A few thoughts on Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Liverpool's midfield diamond overwhelmed Fernandinho and Toure early
Brendan Rodgers set out in a diamond 4-4-2 with Steven Gerrard sitting in front of the back four flanked by Jordan Henderson and Coutinho with Raheem Sterling at the top of the diamond behind Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. Manuel Pellegrini opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure playing the holding roles behind attacking midfielders David Silva, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas.

City's three attacking midfielders and striker Edin Dzeko stayed high up the pitch defensively. Nasri and Navas marked Liverpool's fullbacks Glen Johnson and John Falanagan respectively. Dzeko and Silva would pressure Liverpool's center backs and Gerrard who would drop in between his center backs in possession. This meant that further up the pitch Toure and Fernandinho were outmanned 3 v. 2 in central areas (see graphic below). They were left to defend Coutinho, Henderson, Sterling and at times Suarez dropping off into midfield. Liverpool therefore always had a man free to receive a pass and were able to comfortably pass through the two City holding midfielders. Liverpool dominated the opening half hour and City were fortunate to be down just the two goals.

 City have been susceptible to the counter all season. Toure and Fernandinho are more powerful midfield shuttlers than truly defensive midfielders and at times have left City's back four exposed when the opposition breaks quickly. Today Liverpool produced dangerous counter after dangerous counter in the opening 30 minutes. The outstanding Sterling broke quickly from midfield to join Sturridge and Suarez on the break and Henderson arrived with late energetic runs at the edge of the box. Toure's early injury was no doubt a blow for City but the subsequent introduction of Javi Garcia, a truly defensive minded midfielder, actually provided the City back four with a bit more protection when Liverpool broke forward.

Milner's introduction changed the game for City
The introduction of James Milner for Navas in the 50th minute may not have had the feel of an inspiring attacking change to many but Milner's qualities too often go unnoticed and he changed the complexion of the game today. His clever movement from sideline to sideline and positioning was crucial in creating overloads for the Liverpool defense. Whereas Navas predictably stayed wide on the right and looked to get to the endline and cross, Milner varied his movements across the width of the pitch and put Liverpool defenders into uncomfortable decisions. He played a terrific 1-2 with Fernandinho before assisting to Silva for City's opener. He then drifted across to the left side of the pitch to create an overload with Silva and Nasri for the City equalizer.

Kompany's blunder the decider
Vincent Kompany provided one of the deciding moments in City's 2011-2012 league winning campaign when he scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford late in the season. His error for Coutinho's game winner today may well end up costing his side the title this season. At 2-2 City looked like the only side capable of producing a winner. Aguero and Silva had just combined for a narrow miss and Liverpool were on the back foot when Kompany's shanked clearance fell for Coutinho in the box. The Brazilian did brilliantly to curl his effort into the corner but it was a dreadful mistake from the City captain.

First half 4-4-2 leaves Liverpool too stretched in midfield

Brendan Rodgers's decision to play a 4-4-2 in Liverpool's 2-2 draw with Aston Villa this afternoon was an interesting one. Rodgers would have been well aware Paul Lambert's Villa nearly always play with three in the middle of midfield so would have known his team would be outmanned in that area.

From the opening whistle Liverpool were stretched in the midfield zone. Jordan Henderson partnered Steven Gerrard at center midfield. The two tried to get forward in possession to offer support in attacking areas. However, when Liverpool lost possession, they were out of position to offer protection for the back four and Villa were able to break uncontested through the middle.

Villa set out in a 4-1-2-1-2 shape with Andy Weimann playing at the top of the diamond just behind the front two of Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Ashley Westwood sat just in front of the back four with Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph on either side of him as box to box runners. The diamond midfield meant Gerrard and Henderson were often outnumbered 2 v. 4 in the middle of the pitch. When Villa won the ball back they were able to play easy outlet passes into Weimann or Benteke dropping in off the Liverpool center backs. They would then look to play penetrating balls to Agbonlahor running in the channels in the space behind Liverpool's advanced fullbacks. For Villa's opener Benteke provided the outlet pass for Delph and found Agbonlahor racing down the left sideline. Agbonlahor found Weimann in the box with a well weighted ball in for the goal.

Starting XI's: Liverpool 4-4-2; Villa 4-1-2-1-2
Liverpool's 4-4-2 shape also wasn't offering enough going forward. Although Coutinho tried to tuck inside from a starting left position to link play with the two forwards, it was easy for Villa to defend. Delph and El Ahmadi could apply pressure to Gerrard and Henderson while Westwood sat in the space between the lines to check Coutinho's runs inside or Suarez and Sturridge dropping in off the center backs. As a result, Liverpool struggled to get into the same sort of passing high up the pitch they're used to at Anfield.

Rodgers recognized the weakness of having just two center midfielders on and made an important change at halftime by bringing on Lucas. Rather than subbing off one of his center forwards in order to add Lucas as a third midfielder, Rodgers instead took off Coutinho. Lucas sat in front of the back four, providing both protection for the back four when Villa countered and an extra passing option in midfield. Replacing a left sided attacking midfielder with a center midfielder meant Liverpool ran the risk of not having an attacker in advanced areas wide on the left. Their solution for this problem was clever. Aly Cissokho switched from a left fullback to a much more advanced left wing back. With Raheem Sterling providing natural attacking width on the right, Glen Johnson was able to sit deeper alongside Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure as part of a back three. Liverpool's shape in possession was therefore more or less a slightly titled 3-5-2. Defensively Cissokho would drop back in to form a back four.

Liverpool shape in second half when in possession
The introduction of Lucas allowed Liverpool to assert more control on the game and left them less vulnerable on the counter. The Brazilian was forced off with an injury in the 66th minute and was replaced in a like-for-like sub with Joe Allen. Allen didn't offer quite the same sturdy platform for Gerrard and Henderson to get forward that Lucas did and at times Liverpool looked uncertain at the back. The game surprisingly fizzled out a bit after Gerrard equalized from the penalty spot. Villa deserve credit for not allowing the home side to take control of the contest after that goal.

Liverpool beat Stoke in wild contest defined by errors

Liverpool moved back into the top four with a 5-3 win over Stoke in a game that was shockingly sloppy but entertaining. Team tactics played a minor role- the defining feature of the contest was individual errors. Four of the game's goals could be blamed at least partially on individual mistakes- Liverpool's second was the result of errors from Mark Wilson and Ryan Shawcross, Stoke's second came from a poor giveaway by Jordan Henderson, Liverpool's third came from a Wilson giveaway and Stoke's third came after a poor touch from Steven Gerrard gifted Marko Arnautovic possession down the left wing. A fifth goal resulted from an unfortunate Shawcross own goal from an Aly Cissokho shot that was going well wide.

The most obvious tactical features were Stoke's pressing in midfield and their attacks down the channels that culminated in crosses into the box. In the first half Charlie Adam drifted to the right from his #10 role and Stoke looked to overload Cissokho with Adam, Jonathan Walters and Geoff Cameron overlapping from his right back spot. The graphic below shows how heavily Stoke favored attacks down the right in the opening half. The left side of the screen shows Stoke's attacking third passes, the right side shows crosses.

It was interesting then that the home side's opener came from a rare foray down the left when Arnautovic provided a well weighted cross into Peter Crouch from the left wing.

Stoke looked to press Liverpool in midfield quickly closing down Gerrard and Lucas when they got the ball in deep positions. At the beginning of the first half Liverpool seemed to be dealing comfortably with the pressure- they found spaces between the Stoke lines to play balls into Coutinho and Henderson, easily bypassing the Stoke midfield. However, as the half wore on the visitors became increasingly sloppy in possession, a fact Brendan Rodgers will likely be especially frustrated by. At 2-0 up his side had the opportunity to take control of the game and dictate the tempo. Instead they were put off by Stoke's pressing and the match became frantic. Too often Liverpool gave away possession high up the field, allowing Stoke to break forward at an underprotected defense. The graphic below shows Stoke's 17 interceptions, 7 of which occurred in Liverpool's defensive half and the bulk of which occurred in the middle third of the pitch. By comparison Liverpool's interceptions occurred in deeper areas. They had just 2 interceptions in the attacking half, one of which resulted in Sterling winning a penalty.

When in possession Stoke looked to get the ball into the channels and hit crosses into the box towards Crouch. They won 11 corners and played a remarkable 51 crosses.  

Rodgers' side was at its most dangerous on the break, particularly after the introduction of Daniel Sturridge. With Sturridge on, Liverpool had three players in Sturridge, Henderson and Raheem Sterling with the energy and pace to be dangerous on the break. For Liverpool's fourth Sturridge received an outlet pass and was able to break through the middle at pace on the counter before cleverly laying off to Suarez to tuck home. Those two players would ultimately prove the difference makers in the contest as they combined yet again for Liverpool's fifth, this time with Suarez turning provider on the break for Sturridge.

In the end this was a stereotypical English game. It was low on technical quality and poise on the ball, high on energy and commitment. The match tape won't be used by youth coaches as an example of polished, intelligent football but it did make for an entertaining spectacle for those of us that can appreciate a sloppy goalfest every now and then.

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.

5 questions to consider ahead of this weekend's Premier League fixtures

1. Will Ozil start? 
With Tomas Rosicky set to miss Arsenal's Saturday clash at Sunderland with a thigh injury he picked up on international duty with the Czech Republic, there's a strong chance Mesut Ozil will start in his first appearance for the Gunners. Wenger could alternatively opt to bring in Mathieu Flamini to play deeper in midfield alongside Aaron Ramsey and push Jack Wilshere into the #10 role. However, against a Sunderland side likely to set up defensively, the prospect of a center midfield trio with as much creativity and attacking ability as Ramsey, Wilshere and Ozil would likely appeal to Wenger. An attacking six of Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud offers the prospect of some truly exciting attacking football. Sunderland's 5 goals against are tied for the worst in the Premier League and the atmosphere is a little stale around the Stadium of Light with Paolo Di Canio continuing to publicly call out his own players- they'll need to be organized and get a big boost from the home crowd to have a chance at getting something out of this one.

(UPDATE: Ozil missed Arsenal's training session today with an illness but will travel with the team to Sunderland. Per Mertesacker also missed with illness and will not travel). 

2. West Ham vs. Southampton: who will win out in clash of styles?
The intrigue of this game is that it pairs two sides with two very different playing styles. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce places far more emphasis on territory than possession. His side is 16th in the league in average possession with 44.4% and have been outpossessed in all three of their opening fixtures. Those stats are particularly startling given two of those games were at home to Cardiff and Stoke, a newly promoted side and a side infamous for its inability to retain the ball (they were also outpossessed at Newcastle in match week 2). West Ham are organized and difficult to break down defensively. They shuttle the ball into wide areas, cross early and often and look for knock downs. They've attacked through the middle of the pitch less than any team this season. The loss to injury of towering forward Andy Carroll and talented crossers Joe Cole and Stewart Downing will certainly hurt West Ham's ability to play their preferred style effectively. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton side on the other hand currently sits third in the league in terms of average possession. They prefer a more patient, passing attack. The striking partnership of Dani Osvaldo and Rickie Lambert failed to produce a goal in Southampton's loss to Norwich two weekends ago so it'll be interesting to see if Pochettino goes with both those two up front again or decides to go with just one striker. In that loss at Norwich they struggled to defend the flanks which could provide West Ham opportunities to get crosses into the box to Modibo Maiga and Kevin Nolan. West Ham haven't won on their travels since March 2- with a depleted squad that's unlikely to change Sunday. Still, this should be an entertaining game for the clash of footballing philosophies on display.

3. Will Martinez be brave against Chelsea?
Roberto Martinez is a far more proactive manager than his predecessor at Everton David Moyes. Whereas Moyes tends to react to the strengths of each opposition and organize his squad accordingly, Martinez focuses more on his own team's approach. Martinez's Wigan side played Chelsea in the opening fixture of last season and he showed he was unafraid to play expansive, attacking football. Wigan finished the match with more possession but were picked apart twice on the counter in the opening 10 minutes and Chelsea held on for a fairly comfortable 2-0 win. Herein lies the crucial question with Martinez. His sides generally play a brand of football that is attractive on the eye but is he willing to adjust his style to achieve better results? So far his Everton side lead the league in possession yet have managed just three draws. While much of that can be blamed on players getting used to the new system and the lack of an in form striker, questions remain regarding whether Martinez can combine style with substance. If his side continue the trend of bossing possession Saturday against Chelsea, they'll have to be extremely cautious about being caught on the counter. The Blues have a gaggle of talented midfielders capable of reeking havoc on the break and in Jose Mourinho a manager more comfortable playing a counter-attacking style. New signings James McCarthy and Gareth Barry will provide options for Martinez in the middle of midfield after the departure of Marouane Fellaini but on loan striker Romelu Lukaku will be unavailable to play against his parent club. It'll also be interesting to see whether Willian and Samuel Eto'o get their first minutes for Chelsea.

4. Will Kagawa play?
Since the appointment of David Moyes at Manchester United, Shinji Kagawa has played just 7 minutes of competitive football after coming on as a late substitute in the community shield. Moyes has instead opted to use Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck in Kagawa's preferred role behind main striker Robin Van Persie. A 0-0 draw to Chelsea followed by a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool saw Manchester United fail to score in successive games for the first time since August 2007. The lack of offensive output has many wondering why Moyes has refused to field a player with the creative ability of Kagawa. Concerns over Kagawa's ability to defend have been suggested and against stronger sides like Chelsea and Liverpool perhaps Moyes wanted first and foremost to ensure his side had a strong defensive shape. This wouldn't be a huge surprise given Moyes has always been a fairly reactive, conservative manager. However, with newly promoted Crystal Palace coming to Old Trafford and Wayne Rooney sidelined with an injury, not giving Kagawa a shot would make little sense this weekend.
5. Can Liverpool continue unbeaten run?
Brendan Rodgers' side has shown tremendous character opening the season with three difficult wins- an away victory over Aston Villa sandwiched between home wins over Stoke and Manchester United. It's the first time Liverpool have opened a league campaign with three wins since the 1994-95 season. All three wins of those wins have ended in a 1-0 scoreline and the Reds have had to dig deep in each. These were the type of fixtures they were dropping points in last season, points they'll need to pick up to have chance at a top four finish this campaign. They're the only side yet to have conceded. Daniel Sturridge is starting to show his promise having netted all three game winners. Rodgers managed to strengthen his side on transfer deadline day adding French center back Mamadou Sakho and winger Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea. It took Liverpool until October 20 to reach 9 points last season so there's plenty of reason for optimism at Anfield this time around, particularly given the strong form they showed in the second half of last season.

In traveling to Swansea Monday night they'll face another talented opponent. The Swans owe much of their current 16th place standing to a difficult run of opening fixtures, having opened the season with a home loss to champions Manchester United before being beaten by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. They managed their first win of the campaign 2-0 over West Brom at the Hawthornes two weekends ago and will look to use that win and a boisterous home crowd to motivate them Monday night. The Welsh side did however manage just 6 home league wins last season- the 7th fewest in the league.

Liverpool grind out 1-0 win at Villa Park

After dominating the early proceedings at Villa Park, Liverpool managed to hang on to a 1-0 win over Aston Villa despite finding themselves under heavy pressure from the home side throughout the second half. Villa out-shot Liverpool 17 to 5 in the match and 11 to 1 in the second half yet were denied an equalizer thanks to some resolute defending from Liverpool and fine goalkeeping from Simon Mignolet. The Belgian keeper twice produced world class saves to deny his countryman Christian Benteke his fourth goal of the young season. Although Liverpool produced little going forward after the break it was the type of game they'd have failed to take maximum points from last season so you'd expect Brendan Rodgers to be pleased with his side's ability to grind out a result.

Liverpool bossed possession and controlled the territory in the opening half hour. They pressed high up the pitch when they lost possession and forced Villa to launch hopeful balls towards Benteke. These long balls rarely fell to their intended target and when they did the striker was too isolated to do anything with them. After 30 minutes Liverpool had outpassed Villa 269 to 97 and 59 to 14 in the attacking third. You can see below Villa completed just 50% of their passes into the final third in the opening half hour. The bulk of the failed attempts were hopeful longballs forced by Liverpool's pressing.

However, for all their attractive possession, they failed to create many genuine scoring opportunities. A critique against Brendan Rodgers is that his teams offer plenty of attractive passing and attacking movement without finding that penetrating ball to open up defenses. In his final season at Swansea, Rodgers' team finished with the third highest average possession total in the league (behind Arsenal and Manchester City) yet only five teams scored fewer goals in the campaign. Daniel Sturridge produced a fantastic solo effort in the 21st minute but it ended up being Liverpool's only shot on target in the game. Rodgers will be desperate to convert that ball domination into more scoring opportunities. Luis Suarez has that ability to create opportunities on his own out of nothing and if he stays at Anfield he'll certainly help the cause after serving out his suspension.

After taking the lead Liverpool stopped pressing and began to defend deeper in banks of four. This allowed Villa more time on the ball in their own defensive half. They were able to knock some passes around which seemed to help them grow in confidence and they finally threatened the Liverpool goal late in the half with Benteke turning in the books and producing a curling effort to Mignolet's back post. The Belgian keeper did excellent to stretch to his left and parry the ball away for a corner.

There was a bit of a role reversal in the second half. Liverpool continued to sit deeper in banks of four and looked to soak up pressure. Villa became a bit more direct knocking long balls directly into Benteke and getting into the channels for crosses. After struggling to advance the ball into Liverpool's defensive half in the opening 45 minutes, Villa managed 50 passes in the final third to Liverpool's 28 in the second half. They took 11 shots to Liverpool's 1. However, Liverpool deserve credit for dealing with the pressure defensively. In Benteke, Agbonlahor, Weimann, and Delph Villa have genuine attacking quality. Both Chelsea and Arsenal were unable to keep them off the board at home. For Liverpool to do so at Villa Park is a fine achievement and says a lot about the Agger-Toure center back partnership thus far.

Despite struggling to get a foothold in the second half, Liverpool have proven they can win difficult games away from home. In Villa they've beaten a team that beat Arsenal at the Emirates and deserved a point against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The win today means they have 6 points as of August 24. It took them until October 20 to get up over the 5 point total last season. That in itself is reason for cautious optimism at Liverpool.

Liverpool miss Sturridge's vertical threat in loss to WBA

West Brom produced an unlikely 2-0 victory over Liverpool at Anfield despite taking 20 fewer shots and being outpossessed 59% to 41%. The home side missed a slew of decent opportunities before Gareth McAuley's header put the Baggies ahead on 81 minutes, including Ben Foster's penalty save on Steven Gerrard in the 77th.

Despite controlling the balance of play and managing to force Foster into a couple of fine saves, Liverpool lacked a bit of industry in the final third, largely owing to the absence of Daniel Sturridge to a thigh problem.

Luis Suarez took up the center forward position recently occupied by Sturridge while Jonjo Shelvey played in the hole behind him. Jordan Henderson was used as a left sided attacker and Stewart Downing played on the right wing. As he so often does when lined up as the main striker, Luis Suarez would drop off the opposition center backs and collect the ball between the lines. He's tremendous at drifting into defensive seams, turning and running at the back four. However, without Sturridge's pace, Liverpool lacked anyone making runs in behind the West Brom center backs for balls to be played through. When Suarez collected the ball between the lines, no one made the type of interior run in behind that might threaten Jonas Olsson and McAuley. As a result, one center back could step to Suarez while the other sat in to provide cover.

Sturridge often tends to remain high up the pitch on the shoulder of one center back. When Suarez plays in the hole behind him and manages to get the ball in the seams it forces the free opposition center back to step out to him and opens space for Sturridge to make a diagonal run into the space opened up by the center back moving out to Suarez. Without a vertical option in behind the defense, Liverpool often shuffled the ball wide to the right where Downing and Glen Johnson looked to combine and get crosses in the box. The two combined for 17 crosses, with Downing alone crossing 13 times. Several of Downing's balls in were excellent but without a physical #9 like Andy Carroll in the side, getting the ball wide and crossing it into the box is never likely to be an effective strategy for Liverpool. Olsson and McAuley are more comfortable dealing with high balls into the area than with pacey forwards running in behind them. Only two of Downing and Johnson's 17 crosses found a Liverpool player, despite a number of them being quality balls in.

Liverpool produced some decent football at times and will feel unfortunate to have failed to take anything from a game in which West Brom produced virtually nothing offensively for the first 80 minutes. However, the absence of Sturridge's pace meant they were often forced to attack down the wings and send 50-50 balls into the box- a difficult strategy when you're playing without an actual number nine. It was no surprise then that they produced some of their best chances, including Luis Suarez winning the penalty, when Fabio Borini came on at striker and Suarez dropped into the withdrawn role. Sturridge is a more suitable center forward than Borini however and Brendan Rodgers will be keen to have him back in action. It's incredible that Liverpool have still failed to manage a win against a side in the top 10.

Arsenal 2-2 Liverpool: Rodgers scraps possession philosophy for counterattacking approach

Brendan Rodgers adopted an uncharacteristic counterattacking approach in an intriguing 2-2 draw against Arsenal at the Emirates. Liverpool finished the game with just 38% possession, by far their lowest total in a league game under Rodgers, and only the fourth time they've been out-possessed this season. The strategy looked as though it had worked perfectly when Jordan Henderson put the Reds 2-0 ahead in the 60th minute but Arsenal began exploiting pockets of space either side of Lucas Leiva who was sitting just in front of the Liverpool back four. Both the Gunner's goals resulted from collecting the ball in the area between Lucas, left back Glenn Johnson and center back Daniel Agger.

With the exception of Pepe Reina replacing Brad Jones in goal, Liverpool fielded the same side that defeated Norwich 5-0 in their last league outing.

Arsenal made no changes to the side that beat West Ham 5-1 a week ago.

The theme of the game was established early and didn't change throughout the 90 minutes- Arsenal pressed high up the pitch and looked to regain possession quickly, Liverpool sat deep, soaked up pressure and looked to play on the break.

Defensively, Liverpool used a 4-1-4-1 formation. Henderson and Steven Gerrard pressured Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in possession while Lucas sat just in front of the back tracking the movement of Santi Cazorla. The strategy was to not allow Ramsey and Wilshere to get goal side of Gerrard and Henderson where Lucas would be forced to leave Cazorla and step to ball. Downing and Suarez tracked the forward runs of Gibbs and Sagna.

Offensively, Liverpool looked to counter through Suarez and Downing breaking in behind Arsenal's outside backs and through Henderson darting into space behind Wilshere and Ramsey and in front of the Arsenal center backs. Effectively, what was 4-1-4-1 in defense became 4-2-3-1 when Liverpool were in possession with Lucas and Gerrard rarely joining forward. The player influence graphic below shows Lucas's and Gerrard's average positions were actually as deep as Agger's over the 90 minutes.

When Liverpool found an outlet ball to Suarez, Henderson or Downing, they'd look to play the ball through to Sturridge behind the Arsenal center backs. Suarez's opener was more a result of a comedy of defensive errors from Arsenal than anything tactical but Liverpool did create some very good scoring chances off of counterattacks. Shortly after taking the lead Downing released Suarez in behind Sagna down the left flank after Liverpool had regained possession. Suarez chested and played a wonderful volleyed through ball behind the defense to Sturridge but he put his effort wide. Later in the half Downing broke into the middle of the pitch on the counter and played Henderson in behind the defense towards the edge of the box. Henderson chipped over after Szczesny left his line but the move highlighted Liverpool's effectiveness on the break.

Second Half
The second half continued in much the same way as the first. Arsenal continued to boss possession in midfield but they increased their tempo in possession and become more vertical with their passing. Liverpool were clearly straining a little more defensively early in the half as Arsenal combined with more passing combinations higher up the field. A main contributing factor to Arsenal's increased threat in the attacking half was that they began to exploit the space either side of Lucas between Liverpool's defensive and midfield banks of four. Cazorla drifted from the middle into these areas and was then able to look for gaps between the center back and fullback to slip balls through. On the right, Walcott tucked inside, leaving Lucas and Johnson to communicate whether Johnson would track him inside or Lucas would shift over. Arsenal were beginning to find pockets of space between the lines they hadn't in the first half. With the Gunners seemingly on the ascendency, Henderson's goal on the hour mark from more blundering Arsenal defending came as a bit of surprise. Mertesacker and Andre Santos, brought on to replace the injured Gibbs in the first half, were the main culprits this time as both allowed the Liverpool midfielder to beat them too easily.

However, Arsenal's response was emphatic as they struck twice in three minutes to draw the score level. As they had begun to do early in the half, Arsenal exploited the space in front of Agger and Johnson and to the left of Lucas for both goals. For the first goal Walcott was able to cut in field from the right, forcing Lucas to slide over to provide help and commit a foul. Giroud scored from the resulting kick. On the second goal Cazorla drifted unmarked into this zone and was able to play a decisive ball for Giroud whose layoff Walcott finished in style. Jose Enrique was introduced on the left wing to provide added defensive cover there after the Gunners had equalized, with Suarez moving to forward and Sturridge coming off.

Arsenal's energetic second half pressing prevented Liverpool from finding the outlet passes to spring counters they had in the second half. 10 of Arsenal's 13 interceptions came in Liverpool's defensive half. Fatigue set in for Suarez, Henderson and Downing as the half wore on and they weren't able to break into space behind Arsenal's midfield as they had in the opening period.

It was surprising to see Rodgers take such a pragmatic approach and allow Arsenal to take the game to them. His likely reasoning however seems understandable- in Wilshere and Ramsey, Arsenal had two deeper lying midfielders that like to get into more advanced areas and aren't used to the responsibility of breaking up counterattacks. He thought he'd be able to exploit space in behind these two on the break and indeed he was right- had Sturridge's and Henderson's finishing been a bit more clinical in the first half, Liverpool may have put this one to bed. That they completed just 54 passes in the attacking third, by far their lowest total of the season, is evidence they were prepared to play the bulk of this game inside their own half. While Rodgers has been praised for his belief in his possession-based system, some have suggested he may be a bit tactically inflexible. Today showed he is at times willing to adjust his tactics.

The tempo of Arsenal's passing and movement was excellent in the second half. The second goal was wonderfully worked and they deserve a great deal of credit for showing the patience in their system to come back. An enjoyable game overall and probably a fair result in the end.

Links, 9/27/12 Edition

  • Michael Cox: Why the hate for zonal marking?
    •  "The chief criticism of defending zonally is that no one takes responsibility, an argument that misses the point entirely. Ex-coaches who persist with this line of debate are actually adopting quite a cowardly approach -- "No one takes responsibility" is a synonym for "There's no player I can blame." Ironically, it also demonstrates that they're unwilling to take responsibility themselves."
  • Chris Rowland: Football and Finance, Liverpool and the top six
    • " I hope I have been able to show a number of things. First, a realisation of just how catastrophically wrong things went in the years ’09/10 – ’10/11. Liverpool had turned into a club who changed managers on a yearly basis, wasted vast sums on a phantom stadium which couldn’t possibly be financed, had begun the trend of decreased transfer spending and swapped it for vast ineffective wage inflation, relying on player sales to break even."
  • Jonathan Wilson: The question: How troubling is Liverpool's start
    • Already there has been a marked improvement in pass completion, up from 80.9% to 86%, and from 73.24% to 78.9% in the opposition half. To put that into context, last year's figures were the best for Liverpool over a full season since Opta began collating data in 2006-07.The problem is all too familiar. Last season Liverpool converted only 9.13% of their chances, the lowest figure since Opta began producing its reports. It had been 13.59% the previous season but then Liverpool managed just 11.4 shots per game. When Liverpool finished second in 2008-09, they had 15.1 shots per game and converted 13.46% of their chances. But if 9.13% looked bad, this season's figure is far worse: a meagre 5.97%.

Brief thoughts on Liverpool FC's reaction to Suárez

A lot has been written on the Luis Suárez controversy, so I don't think there is much to add to the conversation. Even so, I'm going to go ahead and do so. I have heard some analysts and commentators ask whether Kenny Dalglish has done harm to his legacy by returning to Liverpool and leading them to mediocrity. I don't think that he has harmed his legacy as a result of the club's underwhelming performance, but he has done severe, perhaps irreperable, harm to his reputation through his unequivocal, visceral support of Suárez. Fans of the Premier League have expressed shock that Suárez refused Patrice Evra's hand. I am not in the slightest. Dalglish and LFC had the gall to declare that Suárez was in fact the victim of slander perpetrated by an agent of their chief rival, Manchester United. Dalglish and LFC continued propagating this characterization even after the FA released a report documenting that Suárez admitted to calling Evra "negro." Why should Suárez not act like the victim if his club and manager have told him and declared to the rest of the world that he is? It's appalling to me that it has taken Fenway Sports Group this long to react to behavior that has been, without argument, incredibly damaging to LFC's reputation and, thus, the club's brand. The decision makers at Liverpool seemed to have made the poorest of judgments. Suárez is a football player; he is a good one, but nevertheless, he is still only a football player. And, no single player is bigger than his club, especially a club as steeped in tradition and pride as Liverpool Football Club. Shame on Kenny Dalglish, shame on Fenway Sports Group, and shame on Liverpool Football Club.

More on net passing

Last week I discussed how we should interpret the net passing statistic and whether it's related to a team's performance. In that post, I analyzed the points per game earned by each of the big six clubs within various levels of net passing. Points per game is an important performance metric, as points ultimately determine each team's place in the table. In addition to points per game, another useful performance metric is goal difference. One advantage of goal difference is that it is more fine-grained than points per game. Whether a team wins 1-0 or 7-0 they still earn three points. Goal difference, however, allows for variation within wins and losses. The continuous nature of goal difference also lends itself to statistical analysis.

The figures below plot net passing against goal difference for each of the members of the big six (the bivariate regression is estimated using OLS). For clubs that rely on passing and possession to build goals, we would expect a positive relationship between net passing and goal difference. In other words, we would expect that as a team completes more and more passes than an opponent, the team's goal difference increases. For teams that rely more on a counter-attacking style of play, we would not expect a discernible relationship between net passing and goal difference.

(Click to enlarge)

For Manchester City and Liverpool, net passing explains less than 1 percent of the variation in goal difference (R2=0.005 and R2=0.002, respectively). Net passing explains about 5 percent of the variation in goal difference for Manchester United and Chelsea (R2=0.048 and R2=0.054, respectively). For the North London clubs, however, net passing explains considerably more of the variation in goal difference. Remarkably, about 35 percent of the variation in Tottenham's goal difference is explained by net passing  (R2=0.345), and nearly 40 percent of the variation in Arsenal's goal difference is explained by net passing  (R2=0.396). Not surprisingly, the coefficient on net passing is statistically significant only in the Arsenal and Tottenham models (p<0.01). For Arsenal, each additional 100 passes completed more than the opposing team is associated with nearly a 1 goal increase in goal difference. An increase of the same size in net passing for Tottenham is associated with a 0.6 goal increase in goal difference.

In sum, there is a strong relationship between net passing and goal difference for Arsenal and Tottenham, a weak relationship for Manchester United and Chelsea, and no apparent relationship for Manchester City and Liverpool.

Interpreting the net passing statistic

I use a statistic that I refer to as "net passing" quite often in my analysis on this blog. Net passing is simply the number of passes completed by a team net of the number of passes completed by their opponent. The purpose of such a statistic is to provide a simple description of one aspect of the game: passing. Depending on a team's style of play and tactical approach, net passing may or may not be predictive of actual match outcomes. For example, some teams depend on possession and passing to break down an opposing team's defense. On the other hand, some teams play deeper and generate scoring opportunities on the counter attack. Playing on the counter attack requires much fewer passes, and consequently, net passing is probably not very predictive of performance for these teams. The figures below show the average points per game for each of the big six clubs by the level of net passing (as of game week 23).

(Click on figures to enlarge)

The light blue bars in the figures above indicate that the points per game statistic is based on only one or two games. As a result of such a small sample, these statistics are not very reliable. Manchester City have a high points per game irrespective of their net passing. Somewhat surprisingly, they have not dropped any points in games in which their opponents have out-passed them, and they have collected the fewest points per game from games in which they completed at least 301 more passes than opposing teams. Manchester United have collected on average only 1.33 points per game from those in which they were out-passed, while they have been markedly more effective in games in which they have a positive value for net passing. Remarkably, they have out-passed opponents by a margin greater than 200 passes on only two occasions. Tottenham also have a much higher points per game when they out-pass opponents, and the pattern appears more pronounced than that of Manchester United. Chelsea have averaged a respectable 1.6 points per game in games in which they were out-passed or completed 100 or fewer passes more than opposing teams. The incredibly low 0.25 points per game for the net passing category of 101-200 serves as an important reminder that statistics can yield strange results, especially when estimated from small sample sizes. Net passing seems to be quite predictive of Arsenal's performance, which is perhaps not surprising given Arsenal's style of play. Finally, there is little variation in points per game across net passing levels for Liverpool (ignoring the >300 category, which is based on only two games).

Liverpool's British signings fail to justify transfer cost

Liverpool have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of £78.5 million in transfer fees on English players Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, and Jordan Henderson and Scotsman Charlie Adam since the 2011 January transfer window. Carroll was brought in last January while Adam, Downing, and Henderson were all purchased over the summer. The table above looks at their respective transfer fees and offensive output after 22 games in the 2011-2012 Barclays Premier League season.

Liverpool currently sit 7th in the table. They have scored just 25 goals, 8th fewest in the league. Seeing as Carroll is a center forward and Adam, Downing, and Henderson are all fairly attack-minded midfielders, it’s safe to assume these four players were purchased for their ability to score and create goals. That Liverpool have struggled so heavily to do so must be frustrating to fans given the amount of cash they’ve splashed to improve their attack. Carroll, Downing, Henderson, and Adam have 71 league appearances between them this season (out of a possible 88). They have managed to score only 5 goals and generated just 6 assists. None have more than 2 goals. Adam, whose £7.5 million transfer fee makes him the cheapest of the four, has been the most productive with 2 goals and 4 assists, contributing to slightly less than a quarter of Liverpool’s goals (contribution to goals being defined as either scoring directly or assisting a goal). Stewart Downing has yet to register a goal or an assist despite playing in all but three of Liverpool’s league games. Carroll, with his £35 million transfer fee, has netted just twice and contributed to 12 percent of Liverpool’s goals. Henderson has just one goal and one assist. To determine the exact number of Liverpool goals the four have contributed to we’d have to figure out the goal scorers on each of their six total assists to avoid double counting. For instance, if Charlie Adam assisted one of Andy Carroll’s goals this would count as contribution to one total Liverpool goal and not two. If any of their six assists were to one of the other three players, than the four have contributed to fewer than 11 Liverpool goals. For the sake of this article, we’ll leave that data out. I think we can safely conclude that £78.5million is far too high a price for five goals and six assists.[1]

[1] Cristiano Ronaldo, whose £80 million transfer fee just exceeds the combined total Liverpool paid for Henderson, Adam, Carroll, and Downing, has already produced 21 goals and 6 assists in just 19 league games.