The best defence is a good offence. So says the age old adage that seems to find its way into the climactic moments of many a sports movie. In the real world however, especially in football, this statement is pretty much rubbish. A good defence is a good defence, period. You can build a strong offence, one capable of scoring tons of goals, but if your defence is shaky you’ll always be riding your luck to get a favorable result.
Such has been the case with Liverpool FC for large parts of the season. Jittery moments at the back have been (thankfully) overshadowed by the excellence of the frontmen time and again. While the season started well, with Liverpool FC keeping 3 clean sheets in their first 3 games, they have only managed to accumulate a further 3 clean sheets in the subsequent 18 Premier League games. This is a poor showing for a team with top 4 aspirations. In fact, all the top 4 contenders have 8 clean sheets or more from the 21 games, barring Liverpool (6) and a struggling Man United side (6). (NOTE: All statistics mentioned here are valid up to Matchday 21 of the Premier League).
Insecure At The Back
The numbers paint quite a picture: Liverpool have conceded more goals (26) than any other side in the top 7 (i.e. after 21 matches played), but they have also scored more goals (51) than any other side barring Manchester City (59). Which is to say that Liverpool have been playing a Wild Wild West style of football, where you just keep shooting till the opponent drops. The problem with this approach is, of course, the unfair amount of additional pressure that mounts on the shoulders of your frontmen. Not to mention how demoralizing it must be to score a couple of goals, and then see your work undone by someone else’s error.
So if a lack of clean sheets is the symptom, what underlying ailment is this Liverpool side suffering from? Is it a lack of quality at the back? Hardly so, considering Liverpool have 4 impressive center halves to choose from. Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure are all regular fixtures in the starting 11 for their respective international sides. To top it off, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has been very impressive, and has made a host of critical saves through the course of the season.
Quite simply, rather than pertaining to any one or two players alone, the problem is systemic. As a unit, Liverpool have not been getting their defensive shape fast enough to stop opposition attacks. It is a matter of the whole team taking responsibility for winning the ball back. One of the areas of the pitch where Liverpool have been their weakest is down the flanks. This problem is amplified when Brendan Rodgers plays a 4-3-3 with Coutinho on the left, something he has regularly done since the Tottenham game in mid-December.
In the game against Stoke City, both Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling only managed to win 2 tackles out of an attempted 6 each. Aly Cissokho had a torrid time against Jon Walters, and only won 2 out of his 7 attempted tackles. On the opposite flank, Glen Johnson won his solitary attempted tackle, but it has to be noted that 2 of the 3 Stoke goals originated from his flank. To really put these performances into perspective, it should be noted that in the same game, Luis Suarez won 3 out of 3 attempted tackles, including 2 in Liverpool’s own half. That is exactly the kind of commitment the others need to emulate.
Shoddy Left Flank
Philippe Coutinho being fielded out of position on the left is a major problem area. He is a natural number-10, and so constantly drifts into the center of the pitch, leaving the entire left flank to be handled by whichever left-back Rodgers has fielded on the day. Even when he sticks to the wing, he really doesn’t have the right skill-sets to dispossess opposing players. This often results in one of the holding midfielders having to drift out to the left, leaving the center exposed.
A great example of this was the loss to Chelsea in December. Willian and Eden Hazard swapped wings regularly, and both fared a lot better than Coutinho. At one point his Brazilian compatriot Willian, who looks as slight in physique as Philippe, dispossessed him with rather more ease than is acceptable. Rodgers will look at that performance by Willian and feel a sense of loss at what could have been had he managed to land the player in summer. As long as the left flank is this weak, Liverpool will be unable to be organized in defence and will keep leaking goals.
Liverpool need to work hard this winter transfer window and bring in a player in the Willian mold, i.e. a natural left-sided attacking midfielder. In case they fail to do so, they will need to bring in a solid left-back who is able to guard that flank well, and occasionally contribute in attack. If they miss out on filling up either of these positions, they will end up constantly riding their luck and the hope that they score more than the opposition.
Is Rodgers Tough Enough To Bench Gerrard or Sturridge?
Let’s say Liverpool do bring in a player to play on the left of midfield, one who is good enough in both defence and attack to merit a spot in the starting 11. This would still only solve part of the problem. With Daniel Sturridge back to full fitness, one can see how Rodgers may be keen to play him and Suarez together up front. This means fielding a 4-4-2 formation with Raheem Sterling on the right. The question is who Rodgers should be playing as the central midfield pair?
Through the course of the season, it has been seen that the Lucas – Gerrard central midfield pairing has not been the most effective. Liverpool have had much better control over the game in Gerrard’s absence. This is not because of any problems with the midfielder himself, but because the Lucas Leiva – Joe Allen midfield that played in his absence provided a greater clarity on the role of each player. Lucas intercepts & tackles, and Allen keeps the passes ticking. Steven Gerrard is an immensely talented midfielder, and no one else in the team has the kind of passing range he does. But he’s someone who has played as a box-to-box midfielder his whole life. Having lost his ability to shoot from distance (something he used to excel at) due to a recurring groin injury, it is understandable why Rodgers is trying to turn him into a tough-tackling defensive midfielder. But the fact of the matter is that he is not as disciplined in this role and Lucas, and playing both together means there isn’t enough creativity in the center of midfield. With Allen returning from injury, the solution is simple: rotate Gerrard and Lucas in the holding role, with Allen and Henderson taking the other more attack minded role. It will have to be seen whether Brendan Rodgers has the courage to be the one who benches the club captain and legend.
While a 4-4-2 is a good way to go against weaker opposition, it is far too risky a tactic against the top teams. Just ask Manuel Pellegrini, who switched from the 4-4-2 (with Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo up top) used against weaker teams to a 4-2-3-1 when we he came up against Liverpool. Jesus Navas came into the side in place of Dzeko, and had a good outing on Liverpool’s weak left flank. Rodgers also needs to think of using 4-2-3-1 as a Plan B against top level opposition. This would mean dropping Daniel Sturridge to the bench, a decision that will take as courage as benching Steven Gerrard. Against Stoke, it has already been seen how bringing on Sturridge as a substitute on the hour mark can wreck havoc on tiring defences. The best part about this Plan B is that it is already tested. Rodgers has to simply pick the same line-up (barring the injured Jon Flanagan) that played against West Ham. This was a game Liverpool won 4-1, with 64% of the possession.
So really, all Rodgers needs to ensure success this season, is one signing and a tad more conviction.