"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Liverpool Tactics and the Sacchi Influence

The AC Milan side of Arrigo Sacchi is known as a huge influence on Rafa’s ideas and methods, and he in turn was inspired by the early ‘total football’ sides like Michel’s Dutch side and Lobanyovski’s Dynamo Kiev. Many of these ideas, especially the defensive ones, underpin all of modern football. However, one crucial idea is rarely, if ever, implemented to its fullest extent.

This is, essentially, the idea that all players must play an equal part in the system. Every player is as important in attack as in defence, and that the players must have the mentality and the capability to accept that the team’s full potential can only be exploited if every player understands and implements the system fully. Sacchi puts this very well:

"Football has a script. The actors, if they’re great actors, can interpret the script and lines according to their creativity, but they still have to follow the script."

Note interpret, not improvise. This is where I believe we are closer to that ideal than many of our rivals. They adapt the system to individuals; we adapt the individuals to the system.

Given that, I want to take a closer look at our ‘script’. To start with, I’ll be looking at how we attack when in control of the match. Many of these ideas relate to the ‘Level 3’ concepts

Key aspects of this are versatile players…or at least ones with a broad range of skills, interchange of positions and full backs who can get forward. All players should, if possible, be comfortable on the ball, each one able to act as a ‘playmaker’. 

Next I’ll be looking at our defence, paying particular attention to our pressing systems, some ideas on how this works, and a look at some of the different variations we employ. You’ll find along the way that many common questions have sensible answers if looked at through an understanding of our overall approach. 

The need for strong mentality, defensive discipline, tactical awareness, versatile players, even rotation and the problems for Rafa inherent in buying ‘orthodox’ wingers are at least partially explained once the team is seen as one machine made of the most suitable 11 components, rather than trying to build 11 components into the best machine you can.

To start with, a quote from Jonathan Wilson in his history of tactics ‘Inverting the Pyramid’:

"…The man out of possession is just as important as the man in possession…football is not about eleven individuals but about the dynamic system made up by those individuals."

Some important principles that will recur throughout this article, and indeed any you read about the legendary modern coaches:

1.   From Renus Michels: ‘players who can regain the ball are indispensable.’
2.   ‘Total Football’ is about making the pitch big in attack, and small in defence
3.   Mentality, technique and versatility are hugely valuable, mentality most of all.

Some more things I learned from ‘Inverting the Pyramid’: 

1.   Players able to ‘play between the lines’ are the key to unlock defences.
2.   As is winning possession in the opposition third. This second is hugely important.
3.   All teams these days employ some key features from ‘total football’ ideas, particularly varieties of zonal marking (note that the famous current ‘zonal marking’ debate surrounds set pieces. It is relatively rare for teams to man-mark in open play anymore) and pressing systems.

I’ve listed these ideas here because they really do crop up repeatedly, and are a big help in trying to answer ‘why’ a Rafa or a Sacchi approaches certain things in the way they do. For example, hitting it long and being compact in defence, with 10 behind the ball, seem  the very antithesis of ‘total football’, but are actually a vital part of a true ‘total football’ team, if you consider the maxim of making the pitch big in attack and small in defence. Long passes are great for stretching the play - expanding the pitch - a compact, 10 man defence shrinks it.

One thing I love about Rafa’s Valencia: 

1.   Their nickname: ‘The Crushing Machine’. I want it.

Attack, attack, attack, attack - attack! Our approach when dominating games: 

Keeping those ideas in mind, here are some of Rafa’s ideas in attack. The reason I’m using specific players here, not when I look at the defence is that I find it much easier to visualize how our attack might perform when specific players are named within it. In defence I feel the roles are the same regardless of who is in which formation ‘slot’, but in attack using faceless dots to represent players makes me feel like I’m abandoning the reality of what I see on the pitch and only trying to imagine what I think we should see.






Lets start with the front men. Each player can easily swap in two positions: Either winger with Gerrard, or either with Torres. Gerrard/Keane can swap with anyone, so can Torres. Each player has the quality to not just offer something in the swapped position, they can something different. Being out of position is an irrelevant consideration, as regardless of the notation, they are all operating in areas of the pitch they are comfortable in and have played in many times. At times we're 'blurring' the distinction between these positions in the way that Man Utd and Arsenal are so praised for.

What at first can be seen as a defensive formation ‘4-2-3-1’, actually has the potential to be as attacking as a 2-3-5, all we have to do is tuck in Riera and Kuyt, and have the full backs pushing on. It can just as easily take the shape of other ‘back 4’ based formations. 

Any of the front four can hold, run with the ball, run off the ball, go wide, cross or come in from a deeper position. Also notice that both ‘holding’ midfielders are able to operate box to box and out wide, while both centre backs can also take on the function of players ahead or wide of them.

This versatility goes all the way back to Reina, and every single one of these players can do something effective, efficient or unexpected with the ball at their feet, in any position they find themselves in. Over to Arrigo Sacchi:   

"The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager…Then the player makes decisions based on that…it’s about being a player. Not just being skillful or being athletic. I didn’t want robots or individualists. I wanted people with the intelligence to understand me, and the spirit to put that intelligence to the service of the team. In short, I wanted people who knew how to play football."

We’ve seen signs of how this looks since the pre-season friendly games. Balls played quickly into feet from the defence and holding midfield. Interchange and movement from the front four, often one takes the ball while the other three run, if no pass presents itself one of the full backs has had time to offer some width, while the ‘holders’ and remainder of the defence (including Reina) provide deeper options, and all of whom can play probing passes or even run with the ball should space and opportunity arise.
Alonso’s goal against Valarenga is a good example. Interplay between Arbeloa and Kuyt, on to Keane who has ghosted central and deep from wide left, pulling a man massively out of position and laying off for Xabi to score. If Xabi didn’t fancy the shot, Keane’s movement meant an acre of space for one of Dossena, Benayoun or Torres. If this comes to nothing, the ball goes back into midfield/defence, to be returned to one of the front four either dropping deep or making a run.

Now, while our current players don’t offer the crossing strength of a traditional 4-4-2, we more than make up for this minor fault by having eleven players all capable of contributing to an attack independently and collectively, pretty much every single one of whom is able to step out of their role or line and into another one with little or no discomfort.

This is the circulation football described in Royhendo’s article as ‘Level 3’ football, and while it is by no means our only way of attacking, it is the game dominating approach we are aiming for. 

A note on the Barry saga. While I don’t want to get into that debate here, I hope with the explanation above you can see how important versatility and the ability to change shape within the game with the same players can be. In this sense alone, Xabi is one of our most limited players, the one least able to take up and cover the positions of those around him, whereas Barry can and does do it with ease. 

However, Xabi on top form also brings a level of sheer quality few can match, and to his credit we’ve seen in recent games that he is upping his versatility level too, it’s not uncommon to see Xabi around the edge of the box, or filling in at full back, or even staying much deeper if Agger starts roaming. Carra is also somewhat limited compared to Skrtel, but even in his case we can see he is making a huge effort to carry the ball out more.

The Case for the Defence:

Now to look at our defence, and to Sacchi again: 

"I used to tell my players that, if we played with twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward, given our ability, nobody could beat us. And thus, the team had to move as a unit up and down the pitch, and also from left to right."

We are solid in defence. That’s a function of the system and players. This is not to say we are inherently defensive, quite the opposite in fact…as was the case with Sacchi’s Milan. All of the traits described for our attack start with what we do without the ball. This is why players who can regain it are indispensable. Just as we have 11 potential ‘attackers’, we need 11 potential ‘defenders’. Sacchi again: 

"…when you have the ball, you dictate play. When you are defending, you control the space."

The approach to controlling space is two-fold. There is the physical position of the players (keeping ‘compact’, as Saachi describes above) and the degree of pressing we employ. The less time the opponent has on the ball, the smaller his pitch becomes, but also the more tiring it is for our players. Knowing when to sit deep and let the opponent pass in front of us, or when to close down with maximum intensity from the front players on back is a big part of our success so far.

Defensively is where formation, as written, becomes more relevant. I visualise our system as something like a pinball machine. Most outfield players are ‘pins’, with the centre-backs and central midfielders acting more like the flippers you get at the bottom, and on the better ones half way up a pinball table.

---*----------*-----------* (*denotes a pin, flipper or player, note that the wide forwards 
-------*------*------*------   track back, the centre-forward tracks sideways, the centre

--*------*-------*--------*   mids are more of a triangle, with the central one moving less)

Just like in pinball, the way to get a big score is to keep the ball at the top end as much as possible. The aim of the ‘flippers’ (the two CBs and the wider CMs as portrayed in this diagram) is to keep the ball at that top end, although there is a different emphasis. Again like in real pinball, the higher flippers can be more precise, can target high scoring areas more efficiently, at lower risk should the target be missed. For the CBs the aim is to get it clear first, but for that clearance to still be aimed quickly into one of the danger areas. Agger and Reina are superb at this…Reina in particular is more like a rugby full-back than a ‘keeper with his sweeping and long kicks.

Now imagine overall shape of the ‘pins’ is kept together by the back 4, who slide around the pitch trying to get the ball into that front end, and trying to keep no more than 25 metres between the back four and the front men, with the front men being right up to the opposition’s back four. Now imagine that the pins aren’t static, and that aside from the CBs they are actively closing down and harrying within a certain area of influence around each pin.

This is my visualisation of ‘full pressing’. Employing this is the best way of winning the ball back in the final third, which is by far the likeliest way to score. Unfortunately doing this often requires enormous mental and physical resources, and it always requires an exceptional back four playing a well drilled offside trap, and a sweeper keeper. Fortunately, Rafa has equipped us with all of those things.

Now, imagine the ball fired to the top end of the pinball machine, and the amount it bounces/scores points before it falls back down towards the CB ‘flippers’. Imagine if one, two or even three of the front six pins don’t work. Suddenly the ball can return to the back four almost instantly down certain avenues. This is why all players should have positional sense and tackling ability. Tackling ability is probably less important than positional sense and the will to track back (or harry/deny space when an opponent is in your zone), but still, you can see a problem Rafa has here looking for quality orthodox wingers.

The ones with the mentality don’t often have the skills, the ones with the skills don’t have the mentality, while those with both come with astronomical price tags attached as soon as they’re detected in the womb, and even then often lack the stamina to last whole games, never mind seasons. Sacchi explains how this differs from Dutch pressing: 

"…they were based more on athleticism, we were more about tactics. Every player had to be in the right place."

The physical demands placed on the wider players in this system also explain why they are rotated more often, and the demands on the whole team show why rotation is so important, as an unfit player has a similar effect to one who can’t/won’t defend. Our centre forward also has to be in near perpetual motion. Although he doesn’t run as far as some, he always has some pressing responsibility. This, for me, is why Rafa often likes to take the striker off with ten minutes to go. Here a fresh striker can have the most impact, while a tired striker can do the most damage, or be more likely to get injured.

It’s also important to remember here that different positions need to do more work. Wingers do the most, but strikers are most dependent on sharpness, and also have to be able to close down the whole back 4 themselves at times. CBs do the least pressing, and you can see this in the players Rafa substitutes. I don’t think we’ve ever ended a match with the exact same front 3 (wingers and striker) who started it.

There is another feature to our defence though. Sometimes we drop off, defend deep. Let them try and play through the back 6, while the front/wide players harry/track them with varying intensity. This serves three functions. Firstly, it lets us recover. Secondly, it draws out the opposition. Third, it changes the size of the pitch.

What happens here can easily be mistaken for standard long ball tactics. I like to think of it as controlling the opposition mentally while posing a number of new and fiendish problems, especially to weaker teams with a more fixed mindset. If we change our mentality, it can force the opponent to change theirs. Both teams could sit back exchanging long balls, but that suits us, we recover energy for another burst of full pressing. If they try and keep possession or seize their perceived chance, we can be more direct and/or counter quickly. Sacchi again: 

"Pressing is…about controlling space. I wanted my players to feel strong and the opponents to feel weak. If we let [them] play in a way they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key: our pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was always collective."

The wide forwards are important for this. They have to have the physique and technique to be able, along with Torres, to control and make use of long balls from the back as well as quick balls into feet, and the versatility to either go for the quick cross/run on goal, or to make use of the new option of several runners from deep positions, or to pick up on any flicks from Torres. The second goal against Valarenga was an example of this.

This kind of variation and flexibility does significant damage even when goals aren’t being scored. Remember the Valencia crushing machine. Not only can we pin you in your own area, make and exploit small spaces and stretch you with our full backs, we can also drop deep, draw you out, expand the pitch and hurt you with direct play/quick countering. Of course, because it is us initiating the changes we are in control, while the opponent is always (so to speak) looking over his shoulder, unsure what to expect.

Chelsea was a wonderful example of our different types of pressing, from high up the pitch, winning the ball back from their back four if at all possible, to sitting deeper yet stopping them doing the same to us (namely staying compact in our half) by having Babel, Riera and Kuyt all as a constant aerial threat, with two stretching the pitch out wide, and Babel with his pace stretching it lengthwise, thus preventing Carvalho, Cole and Bosingwa having their usual attacking influence.

You could think of it as like playing a concertina…as we squeeze and stretch the pitch we get it to play to our tune. We start to ‘own’ it. Remember as well that all our opponents are working on similar defensive principles in terms of a zonal, defensive block. By having varieties of pressing, versatile attackers and as much threat through the centre as out wide we are able to pull their block out of shape…and exploit the spaces. Over to Paulo Maldini:

"…with [Sacchi] it was all about movement off the ball, and that’s where we won our matches. Each player was as important defensively as in attack."

Vitality of Versatility:
This illustrates how vital versatility, or at least a broad range of skills in each player, is to building a truly great team, rather than a team of great individuals. This is why players like Pennant, Crouch, Bellamy and Alonso are/were either at risk or on the way out, while players like Keane, Kuyt and Barry are sought after or favoured. 

Having greatly skilled but inflexible players is ultimately hugely counter-productive, simply because we are now at a stage where every player has to be able to operate in more than one position, and be able to cover gaps that others leave. Crouch was a great option, for example, but a very static one. His lack of movement also means the wide players can’t move, as their supply line is vital, which also means defenders don’t get pulled out of position, which means less space for Torres, Gerrard and anyone running from deep. Compare this to even an off form Keane, and you can start to see why the extra £10million was worth it to Rafa.

This huge interdependence is arguably the strength and the weakness of very systematic football, as one part missing has a huge effect on the whole, and is surely one of the major reasons behind our excellent disciplinary record, namely that Rafa is obsessive about things like needlessly losing at least 10% of our pressing efficiency.

A last quote from Sacchi: 

"In my football, the regista - the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?"

This is Sacchi talking about the Galacticos, but he could be talking about any number of teams. He describes this as reactive rather than pro active football, and I think he is right. Play the same way all the time, with the same players in the same formation and no matter how good you are you can always be beaten by a determined opponent with a plan to stop you. 

Being pro-active and controlling games is not only about being able to do unpredictable things with the ball, but also being able to vary your game plan, stop the opponent achieving theirs, and having as many players as possible capable of making and exploiting spaces. Most of all, it is about having the ball in the first place, and this depends on the defensive system.

There is an argument that says there have been no radical innovations since Sacchi. While this has a lot of truth to it, I think it’s fair to say that Rafa, at the very least, is seeking to push these ideas as far as they can go. We have not just a team, but an entire squad of multi-rolled and multi-skilled players, with more of the same coming through the youth ranks, all of them being schooled in the same systems. 

Rafa’s Valencia were arguably only a couple of seasons with better backing away from achieving similar legendary status. I hope Rafa can not only fulfil that vision with us but in time take it even further.

All quotes are taken from Jonathan Wilson’s exceptional history of tactics, ‘Inverting the Pyramid'.

Thanks to Royhendo and all the contributors on his ‘Level 3’ thread, and to RAWK for being quality.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009