For the first 45 minutes of their 1-0 defeat to Liverpool last night Swansea were the vastly superior side. Liverpool established more control in the second half but still created little in the way of clear cut opportunities. Swansea's defeat was down to bad luck- Jordi Amat's sliding tackle bounced off Henderson and looped over Lukasz Fabianksi- and a combination of not enough end product and a solid performance from Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal. Gary Monk however deserves praise for how he set his team up tactically and Liverpool's future opponents may well have gained some insight into how to best contest a side that hasn't lost in the league since a Dec. 14 defeat to Manchester United.
During that game Brendan Rodgers used the 3-4-2-1 formation that has since brought Liverpool so much success. A major part of the success of the formation is that it gives Liverpool a numbers advantage in the middle of midfield when they are in possession. Most Premier League sides play with either a three man central midfield (either two holders behind a #10 as in a 4-2-3-1 or one holder with two shuttlers on either side as in a 4-3-3) or two man central midfield in a 4-4-2. Liverpool's 3-4-2-1 uses four central midfielders, two deeper lying holders and two attacking midfielders just behind the forward. The two attacking midfielders are given license to float into pockets of space and create passing angles for the back seven. This means Liverpool enjoy either a 4 v. 3 advantage in central zones or 4 v. 2. They therefore tend to have at least one free player able to move into dangerous space unmarked.
Monk looked to combat Liverpool's center midfield dominance by sacrificing wide midfielders in Swansea's usual 4-2-3-1 formation and instead going with a diamond 4-4-2. Jack Cork played at the base of midfield just in front of the back four with Jonjo Shelvey and Ki either side of him in box to box roles. Gylfi Sigurdsson played at the tip of the diamond just in behind the front pair of Bafetimbi Gomis and Wayne Routledge. Swansea therefore matched up evenly 4 v. 4 in the central midfield zone. This allowed Swansea to do two key things that I'll talk about in detail: #1) they were able to dominate possession and #2) when they lost the ball they were able to press Liverpool's two holding midfielders while still man marking the two attacking midfielders.
Swansea dominate possession
Defensively, Liverpool's two attacking midfielders stay high up the pitch rather than dropping off into midfield alongside the two deeper lying midfielders. This means Liverpool defend with a defensive line of three behind a midfield line of four with the attacking midfielders pressing higher up the pitch when they can. The graphic below shows a typical Liverpool defensive shape with the starters from last night.
With the attacking midfielders (Lallana and Coutinho last night) high up the pitch it puts the responsibility of contesting the central midfield zone on the two holders (Joe Allen and Henderson). For Swansea, Cork maintained a deep position just in front of the center backs but both Shelvey and Ki moved into attacking zones. With Sigurdsson playing just off the two forwards through the middle Allen and Henderson were outnumbered 3 v. 2. If they both stepped forward to press Ki and Shelvey it left space between the lines for Sirgurdsson (Figure 2). Sigurdsson found these spaces frequently in the first half- he put a good chance over the bar after finding himself in space then moments later forced an excellent save from Mignolet.
If one of Allen or Henderson pressed Ki or Shelvey on the ball, and the other stayed in a deeper position to check the movement of Sigurdsson, it meant Ki and Shelvey could simply play a square pass to one another to easily maintain possession. In the example below Henderson steps out to press Ki in possession while Allen stays deep on Sigurdsson. Ki can play a square pass to Shelvey, switching the angle of attack and leaving Liverpool out of position defensively.
Routledge works the channels
It was intelligent of Monk to pair a pacey, mobile natural wide player like Routledge alongside the traditional striker Gomis up front. Because Swansea were in a diamond midfield they had no natural width from their attackers. Routledge provided this width by making runs from inside to outside in the channels behind the Liverpool wing backs Alberto Moreno and Raheem Sterling. At times his final ball left something to be desired but his movement caused Rodgers' side problems. Since they don't play with standard fullbacks, Liverpool leave space in deep areas in the channels. Getting players into these areas to hit accurate crosses into the penalty box is a decent way to attack Liverpool, particularly if you can isolate a tall strong forward on Emre Can at the back post, a center midfielder playing out of position as right-sided center back.
In the graphic below you can see most of the passes Routledge received were in wide areas. He was particularly active behind Moreno down Liverpool's left, highlighting the idea that Monk may have wanted to hit crosses from the right toward Gomis at the back post against Can. All five of Routledge's crosses were from a similar area on the right channel.
Monk's shape also allowed his side to press excellently in the opening half. Sigurdsson and one of either Ki or Shelvey would step forward to close down Henderson and Allen. This still left Cork and either Ki or Shelvey in deeper positions to mark Lallana and Coutinho. Liverpool couldn't find an out ball. The pressing forced Allen and Henderson into hurried passes with little forward options to aim. Liverpool struggled to find an out ball to allow them to transition forward. They completed just 38 passes in the attacking third in the first half compared to 49 for Swansea.
Liverpool came into the game and established some control in the second half. That may have had to do with Swansea tiring- it's difficult to maintain a pressing game for 90 minutes. However, had the home side been a bit more inventive and clinical in the final third they could have gone into the second half with a league to hold onto. Although Liverpool were better in the second half they still created little in terms of good scoring opportunities. Although it will matter little for Swansea, their good tactical performance could provide a blueprint for other managers to emulate against the Premier League's in form side.