30 minutes on the clock. Liverpool were slowly getting into their groove when the clearance pass is made to Lukas Podolski. The German international who was waiting on the left of the pitch saw Cazorla free in the center and passed it onto the Spanish playmaker. Cazorla surges ahead into Liverpool’s half with the ball while Podolski covers acres of ground on the left. Then, at the opportune moment, Cazorla sets up Podolski who then slots home his first goal of the season. In the second half of the same game, Cazorla and Podolski once again exchange passes in the Liverpool box and the Spaniard slams a shot that Reina fails to palm, giving another one of Arsenal’s summer signings his debut goal. At the end of it all, it was Arsenal’s first victory in the Premier League this season.
After the game, this is what Brendan Rodgers had to say:
“The goals we conceded had nothing to do with systems or style, or the tactical element. We gave the ball away for the first goal and didn’t do well enough to stop the shot. The second goal, we had enough bodies behind the ball to defend the goal. These are the hard yards you have to put in early on but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Why is this episode being brought up once again? Because it is the only game this Premier League season in which Glen Johnson featured as a right-back for Liverpool.
Amongst the dearth of strikers and an over-blessed midfield, Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers are suffering from a left-back conundrum. This season, we have seen Glen Johnson, Jose Enrique and even Stewart Downing take up that spot next to Daniel Agger. This does not mean Liverpool are well staffed at left-back. The problem is a little more deep.
Glen Johnson started featuring in the left-back position from the Kenny Dalglish era. However, at that time he was more of a backup to the more regular starter – Jose Enrique. Johnson hasn’t done terribly in his make-shift role ever since this period, giving us the reason why he has been picked so many times this season for the left-back position.
Jose Enrique (nicknamed The Bull) was one of the smart, low-cost buys from the prodigal Damien Comolli era. The Premier League and Championship experience made him a more robust and sharp defender and he was a straight fit into Dalglish’s squad. However, injuries prior to the start of this season meant he was going to be replaced by an actual competitor, Glen Johnson.
So what exactly is the problem here for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers? What makes him pick between a genuine left-back of decent quality and a right-back who is actually suppose to cameo in left-back positions instead of being a regular starter that he is?
The answer lies in the individual strengths and weaknesses of both the players along with the style of football Rodgers is trying to bring in at Liverpool. Glen Johnson is strong in the air and is highly focused when he is involved in passing higher up the pitch. However, his biggest strength is his ability to dribble. The 4-3-3 system opens up space on the wider ends of the pitch and this allows Johnson to move forward more than he would in a 4-4-2 system. This partly explains why is taking more shots on goal this season (1 in every 75’) compared to the last (1 in every 115’). Also, he is managed to complete 59 crosses with an accuracy of 25% this season compared to his total of 65 with 18% accuracy last season.
Now, except for the Arsenal game Glen Johnson has started in every other Premier League game at left-back. This means that Johnson has been far more effective going forward from the left than the right. One can pin this to the fact that he is more effective cutting in and shifting possession to his right foot when he moves forward from a left-back position. The Sterling/Suso pairing which switches flanks every now and then provides him ample cover to do so. Hence, he is able to play more key passes and also take more shots while also whipping in more crosses.
Rodgers’ philosophy on the pitch transcends into slowly breathing life into attack. The presence of more personnel up the pitch means more passing and more chances of players getting into favourable scoring positions. The fact that Suarez has been the only one banging in the goals is a different issue altogether. However, Johnson’s tackling ability is comparatively weaker than his attacking sense. Since we have just the Arsenal game as an example, let’s go with that. Both the goals were scored from the region Johnson was monitoring. While he has fairly decent pace and caught up with Podolski, he lacked the tackling sense to dispossess the attacker. When such a thing happens, especially on a counter, you need someone who can throw himself to stop the shot.
For the second goal, as Rodgers points out, there were too many people in the box around the time the passes were exchanged. However, it being Johnson’s zone, one would expect him to make the first plunge before Reina is drawn into the picture. But this was not the case. Cazorla got into a position to score because of Johnson in the first place. Through his one-two with Podolski, Cazorla ran into an open space right behind Johnson before he took the shot. It sealed Arsenal’s victory.
In contrast to Johnson, Enrique is a bit more all-round when one looks at see what is asked of a left-back. Being a former sprinter, he has the pace to track back, his built allows him to out muscle attackers, precluding the need to dive in at the last minute, which, more than often, turns out to be futile. We saw this in Sunday’s game against Chelsea as well when Enrique preferred to catch up with Mata and dispossess each time he was caught falling behind.
Enrique’s main weakness lies in aerial duels. However, that is not much of a difference maker when you want to pick between two candidates who are equally good in passing and dribbling. The main point however, is that Enrique falls a tad short of the quality and consistency required from a left-back in a ‘Total Football’ system. His dribbling is strong but more or less happens at the sidelines than a little further inside. This is slightly ineffective since it leads to nothing much in the bigger picture. He is also sometimes caught out of position which makes it too late in the situation for him to act.
At 26, he still has some time to improve upon his abilities, more so now since Johnson seems to be the preferred choice. This probably also means that Enrique is required to contribute more on the attacking front which could be the sole reason for him not being picked regularly after his absence initially in the season. If this happens, then it brings him a little more closer to the kind of involvement Johnson produces. The roles of other players who are going to slot in at left-back once he moves up the pitch doesn’t change here; which could make Enrique a more effective left-back.
Given that each player in Rodgers’ system is actively involved through the duration of the game, it could be one of the reasons why there are rumours of Liverpool going into the market for a left-back. Rodgers executed the third angle to this conundrum when he fielded Enrique and Johnson on the pitch against Chelsea on Sunday. Although the overall formation didn’t work, you could see why Enrique and Johnson cannot play together either. It is a lot more difficult to put out and successfully run a five-man midfield when you have been preaching a three-man midfield region since the start of the season. Enrique and Johnson were interchanging positions often but it was of no use since neither of them had a second player they could partner with, unlike in the 4-3-3 system.
Brendan Rodgers is well staffed when it comes to the three other defensive positions of his backline. However, the answer to the conundrum probably lies with the amalgamation of Johnson and Enrique. A left-back who possesses that ideal balance between attack and defense, who carries key passing abilities of Johnson but also the robust defending capability of Enrique is what Liverpool need. Of course, no one is perfect, but this is why there is a philosophy at the club, a meter to gauge against.
P.S: Stewart Downing is simply not fit for a left-back role.