Liverpool 0-3 West Ham: West Ham defend deep, counter into channels, take advantage of Liverpool errors

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.

Should Brendan Rodgers switch Liverpool's midfield box to a diamond after being overrun in midfield by United

Following Liverpool's 3-0 defeat away to Manchester United in mid December, Brendan Rodgers decided he'd seen enough positives from the 3-4-2-1 formation he used for the first time that afternoon to give the formation another go. It was a brave decision to stick with the experimental shape after a heavy defeat to bitter rivals but Rodgers' side had played much better than the scoreline suggested- David De Gea was excellent in the Manchester United goal coming up with 9 saves. Rodgers' decision paid off- Liverpool went on a 13 game unbeaten run in the league with the 3-4-2-1 formation and put themselves in a position to contest for the final Champions League spot.

However, over the course of their last two fixtures, an unconvincing 1-0 win over Swansea and yesterday's defeat to Manchester United, Liverpool have begun to look more stretched defensively and less threatening going forward. Swansea were dominant in the opening half, controlling possession with 57.8% and getting into dangerous scoring positions. Their wastefulness in the final third let them down but Swansea were the better side in the opening 45 minutes. It was a similar story yesterday. Liverpool were entirely overrun in the first half. Manchester United bossed possession with 60.4% but more importantly controlled the tempo and didn't let Liverpool get anywhere near them.

The source of Liverpool's recent difficulties seem to largely be coming from the central midfield zone. The 3-4-2-1 shape uses two holding midfielders- Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen- and two attacking midfielders- generally two of Adam Lallana, Coutinho or Raheem Sterling- in what in effect is a midfield box. At its best the shape allows the two attacking midfielders to float into dangerous pockets of space between the opposition defensive lines, creating plenty of forward passing options and resulting in a brand of football that is fluid and confusing for opposition defenses. Over the last two games however it has caused Liverpool to be overrun in midfield. In the system, the two attacking midfielders stay high up the pitch when the opposition is in possession. Liverpool defend with a defensive bank of three- the three center backs- and a midfield bank of four- the two holding midfielders and the two wing backs. The shape forces Henderson and Allen to do a tremendous amount of defensive work in the middle of midfield. Against a side that plays with three central midfielders like Manchester United yesterday, Allen and Henderson are outnumbered 2 v. 3 in the central midfield zone. As a result, Liverpool have had difficulties getting the ball off the opposition which is why we saw Swansea and Manchester United with such high first half possession totals.

We also see big gaps form in the center of the pitch between Henderson and Allen. The opposition can split these gaps with vertical passes, easily bisecting Liverpool's midfield. This happened time and again against United. United were in a 4-3-3 with Herrera and Marouane Fellaini to the left and right respectively of Michael Carrick at the base of midfield. Both Herrera and Fellaini would take up positions closer to the channels than the center of the pitch. In order to deny passes into them in these areas, Henderson and Allen would have to get tight to them in the wider positions they were taking up. This left what at times was a 15 to 20 yard gap between the two Liverpool holding midfielders. United were able to play passes between that gap, effectively taking the entire Liverpool midfield out of the game with one simple vertical pass.  The screen shot below shows one of many examples of the vast gap between Henderson and Allen in the first half. With Carrick enjoying plenty of time on the ball he has plenty of options for playing forward passes against a stretched Liverpool midfield line.

Rodgers recognized this issue in both the Swansea and Manchester United games. In the second half of those contests he replaced one of the two attacking midfielders with Steven Gerrard who operated just in front of the back four, altering the shape from a midfield box to a midfield diamond. Against Swansea Gerrard replaced Alberto Moreno with Lallana dropping in to fill Moreno's left wing back spot. Against Manchester United Gerrard replaced Lallana. The midfield was therefore Gerrard at the base, flanked on either side by Henderson and Allan in shutting roles with Coutinho at the top of the diamond. The subtle change in shape gave Liverpool more control in the Swansea contest. Defensively, Allen and Henderson would drop in alongside Gerrard to form a midfield bank of five rather than the four they had when they were operating with two attacking midfielders. They were better able to compete in midfield and prevent Swansea from circulating possession as they had in the opening half. We were unable to see whether the change would have a similar impact yesterday after Gerrard's immediate dismissal following his introduction at halftime.

I think the midfield diamond as opposed to the box is something Rodgers may need to opt for more often in the final fixtures to give Liverpool a stronger presence in midfield. With the two deeper lying midfielders used in the box they're asking Henderson and Allen to do too much ball winning in the central midfield zone. By switching to a diamond and defending with a midfield bank of five rather than four they'll be better able to disrupt the attacking rhythm of the opposition and allow fewer gaps in midfield for the opposition to play passes into. Figure 1 shows their current defensive set up with the midfield box, Figure 2 shows the defensive shape with a midfield diamond. (I'm using the traditional numbering system here so these numbers don't correspond to actual Liverpool players, it would have made way too much sense to show the names of actual Liverpool players in their normal positions.) In the box system there is at times too big a gap between Henderson and Allen that the opposition can easily get in between. With the introduction of a holding midfielder those gaps are tightened.

Figure 1: In their current midfield box with two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders, the holding midfielders are asked to cover a tremendous amount of ground defensively and gaps form between them.

Figure 1: In their current midfield box with two holding midfielders and two attacking midfielders, the holding midfielders are asked to cover a tremendous amount of ground defensively and gaps form between them.

Figure 3: By introducing a holding midfielder just in front of the back four and defending with a midfield bank of five there are fewer gaps for the opposition to play through in the middle of midfield and Liverpool can compete better defensively in that zone.

Figure 3: By introducing a holding midfielder just in front of the back four and defending with a midfield bank of five there are fewer gaps for the opposition to play through in the middle of midfield and Liverpool can compete better defensively in that zone.

They'll still have four central midfielders and will therefore continue to be able to overload the opposition midfield when in possession but it will be more structured, less of the swashbuckling style we've seen with the current box midfield. Gerrard's dismissal of course means he'll be unavailable for the next three games but they still have the personnel to play the diamond. Lucas Leiva is a fine candidate to play at the base of the diamond. He lacks Gerrard's range of passing but is competent in possession and provides needed bite on the defensive end.

The one obvious downfall of switching from the box to the diamond is that Rodgers would likely have to remove one creative midfielder to make way for Lucas. However, Coutinho has already shown he can be effective in a slightly deeper, shuttling role. He's played on the left of a central midfield triangle in a 4-3-3 and on the left of a center midfield diamond in a 4-4-2. One option would therefore be to go with Lucas at the base of the diamond with Henderson to his right and Coutinho to his left in the shuttling roles and either Lallana or Sterling at the tip of the diamond as shown in Figure 3 below. Allen would be the odd man out. It's a set up that provides quite a nice balance of defensive steel, energetic running and technical ability.

Figure 3: Hypothetical Liverpool lineup with three at the back, wing backs and midfield diamond.

Figure 3: Hypothetical Liverpool lineup with three at the back, wing backs and midfield diamond.

Throughout his time at Liverpool Rodgers has shown a great deal of tactical flexibility. If he feels a system isn't working he's more than willing to experiment with another one. Given yesterday's loss was only Liverpool's second since introducing the 3-4-2-1 it's hardly time to scrap the system. However, the Swansea and Manchester United fixtures may hint the midfield box leaves Liverpool too thin in midfield.

Ibe's positioning at wing back opens space between Rose and Vertonghen that Liverpool exploit

Mario Balotelli's first Premier League goal since 2012 gave Liverpool a 3-2 win over Tottenham in a game that twice saw Spurs come from a goal behind to draw level. The win crucially puts Brendan Rodgers' side just 3 points behind 4th place Arsenal and just a point behind Spurs in the race for Champions League places. A win would have seen Spurs go third at least briefly with Southampton and Manchester United still to play tomorrow.

This was an immensely entertaining contest for the first hour with with two quite different formations that created some really intriguing tactical battles. With both sides having played important derby matches just two days ago, fatigue seemed to set in on the hour mark and the energy fell until Balotelli's 83rd minute winner. Rodgers' second half substitutions made the difference- Balotelli replaced the excellent Daniel Sturridge, still regaining fitness from the thigh injury that has seen him miss most of the season, in the 74th minute and was set up with an assist from Adam Lallana who came on for Lazar Markovic in the in the 79th.

What proved to be the key tactical feature on the day occurred down Liverpool's right attacking side. Rodgers opted for the same 3-4-2-1 formation he's used in recent matches with Jordan Ibe given a second successive league start at right wing back after his excellent performance at Everton Saturday. Ibe was instrumental in setting up both Liverpool second half goals and proved a tactical nightmare defensively for Spurs left back Danny Rose and left midfielder Christian Eriksen.

Markovic and later Lallana operated in a narrow right-sided attacking midfield position. The left side of Spurs defense was confused throughout about who was responsible for picking up this inside right attacking midfielder and who was responsible for tracking Ibe. Ryan Mason played as the left-sided holding midfielder in a double pivot with Nabil Bentaleb (in the 69th Paulinho replaced Mason and Bentaleb moved into Mason's left-sided position). He pressed Henderson, Liverpool's right sided holding midfielder, when Liverpool were in possession. This left Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder with space behind Mason and in front of Rose and left-sided center back Jan Vertonghen (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Markovic occupies space behind Mason and in front of Rose and Vertonghen.

Figure 1: Markovic occupies space behind Mason and in front of Rose and Vertonghen.

Rose and Vertonghen therefore had a difficult decision to make about their positioning. Vertonghen could step out from the back line to get tight to Markovic/Lallana but it would have opened up space in behind for the pacey Daniel Sturridge to make a diagonal run in behind (Figure 2).

Figure 2: If Vertonghen steps to Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder it opens space in behind for Sturridge to run into

Figure 2: If Vertonghen steps to Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder it opens space in behind for Sturridge to run into

Alternatively, Rose could have tucked inside towards Markovic/Lallana, leaving space down the channel for Ibe to run into behind Eriksen (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Space opens up for Ibe down the touchline if Rose tucks inside towards Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder.

Figure 3: Space opens up for Ibe down the touchline if Rose tucks inside towards Liverpool's inside right attacking midfielder.

Spurs opted more for the option in Figure 3 with Rose tucking inside. The problem that arose for Pochettino's side was therefore that Ibe was happy to take that space near the touchline behind Eriksen. To effectively deal with that threat, Eriksen would have had to been asked to track Ibe's runs all the way into the Liverpool attacking third. Such a strategy would have had its own drawbacks- Spurs wouldn't have wanted their most creative attacking player pinned 80 yards from the opposition goal.

When Ibe got the ball in advanced wide positions his direct and incisive decision-making were extremely effective. By receiving possession near the touch line he forced Rose to sprint wide to close him down. Spurs left-sided holding midfielder (Mason and then Betaleb when Mason was subbed) would drift to that channel to offer defensive support for Rose, vacating space in the middle of the pitch that Markovic and then Lallana could exploit.

The screen shot below shows the buildup to the penalty won by Sturridge that resulted in Liverpool's second goal. Ibe gets the ball wide, forcing Rose to the touchline. Bentaleb offers defensive cover leaving space at the right edge of the box Sturridge to move into on this occasion. Ibe finds Sturridge with the next pass who dribbles past Mason and is taken down by Rose in his effort to make a recovery tackle.

The buildup to Balotelli's winner was remarkably similar. Here, Ibe receives a pass from Lallana on the touchline. Once again Rose is forced wide to close him down with Bentaleb providing cover. Lallana drifts into the space left vacated by Bentaleb and provides a well-weighted ball across the face of goal for Balotelli to tuck in.

Markovic's opener was slightly different- Simon Mignolet's long punt toward Sturridge ultimately fell for the Serbian in space to dribble forward, but like the other two it resulted from a Liverpool player finding space just inside the right channel.

Pochettino's side created their share of difficult tactical issues for Liverpool. With Markovic, Coutinho and Sturridge all staying high up the pitch Liverpool were outmanned in the middle of midfield where Gerrard and Henderson often found themselves trying to defend Bentaleb, Mason and Dembele as well as Eriksen and Lamela tucking inside. Spurs' fantastic opener came when Lamela and Eriksen tucked insideto overload that zone and played a tidy 1-2 before Lamela laid off an inch-perfect reverse pass for Harry Kane.

One final interesting feature of this contest was Liverpool's first half pressing of Bentaleb and Mason, an approach that differed from that taken by Arsene Wenger in the North London Derby Saturday. Arsenal sat deep and allowed Bentaleb and Mason plenty of time on the ball. The two midfielders looked excellent, Bentaleb providing the cross for Kane's winner, and Spurs controlled the game. Today the two looked extremely uncomfortable with the pressure they were being put under and struggled to move the ball forward to the front four. Both Mason and Bentaleb played poor back passes that nearly led to one v. one opportunities at the Spurs goal for Ibe and Sturridge. The difference in strategy between Arsenal and Liverpool could be attributable to the fact Arsenal were the away side Saturday and therefore more cautious, but it's difficult not to wonder if Arsenal couldn't have come away from that contest with something had they put the two rather green Spurs midfielders under more pressure.