West Ham put in an organized counterattacking performance and took advantage of Liverpool defensive errors en route to a 3-0 away win, the East London club's first league win at Anfield since 1963. Forced to play on the front foot, Liverpool looked a shell of the side that put in an excellent performance in a 0-0 draw at Arsenal Monday.
In his first season at Liverpool in 2012-2013 Brendan Rodgers stated his preferred formation was a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder in front of the back four flanked on either side by two box-to-box running midfielders. He said he preferred this to 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders, because it offered more vertical passing options higher up the pitch whereas in a 4-2-3-1 the holding midfielders often play a lot of square passes either into each other or wide to the fullbacks. You can hear him explain his reasoning in the video below.
But right away Liverpool had problems with defensive balance in that 4-3-3 formation. The fullbacks would bomb forward to provide width high up the pitch. This left just the one holding midfielder and the two center backs in deep positions when Liverpool conceded possession. The opposition therefore had acres of space to quickly counterattack into, particularly behind the advanced fullbacks.
Lucas Podolski's first goal in a 2-0 Arsenal win at Anfield in early September 2012 exemplified that lack of balance. Steven Gerrard gave the ball away cheaply in Liverpool's attacking third. Right back Glen Johnson had pushed forward down the channel to provide width. Joe Allen, playing as the lone holding midfielder, was the only Liverpool player in a defensive position in midfield to try to stop the counter. Santi Cazorla easily drifted into a space between Allen and the Liverpool center backs and collected a pass from Podolski. Podolski continued his run and sprinted in behind the advanced Johnson, received a well timed ball from Cazorla and slotted it in.
Liverpool has used a 4-3-3 in their last two Premier League games, the 0-0 draw at Arsenal Monday evening and today. Those were two very different games for Liverpool and the formation worked to different effect in each. Against Arsenal, Rodgers was content allowing the home side to control possession. Liverpool defended deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape, invited Arsenal forward, then looked to play on the break. It was an excellent away performance- they frustrated Arsenal with compact defending and forced the home side to come up with the creativity to break them down.
Today, Liverpool's role was reversed. They were the favored side playing at home and therefore the onus was on them to break down a visiting side that was always likely to defend deep and play on the break. Rodgers' side had some of the same problems in the 4-3-3 that his 2012-2013 side had in that 0-2 loss to Arsenal.
Lucas Leiva played at the base of midfield, with Emre Can and James Milner either side of him in the shuttling roles. Both Milner and Can moved into advanced positions in the attacking third when Liverpool were on the ball. Coutinho and Firmino tucked inside from their starting positions, leaving Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne to provide the width from fullback. As a result, Liverpool often only had Lucas and center backs Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel behind the ball. Liverpool therefore struggled to defend the width of the pitch against counters. Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini would break forward into the channels in the space left vacated by Gomez and Clyne to join striker Diafra Sakho. This forced Skrtel and Lovren to move into the channels to defend Payet and Lanzini on the counter, a position that neither center back is particularly comfortable in given the lack of pace they share.
The screen shot below is a good example of Liverpool's first half shape. Lucas is on the ball with Lovren and Skrtel just behind him. Can is in a slightly more advanced position to his right. Out of the shot Firmino has taken up a central position from the right and Clyne has gotten forward to provide width down the right channel. If Liverpool concede possession from this position they are in a difficult shape to defend against the counter. Payet can run past Clyne and force Skrtel to defend him 1 v. 1- a position that's always going to favor Payet. On the oppositie channel, Lanzini can sprint behind Gomez and force Lovren to defend in the channel. Again, it's a battle you'd expect the West Ham wide man to win.
West Ham's second goal, through Lovren's ridiculous error, came as a result of the Croation defender being forced to defend in West Ham's right attacking channel. West Ham right back James Tomkins knocked a ball over the top behind Gomez into the right channel. Lovren slid over and collected the ball near the touchline but was put under immediate pressure by Lanzini. The defender looked to have escaped the pressure but was woefully ponderous in possession and gave Lanzini another bite of the cherry. The Argentinian nipped in, won the ball and slid it across the face of goal. It was ultimately deflected to Mark Noble who slotted home coolly.
In the draw with Arsenal early this week, Liverpool were always in a tight, compact defensive four with Gomez just to the left of Lovren in a position to defend the channels. Lovren could therefore stay central, check the runs of any Arsenal players moving into the box and clear away anything that came to him. His lack of mobility wasn't much of an issue because Liverpool's deep compact shape allowed him to do all his defending inside the penalty area.
Today, with Liverpool dictating possession, Gomez was higher up the pitch meaning Lovren didn't always have that cover to his left. He was pulled wide into the channels and forced to defend quicker players 1 v. 1. The graphic below shows the passes West Ham completed in the final third. They completed just 50% of their passes into the final third but nearly all of those occurred in the channels where Liverpool were most vulnerable, particularly down the left side of Liverpool's defense.
Rodgers change in formation at halftime to 3-4-2-1 with a back three and wing backs was an acknowledgement of just how vulnerable his side had been defending the channels in the first half. Alberto Moreno came on for Emre Can and played left wing back. Gomez moved to right center back with Clyne operating as right wing back.
The shape allowed Coutinho and Firmino to take up the narrow positions they had been in the first half just behind Benteke. It also enabled Liverpool to get width from their wide defenders, Clyne and Moreno. But whereas Liverpool had just two center backs to defend the width of the pitch when the fullbacks bombed forward in the first half, they now had three center backs and could therefore more effectively cover the channels. Gomez and Lovren would split into wider areas when Liverpool had the ball. When they lost possession West Ham could no longer knock it into the channels to spring counters because Lovren and Gomez were already positioned there.
With Liverpool's change in shape West Ham didn't offer as much on the break in the second half. We didn't have time to get much of an idea how it would've worked for Liverpool in attack as Coutinho was foolishly sent off for a second yellow in the 52nd minute.
This game follows a fascinating trend so far in the Premier League of favored home sides struggling to break down deep, compact opposition looking to play on the counter. Notable examples have been West Ham's 2-0 defeat of Arsenal at the Emirates, Newcastle's 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, Everton's 3-0 win at Southampton and Liverpool's 0-0 draw at Arsenal. I didn't watch Chelsea's 2-1 home loss to Crystal Palace today but I presume it followed a similar pattern. Remarkably, as I type this, the home side has won just 7 of the 37 Premier League matches played thus far.
I'm not sure what explains the trend. I imagine the tradition of English football being played at a frenetic pace means teams are less comfortable when the game slows down and they have to patiently pick apart the opposition. I think the main reason we're seeing home teams lose is that they become too proactive. When home teams are up against opposition that is defending deep and inviting them to push numbers forward, they always take that invitation and leave themselves too vulnerable at the back to quick counters. In Italy you'll often see a side bating the opposition to bring numbers forward so they can hit them on the break but the opposition often won't take the bate. They'll attack more conservatively, always conscious of what type of defensive shape they'll be in if they concede possession. While that conservative attacking may make for some slower, less entertaining spectacles for viewers, it mitigates the risk of being caught out on the break.
It's something you'll rarely see in England but something home teams probably should do more of. English teams are generally filled with pacey, direct players most comfortable when they have the space to run with the ball. By allowing an away side to play on the break, home teams are are giving the opposition the chance to play a style that most suits their personnel.