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Saturday, October 9, 2010

The new, submissive Liverpool FC under Roy Hodgson

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There has been an ever-increasing amount of hot air and bluster surrounding Liverpool Football Club these past few years. The club has been a well-documented mess behind the scenes under the stewardship of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, with fans veering between despair and fury from moment-to-moment. But with the dark days of Hicks-Gillett apparently about to end, full focus can return to matters on the pitch.

The purpose of this piece is to attempt to present a rational analysis of what has been happening on the pitch so far this season, and how the tactical approach during the nascent Roy Hodgson era contrasts to Rafael Benitez’s side. Of course, the use of the word ‘nascent’ is pertinent as it is very early into the new manager’s reign, but early tactical trends displayed are consistent with Hodgson’s M.O. Moreover, Hodgson might not last long enough at the helm to warrant long term analysis.

Off The Ball

Earlier this season Andy Gray remarked that Liverpool’s set-up under Hodgson thus far was not too dissimilar to Benitez’s approach - two holding midfielders, with an advanced midfielder behind a single forward. In a crosses marked on a blackboard approach to presenting formations, this is correct. However, herein lies the danger of reducing formations to a series of numbers and dashes, whether it be 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and so on. Two teams featuring the same names placed into the same framework can still be markedly different from one another in practice.

Both Benitez and Hodgson generally set up their sides in variations on 4-2-3-1/4-4-2/4-4-1-1, but there are key distinctions to be made. The biggest difference between the two managers’ approaches is in how they set up their team off the ball.

Now, at this point I feel it worth noting that I agree with the broad assertion that both managers are defensive-minded by nature. (Although I’d also like to note that Andy Gray’s assertion before the Manchester City match that Roy Hodgson was about to “let the reds off the leash” by fielding two strikers in that game was laughable. However, the “two strikers = more attacking” debate is one for another day.) Yet there is more than one way to stop the opposition, and the two managers are quite different on that front.

During these early days Hodgson’s Liverpool have set up with a compact defensive line that has never strayed too far away from the 18 yard line, with a compact midfield four not too far ahead. Then, one of Fernando Torres or David Ngog has led the line, with a revolving list of second strikers supporting. One thing that has been notable in these early days is the large gap between the team’s striking spearhead and everybody else on the pitch, though this is something I will return to later on.

When off the ball, Hodgson’s side retreats deep into its own half and forms a narrow double barrier of midfield and defence in front of the opposition. Possession is ceded, and the onus is placed upon the opposition to penetrate these two static lines. One thing Hodgson’s sides do not tend to engage in is pressing the opposition, as Danny Murphy’s quotes comparing the approaches of Hodgson and new Fulham boss Mark Hughes reveal:

“Off the ball [under Hughes] maybe we’re trying to win it a bit higher up the pitch, maybe take a few more risks. With Roy we tended to drop off more and fill in the gaps.”

The rationale for this kind of approach is simple: when you do it well, and your side maintains its shape, it can be incredibly difficult for opposition teams to break you down. Teams cannot get in behind your defence through the centre with a ball played over the top, it requires great passing, movement and technique to play through your defence on the ground, and - providing you have defenders who are strong in the air - you’re well equipped to deal with crosses from teams that will attack you from out wide.

Comparatively, while similarly concerned with stopping the opposition as a first priority, Benitez’s Liverpool had a tendency to press teams aggressively as a means of preventing the opposition from playing through them. Greatly influenced by Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side, Benitez liked his team - remaining compact in terms of the distance between defence, midfield and attack - to squeeze up against their opponents while out of possession. For every negative pass played by the opposition, the team was to push forward as one block, with the relatively positioned player systematically closing down the man in possession.

However, this wasn’t exclusively the team’s way of working off the ball, with Benitez - like Sacchi - prizing adaptability and game intelligence above all other characteristics. Thereby there would be situations where the team would retreat into a half-press, limited to their own half, with the pressing forwards and midfielders withdrawing again when the ball was played back into the opposition’s half. This would usually be utilised when already leading a match, with the aim of conserving energy and drawing the opposition forward in order to counter-attack quickly. Similarly, the team could also retreat deep in a style similar to Hodgson’s side when circumstances dictated and the team was under pressure. Another method of defending more readily used by Benitez’s side when possible was by maintaining possession for long periods, though this approach was hindered when the side lost Xabi Alonso.

But what is clear is that more so than Hodgson, Benitez tended to mix up the team’s approach to defending, depending on the opposition’s characteristics or in-game circumstances.

The Turnover and Problems Faced

One area of similarity between both managers, though, is the use of the counter as a primary mode of attack in open play. It is in the moments after the turnover of possession when their sides will seek to exploit the opposition’s vulnerability.

For Benitez, this approach was most memorably effective in high-profile Champions League home games against the likes of Real Madrid (2009) and Juventus (2005). Against high profile, technically proficient (and arguably stronger, at least on paper) teams, Liverpool pressed hard and high up the pitch, challenging aggressively for any second balls, with the attacking midfielders quickly supporting the line-leading striker. Opponents that were used to easily dominating possession in matches were rushed into giving the ball away in dangerous areas.

The key here for Benitez’s side was in the fact that the turnover of possession was happening in close proximity to the opposition’s goal, increasing the likelihood of creating goalscoring opportunities. Liverpool were able to exploit the disorganisation their high pressing caused defensively as opposition players were found off-guard and out-of-position.

Of course, these are very famous individual examples, reflecting some of Benitez’s greatest successes. However, that is not to say that Liverpool under Benitez could generally be regarded of proponents of swashbuckling, aggressive football. There were many occasions when Liverpool struggled and were poor when in possession, despite being excellent at recovering it. Moreover, the side had real problems in creatively overcoming lesser opponents.

It was against those sides that would readily cede possession to Liverpool and sit back that Benitez’s side mostly struggled. When playing against ‘superior’ opposition and taking the role of underdog, the team could use the pressing and counter-attacking approach to good effect. Against sides that would ‘park the bus’, the team - not always blessed with great, creative or pacey individuals - would struggle to make attacking inroads. More often than not their superiority would tell, but in cases where they couldn’t score the goal that would draw opponents out of their deep, defensive shape, Liverpool would find themselves drawing matches they would be expected to win - sometimes even losing to a sucker-punch goal or two.

Hodgson’s side, by contrast, are set up in much the same way as the opponents that have so frustrated Liverpool for many years. With a deep defensive line and a lack of pressure on the ball, the side must rely on a more direct approach or set pieces when looking to attack the opposition’s goal. Whereas before, when Pepe Reina would pick up a loose ball from an opposition attack, the team would quickly push forward, with two players taking up advanced wide positions on either side for a quickly distributed kick or throw. Now, the team seems stuck in its deep, compact shape - with the wide players tucked in, and Fernando Torres often the lone central target for any kind of direct distribution.

This role - that of a hold-up target man - doesn’t especially suit Torres. While he is capable of holding the ball up, he is at his best when facing the opposition’s goal. This goes without saying how 3 years of solid football appears to have sapped his physical power. Indeed, in the summer Hodgson spoke of seeking to buy a striker “of a certain profile”. The fact that Liverpool were so heavily linked to the likes of Carlton Cole and Mario Gomez suggests that Hodgson wanted a more powerful target man type - someone who could play with his back to goal and hold the ball up, while the deeper, narrower midfield caught up with the play.

This was how Fulham operated under Hodgson, with Bobby Zamora able to receive long balls upfield with his back to goal and hold the ball up. Daniel Agger was allegedly quoted recently as saying that Hodgson likes to “play football in attack, but not at the back”. Though possibly misquoted or set up by the Danish press, the intimation is that defenders are to recover possession and get the ball forward quickly and directly, from where moves can be built. If this is indeed the case, it would lend weight to the idea that Hodgson requires a target man, as well as offering some understanding to Liverpool’s attacking problems this year.

Regression

Further problems to be found with this approach continue to reveal themselves with every stuttering, disjointed Liverpool performance. Roy Hodgson inherited a team that was very good at recovering possession quickly - never allowing opponents to find any rhythm - but sometimes poor when faced with teams that wouldn’t play into their counter-attacking strengths. Hodgson’s tactics have taken away the team’s greatest strength, and compounded their greatest weakness.

In the second game of the season against Manchester City, it was quite astonishing to see a Liverpool side allow its opponents free rein in midfield. By offering no pressure while out of possession the team looked all-at-sea defensively, and for the first time in a long time we saw a Liverpool side passively allow the other side as much time and space as they liked in the first two thirds of the field. Daniel Agger, makeshift and concussed at left-back, was repeatedly embarrassed by Adam Johnson. Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong bypassed Lucas and Steven Gerrard at will in midfield. It was the worst performance by a Liverpool team off the ball I have seen in five or six years (though there have been many bad ones on the ball in that time).

And with the shift to a deeper defensive line and narrower team set-up, Liverpool’s problems in attack have been made even worse. Much has been made of Fernando Torres’ problems with form and fitness, and those points are very valid. But arguments against Torres’ attitude and body language must take into account how isolated he has become from his team mates. Torres is now only receiving high, difficult balls, playing almost exclusively with his back to goal and being expected to attack teams on his own when he is - as mentioned - half fit and out-of-form.

One of the players bought to help Liverpool overcome their attacking deficiencies, Glen Johnson, is looking more confused and drained of confidence by the game. Johnson is never likely to win any plaudits as a great defender, but last season he was one of Liverpool’s strongest attacking outlets. Playing in a deeper, more rigid team he appears unsure of whether he should move forward or stay back, attack wide or move centrally. Prior to this season Johnson was occasionally liable to attack through the centre of the field to good effect, knowing that someone would move into a position on the right in order to offer an outlet out wide. Now, with Liverpool’s wide players remaining tucked inside (unsurprising, when central-midfielder Raul Meireles is used as a right-midfielder), Johnson’s occasional central forays are only serving to congest and narrow the play.

Outcomes

As stated at the beginning of this article, there remains some question over whether Roy Hodgson will be allowed to remain in his position if results and performances continue to slide. Fan unrest - unusually for Liverpool fans - is quickening. Many are still upset at Benitez’s departure. But regardless, with Liverpool currently in the relegation places and the ownership situation appearing to be drawing to a close, scrutiny of the team’s - and manager’s - performances will only increase from here.

Many have argued that Hodgson needs time and financial backing in order to get the team performing again. Many have argued that he is only picking up the pieces of Benitez’s supposedly failed reign. But the fact remains that Hodgson has inherited a team that - by and large - has been expected and used to being the dominant side in matches. Benitez’s greatest feats were in those games when his side weren’t expected to be dominant, instilling a belief that the team could beat any opponent through intelligence, adaptability and unity. However, Hodgson is now setting up the team to approach every game as the underdogs, no matter the opposition - attempting to ‘park the bus’ in front of teams that would expect to ‘park the bus’ themselves. The team is in the process of losing its identity.

With time and money, Hodgson’s vision for the Liverpool team could be fulfilled, but the question many Liverpool fans will continue to ask is: would it be a vision worth seeing?


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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