Stark contrast between first and second half approach for Liverpool this season

Brendan Rodgers' possession philosophy is well known throughout English football. In 2010-2011, Rodgers guided Swansea to a Championship playoff victory, securing the Welsh side's first season in the top tier since 1983. The following Premier League season Swansea surprised many with their brand of fluid, possession-based football. Incredibly, they ended a successful 2011-12 campaign (they would finish 11th) third in the Premier League in average possession behind Arsenal and title winners Manchester City.

Rodgers went on to accept the managerial position at Liverpool in the spring of 2012 following the sacking of Kenny Dalglish. He worked quickly to implement his possession-focused style despite taking over a side more suited to getting the ball wide and hitting in crosses. Liverpool would jump from 7th in the league in average possession in Dalglish's final season to third in 2012-2013 under Rodgers.

It comes as a bit of a surprise then that after four games this season, Liverpool are averaging just 48% possession, good for 9th in the league. What is most startling about that statistic is the stark contrast in possession totals between the first and second halves of Liverpool's opening four games. In the opening stages of games Liverpool are playing as you would expect a Rodgers side to play- they're keeping possession and when they lose it they're pressing quickly high up the pitch to win it back. As a result, Liverpool have had at least 50% possession in the first half in all four games and are averaging 56% first half possession overall. They've by and large been battering their opponents in the opening 45 minutes. All 5 of Liverpool's goals this season have come in the first half and they've had the lead at halftime in all four games.

By contrast, Rodgers has taken a markedly different approach in the second half of games. They've focused less on retaining the ball and more on maintaining defensive shape, dropping much deeper and defending in banks of four in their own half. Whereas Liverpool have had at least 50% possession in the first half of every game, only once have they had over 50% in the second half- the opening win home to Stoke. They're averaging just 41% possession in the second halves of games.

*Stats via FourFourTwo Stats Zone iPhone app

The graphic below shows a comparison of Liverpool's tackles in the first and second half against Swansea and illustrates the change in their shape. In the first half the focus is on keeping the ball and pressing high up the pitch. Notice 4 of their 7 successful first half tackles occur in the attacking half of the field. In the second half they defend deep and all 9 of their successful tackles occur in their defensive half.

The stark contrast between first half and second half possession totals could be explained by the fact Liverpool have had the lead going into the second half in every game. It's natural for many managers to be more reactive and play more defensively when they have a second half lead to protect. However, in the past Rodgers has publicly spoken out against such an approach.

In the interview below from April 2012 (at 7:13), shortly before he took the Liverpool job, Rodgers spoke of the importance of protecting leads by keeping possession. He brings up an example early in Swansea's season of a game against leads. Swansea had a 2-0 lead going into the final five minutes. They began to hit the ball long and concede possession, thereby "inviting pressure" in the words of Rodgers. Wolves would go on to draw the game 2-2.

Rodgers goes on to explain how during the following week of training his side focused on relieving pressure by keeping hold of the ball. In the next game Swansea were faced with a similar situation leading Bolton 2-1 late on. He explains how this time his side was able to see out the win by keeping possession, stressing that "for ten minutes Bolton never got a kick of the ball."

Liverpool's second half possession figures suggest they are not looking to see out games by retaining possession. So does this indicate a change in footballing philosophy from Rodgers? That's a difficult question to answer after only four games but there are certainly a number of possible explanations as to why he's adopted a more pragmatic approach early on.

For starters, it's quite difficult to maintain the energy levels required to play a style based on possession and pressing for 90 minutes. Inevitably players tire in the second half making pressing more difficult. Defending deeper mitigates the risk of being caught on the break when players become too fatigued to press quickly.

Secondly, the attacking four players in Rodgers 4-2-3-1 formation are all quite young. He has used Coutinho, Victor Moses, Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge in those four positions. Aside from Aspas, all of those players are 24 years old or younger and Aspas (26) is still adjusting to his first season in the Premier League. Perhaps Rodgers feels the relative lack of battle tested pros in attacking positions may result in possession given away cheaply too often and leave Liverpool exposed defensively.

Regardless of the reasoning, it'll be interesting to see if Rodgers sticks with this strategy of pressing and attacking relentlessly early on, then dropping deep once his side have gone ahead. It worked in their opening three fixtures- all 1-0 wins- but wasn't always terribly convincing. Too often goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was forced to bale them out with big saves. In the most recent 2-2 draw at Swansea, Liverpool had just 30% possession in the second half. This time they were unable to deal with the continuous pressure and conceded a second half equalizer.

Given that maintaining possession has been the central part of Rodgers' footballing philosophy, my guess is that as he'll want his side to control the second half of games better. However, the pressures of managing at a club as big as Liverpool in all likelihood have made Rodgers more flexible in his tactical approach.

Matuidi vs. Vidal

Blaise Matuidi's energy levels have been pretty amazing in the first half of this PSG vs. Bordeaux game. He has a goal, 25 completed passes, 5 ball recoveries, 3 successful tackles and 2 interceptions. He was able to cap off his excellent half with a goal from a ridiculous Ibrahimovic ball that's well worth a watch when the highlights become available. I thought I'd compare Matuidi's stats thus far with probably the world's best all-action midfielder Arturo Vidal. Stats are from and aside from Matuidi's first half goal, don't take into account the current PSG game.

Ranking the Premier League's most direct teams

“Direct football” or “long ball football” has mostly negative connotations in the modern era. It has become associated with a time in English football when pitches were more mud than grass, and the dominant attacking tactic was to launch high balls into lumbering center forwards to knock down in a 4-4-2 system. Indeed, it was England’s refusal to, until recently, replace direct play with the more fluid, short passing-based systems that were being used in continental Europe as early as the 1930s that has largely been blamed for its lack of success in international tournaments. Long ball football, so the reasoning goes, requires less individual technique and less sophisticated team movement off the ball. Simply whack a ball into a big center forward and hope he knocks it down into the path of a teammate close by or hit it over the top of the defense and hope a speedy forward can get on the end of it. It’s thought to be predictable and generally not the most effective way to use the ball.

In truth however, any assertion that direct play is unquestionably inferior to short passing because it requires less individual technique than dribbling by a defender or using a series of 15 tidy one touch passes to advance the ball 40 yards up the pitch is an incorrect one. Indeed, even in the modern game long passes have often proven to be an effective way to quickly break down an opposition defense. Long balls aren’t a problem in and of themselves. They can be used to stretch a defense and create valuable space between an opponents midfield and back four. Likewise a team can use them to exploit the speed or height and strength advantage an attacker has over opposition center backs. The problem with direct play is when it is overused and becomes the only method a side relies on to advance the ball. Only then does it become predictable and easy to defend. But the same thing can be said of Barcelona’s tiki taka. Relying too heavily on long spells of possession and quick short passes can allow the opposition to restrict the space the attacking side has to play in and deny the time on the ball creative players need to open up a defense.

Of course the most effective team tactics for any given side have to do with the strengths of its players and the players and tactics used by the opposition in any given game. This post will focus on how direct the 20 Barclay’s Premier League teams have been in the first two weeks of the season, the reasons some of them have had for playing direct (or indirect), and the results that different styles of play have produced for different clubs.

When I set out to judge how direct individual Premier League teams are, I first use the average number of long balls each team played per game as a measure of directness and rank teams based on that measure. Stoke City are nearly unanimously considered the most direct team in the Premier League. They’re big and strong, lacking in creative midfield players capable of clever short passing, and in Peter Crouch have a giant of a forward favored to win aerial challenges over just about anyone. However, the data show that after two games Stoke average the 12th most long balls in the league, a curious result given Stoke are considered the most direct team. Should we assume then that Stoke have drastically altered their playing style over the summer and become less reliant on the long ball? 

As it turns out, we should not. The long balls per game statistic doesn’t tell the whole story of how much a team relies on long passes, as it doesn’t take into account possession and the number of long balls a team plays relative to short passes. For example, team A may have 80% of possession against their opponent team B resulting in them playing 60 long balls and 600 short passes. Team B has 20% of possession while hitting 50 long balls and playing 200 short passes. In this example, team A plays 10 more long passes than team B. They are not the more direct team, however. Their advantage in number of long balls played is attributable to them dominating possession and playing more of every kind of pass. Relative to the number of short passes they play, team A is far less direct. They have a ratio of 10 short passes for every one long ball (600/60=10) whereas team B plays only 4 short passes for every long ball (200/50=4). We can use this same short passes to long ball ratio with data on Premier League teams to rank them in terms of directness. This measurement is shown in the table below. Teams at the top of the table have a higher ratio of short passes to long balls and are therefore less direct than those at the bottom.
Using this method, Stoke are indeed the most direct team in the Premier League after two weeks, playing just 3.48 short passes per long ball. By contrast, Arsenal have been the least direct team, playing 11.08 short passes for every one long ball. Neither of these facts are particularly surprising. While Tony Pulis has always focused on physicality and territory at Stoke, Arsene Wenger has molded a side of mostly creative, technical players who are often small in stature. Interestingly, both teams have struggled to find the net in their first two games. Arsenal have yet to score, registering two goalless draws, one of which was to Stoke last Sunday. Stoke have scored just once in their opening two games.

The sample size is too small to enable us to predict whether either team will struggle to score all season and there are obviously other factors besides how direct a team is that influence number of goals scored. In the case of Arsenal, one big factor may be the loss of Robin Van Persie and the lack chemistry between Arsenal’s three big attacking summer signings Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, and Lukas Podolski.

The data produce some other interesting findings. Both Liverpool and Tottenham brought in new managers this summer. Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas were expected to bring new styles of play to their respective teams. Rodgers likes to build the attack from the back with patient buildup play and linking a number of shorts passes. At Swansea last season, his team had the third highest average possession percentage behind the two Manchester clubs. Villas-Boas prefers a pressing game where players expend energy high up the field to win the ball back and then get their rest while patiently knocking the ball around in possession. Neither system relies heavily on the long ball. However, both teams are in the bottom half of the table in terms of short passes per long ball, suggesting they’ve relied on direct play more than most teams. Liverpool have played 5.96 short passes per long ball, while Tottenham have played 5.67.

The data also show that Everton and Newcastle, two teams that finished in the top 7 of the Premier League last season, are among the most direct teams thus far. Newcastle have played 5.07 short passes per long ball and Everton have played just 4.7. These numbers make sense when we consider the strengths of each team and who they’ve played in their opening fixtures. Everton started the season with a home game to Manchester United. United had three injured center backs in Chris Smalling, Johnny Evans, and Rio Ferdinand and were forced to play Michael Carrick out of position in the center of defense alongside Nemanja Vidic. In Marouane Fellaini, Everton had a tall, strong midfielder able to dominate Carrick in the air and knock balls down for his teammates. Everton tried to exploit this mismatch all evening, continually sending long balls towards the towering Belgian. The direct style worked as Everton emerged 1-0 winners. Newcastle’s frequent use of the long pass early in the season likely has to do with the fact that its forward pairing of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse are full of pace and able to use their powerful running to get in behind the opposition back four. The Magpies have creative midfielders in Johann Cabaye and Hatem Ben-Arfa capable of getting the ball on the floor and playing, but the direct threat of the two Senegalese forwards gives their attack another dimension and they’ll likely continue to look long over the top for them this season.

Again, a sample size of two games doesn’t necessarily reflect how a team will play throughout an entire season, but if we look at data from last season we can get a good idea of how direct we’d expect teams to be in 2012-2013 (at least those teams that have kept the same managers). The figure below shows the same short passes per long ball statistic. Notice Stoke were also the most direct team last season. They also scored the fewest goals in the league with just 36. Another point of interest is that four of the teams that finished in the top six of the table last season--Manchester City (1), Arsenal (3), Chelsea (6) and Manchester United (2)--were among the five least direct teams. This isn’t terribly surprising since these are among the biggest, wealthiest clubs in the league and can afford to bring in the most technically gifted players suited to play in a short passing system. The only top six finisher among the league’s 10 most direct teams was Newcastle. Three of the bottom four finishers were among the four most direct teams--Blackburn, Bolton, and QPR. This almost certainly has to do with the inability of smaller clubs to purchase the most technically gifted players capable of playing a short passing game. 
The table may lead us to conclude that relying on short passes produces superior results to playing direct football. This is somewhat misleading. Clubs like Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal play less direct football in the Premier League because they have technically gifted players, and they gain a competitive advantage over most of their opponents by keeping the ball moving along the ground. It wouldn’t make any sense for Arsenal to set out launching long balls forward against Stoke City--they lose their competitive advantage doing that. But, it also doesn’t make sense for Stoke to try to tiki tika their way up the pitch against Arsenal--they don’t have the quality of players to do that. Their advantage over Arsenal is in their superior size and strength, so they play direct. In short, teams adopt styles that best utilize the strengths of their players and attack the weaknesses of their opposition. Not every team can have the quality of Europe’s top clubs and where there is a gap in talent between two sides, direct play will remain a tactic teams employ.