Maximus Tacticus – Liverpool

Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes the strategies of top English Premier League clubs. This month Liverpool comes under the microscope. You may contact him on @debojchak


Will Liverpool win the Premier League? This was the question last season when King Kenny (Dalglish) took charge at Anfield last season. Going by their performances so far, the answer to that is a clear NO. Their season has gone from bad to worse. Far from fighting for the crown or even vying for the Champions League spots, they are now simply fighting to be in the top half of the league. This is even more frustrating since Dalglish had the support of the board and fans and he was one of those fortunate managers who had enough cash to splash.

Problems Aplenty

The problem for Liverpool has been getting results in games where they are expected to win. From the days of Rafael Benitez, the Reds have adopted a compact playing style based on speedy counter attacks. They love to play with a five-man midfield, press the opponent, forcing them to commit mistakes and then to pounce on to them. It has worked in matches against the bigger teams; against less ambitious teams, especially playing at home, Liverpool has found it difficult to break through. It is evident now that Dalglish is a very passionate administrator, but not a shrewd tactician who can change the course of a match. Part of this problem can be attributed to the absence of inspirational captain Steven Gerrard for most of the season due to niggling injuries. His passing, be it those Hollywood passes to initiate a counter-attack or some killer through balls to unlock a packed defence, was a major weapon which was dearly missed. Liverpool have done well in keeping their shape but they have been too bookish – lacking any idea when most needed. None of the three preferred central midfielders – Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson or Lucas Leiva / Jay Spearing – have been given a definite duty which has compounded their midfield woes. For some inexplicable reason, Dirk Kyut, Liverpool’s player of the season last time round, has been quite irregular, even as the new signing, Stewart Downing has failed to spark in the wide areas. Too many work-horses but lack of any craft and vision has hampered Luis Suarez, who has been left alone high up the field. He has also been desperately unlucky as he has hit the posts the most in EPL – and his clever movements have often gone unnoticed.  Without the lanky Andy Carroll, Liverpool have missed a target in the box for their crosses as is evident from the following graphic. Only 2 out of 22 crosses met a shirt in Red and that’s how poor they have been!

Crosses not working (Liverpool vs Manchester United)

The Reds have been decent in the back though. Led by Jose “Pepe” Reina, one of the best distributors of the ball in the league, they have kept 11 clean sheets so far – only Swansea City and Manchester City have bettered them. Martin Skrtel has been the leader in defence and his partnership with the ball playing centre-half Daniel Agger has blossomed this season. Jamie Carragher has been used as a reserve in what could be his swansong season and it is clear to see why he is not a regular anymore. Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique have formed a competent partnership on the opposite flanks as wing-backs. Martin Kelly has been the reserve right-back while Johnson has been instrumental even in the unusual left back position in Enrique’s absence.

4-2-3-1 getting converted to 4-5-1

Man to Watch (1) – Pepe Reina

Jose “Pepe” Reina is perhaps the best distributor of the ball in England. He has set up the most number of goal-scoring opportunities (five) for his team, according to the official Barclays statistics. Besides, his short passing is exceptional and he is at ease with the ball either throwing it or rolling it to a teammate.  Wolves had pressed him more forcing him to play more long balls which reduced his passing accuracy considerably to only 50%. But at Goodison Park, as Everton were down to 10 men quite early in the match with Jack Rodwell sent off, he faced less pressure and thus dictated the game quite well with 84% accurate passing.

Reina's passing against Wolves (Top) and Everton (Bottom)

This shows the amount of talent at Spain’s disposal and why he cannot even make the bench for the national team. But that does not undermine the fact that he is a brilliant shot-stopper. He is a true leader organizing the back four and it is no wonder they have kept so many clean sheets. But some occasional lapse in concentration has cost Liverpool dear – most notably the game at Etihad Stadium and against Fulham.

Man to Watch (2) – Jordan Henderson

Henderson was bought from Sunderland for a jaw-dropping £20 million at a tender age of 20 with only a single season of top flight football behind him. Pundits thought he was overpriced and so far, with his performance, Henderson has proved them right. Regularly deployed in a more advanced position in the central midfield, he has until now contributed by scoring only once and two assists. He has been sloppy in possession, lacks the technique to win 50-50 duels consistently, and his aerial strengths are nothing to write home about. May be a club like Liverpool, where nothing but wins are expected in each and every match, has come a little too soon for him. He looks lost at times, out of his comfort zone from the Stadium of Light. Though he has an overall passing accuracy of 83%, most of those passes have not been venomous.  Against Wolves, as shown below, he failed to deliver a single telling cross. Moreover, only one of his completed passes was really threatening. He is playing it safe but how long can the Kops bear with him?

Jordan Henderson missing meaningful passes