspas operated from a high position centrally.

But this double pivot was far different from that of last season’s. Whilst usually Lucas has been tasked with sitting in front of the defense and acting as the destroyer, he was given more license to roam, particularly in the first half. This meant that Steven Gerrard was often the deepest midfielder, which we saw very little of last season. I liken this to a change from a Barca pivot to a Real Madrid pivot – Lucas made the change from Busquets to Khedira, whilst Gerrard played more like Alonso than Xavi. And against the weaker sides, this is something we really should consider. Lucas, whilst being an excellent player, most certainly isn’t a Busquets type player. He’s naturally a box-to-box midfielder in the Khedira mould because his positional awareness isn’t good enough to sit in front of the defense. And whilst we can afford to use him in the Khedira role against sides like Stoke, Gerrard would be undone as the deepest midfielder against any top side with a decent #10. This is something we really need to consider.

Rodgers also made use of Glen Johnson’s attacking ability by using him as the main threat out wide on the right-hand side, as evidenced by the average positions image above (adapted from the club’s fantastic new Opta feature). Combined with this, Jordan Henderson would drop into a slightly more central role to allow cover should Stoke counter. This meant that during attacks down the right-hand side, Henderson would drop into the CAM role whilst Iago Aspas would push forward and almost play alongside Daniel Sturridge in an interchanging front two. There’s been some disagreement over his best position but I firmly believe from what I’ve seen of him that Aspas is a striker, mainly due to his fantastic off-the-ball movement. The Sturridge/Aspas partnership immediately blossomed and the two worked together fantastically, with one often dropping deep whilst the other offered an option over the top. This means that on attacking plays down the right-hand side, Liverpool were set up as follows:

The major advantage of this system is that it doesn’t waste any resources. Stoke were sitting back very deep [thanks to our high line], and with their lack of real pace outside of Matthew Etherington, it would have been difficult for them to counter quickly. This meant Glen Johnson pushing forward would not be a problem, and would also allow Jordan Henderson to push inside to solidify the midfield and re-gain possession once the attack broke up.

The same didn’t occur on the left-hand side, with Enrique holding a fairly deep position. This is particularly odd as Rodgers has been on record as saying that Coutinho’s best position is in the #10 role – Enrique pushing forward would have given Coutinho license to drift inside. However, Enrique could have been told to remain more disciplined for several reasons. Firstly, Geoff Cameron (#20) at RB was pushing forward higher than Erik Pieters (#3) at LB; Rodgers may have believed that Enrique staying back would solidify against a potential counter-attack down the right. However, the most likely reason is that Enrique doesn’t have nearly the footballing IQ that Glen Johnson does. Johnson’s main strength over the past few years has been making runs forward when he’s able to do so, and he did that excellently against Stoke. Perhaps Rodgers doesn’t trust Enrique to do the same.

Jordan Henderson also played a key role in quick attacking transitions. When Liverpool did break quickly, Johnson was unable to fulfill his advanced role on the right-hand side. Because of this, Henderson would stay out wide in order to create width. Liverpool would then counter with a four-man attacking line of Coutinho, Aspas, Sturridge and Henderson. Whilst Henderson didn’t make a great impact individually, he was tactically sound and allowed Glen Johnson, Daniel Sturridge and Iago Aspas to flourish individually.

The impact of “cult figure” Kolo Toure was interesting too. Over the Summer the majority of Liverpool fans had agreed he was a solid backup for the RCB slot, but nothing more. However, after a strong pre-season, Rodgers appears to have developed faith in the Ivorian. And despite being 32 years of age, Toure was happy to play a part in the very high line that is essential should Liverpool wish to play a shorter passing style. In fact, Toure was often incredibly high up the pitch in order to compensate for Glen Johnson’s attacking mindedness. It’s a different matter holding a high-line against target men like Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones instead of the league’s top strikers, but it’s certainly a start.

If players that aren’t considered certain starters such as Aspas, Toure and [particularly] Henderson continue to play so tactically astutely, they’ll begin to become vital cogs in the Rodgers’ machine.

All in all, the team functioned excellently. There was a tactical shift after Raheem Sterling came on when Coutinho went up front and Liverpool played with a 4-4-2, with either of Sturridge or Coutinho able to drop deep when Stoke had deep possession. This tactical flexibility is vital if we’re to succeed this season, and it’s evident that Rodgers himself has taken dramatic steps since last season. Emblazoned in my memory is the 3-1 defeat to Southampton in March this year. Rodgers was incredibly naive in starting with two central midfielders from the first whistle, and Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard were overrun. However, starting with three and shifting to two against Stoke seems to suggest he’s learnt from his errors. And that’s progress.

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