Football has always been, to coin a famous phrase, “a simple game complicated by fools”. When we watch video’s of managers in changing rooms explaining tactics to their players, using chalk boards and other gadgets, we find ourselves also doing the same when trying to explain why our team did or did not perform in a certain match. Tactics, I would argue, are usually 35 to 40% the reason why a team performs well or badly in any given match (the other 60 to 65% being player ability and that unexplainable thing in football; team spirit) and watching Liverpool over recent months, I find myself cringing every time I hear someone on a television show or radio lambaste the players and defend the manager after bad performances.
It’s very easy to see the problems in the Liverpool squad; Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole are the only real creative players in the squad (and Joe Cole is yet to reach full fitness or find his form) and there is a lack of pace in the wide areas. But this can not serve as an excuse for some of the turgid football that has been on display so far this season. When you watch a Liverpool football match, the first thing that strikes you is how little control over game the team exerts; in the last 3 games against Wigan, Chelsea and Napoli, Liverpool have averaged 44% possession. That means that, for 56% of the time, the teams Liverpool have faced have had the ball and as Barcelona have shown us, that can be a very dangerous thing.
Roy Hodgson has also had the team defending really deep. Now, when playing counter-attacking football, defending deep is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem arises however, when you’re a team expected to win a match but spend most of it in your own half, keeping your “shape” and allowing the opposition to constantly probe your defence. This has been the story of Liverpool matches so far this season. Whilst fans of a club like Fulham are willing to accept counter-attacking football as they’re team is not expected to win most of the matches it plays, Liverpool are traditionally one of the big teams in England and are expected to win a lot more matches than they loose over the course of a season.
My biggest issue with the deep defence is the problem it has created for Fernando Torres in particular. Many have commented on the lack of service to him as he usually finds himself isolated up the pitch. This causes Torres to have to drop deeper in order to receive the ball, leaving him now surrounded by not only defenders, but any deep-lying opposition midfield player. As we witnessed against Chelsea, Torres is at his best when he is able to isolate a defender, take him on and beat him for pace. When Torres is forced deep, he finds himself faced with two or more players, limiting what he is then able to do with the ball. Roy Hodgson’s insistence on a deep defence perhaps explains why Torres has constantly looked frustrated during matches as he finds himself being deployed as more of a target-man type striker which is a role he can play but doesn’t favour.
Hodgson also doesn’t like his team to play with much width. A feature of his Fulham team was inverted wingers, narrowing the field which allowed the “shape” of his team to remain very rigid. At Liverpool, I have found myself looking curiously at team sheets containing 4 or 5 central midfield players and wondering how Roy envisages his team breaking down deep, narrow defences. The Napoli match was a prime example of Roy’s insistence on a lack of width and how this has lead to Liverpool producing dire football; Napoli operate with a back three. The back three system is one that leaves itself open to good wing play but Hodgson picked a midfield composing of Poulsen, Spearing, Shelvey, Jovanovic and Meireles. Now, 4 of those 5 players are natural central midfield players. Whilst they are able to adapt to playing in other positions, by not being natural wingers, they were not able to take advantage of the open spaces the Napoli defence provided.
The fifth player in that midfield, Milan Jovanovic, is a player who is more used to playing out wide and showed this by getting behind the Napoli right back a few times in the first half and causing them some problems. Roy Hodgson’s response to this was to haul off Jovanovic at half time (because he dared to penetrate the oppositions defence and not keep the team “shape”) and replace him with another central midfield player in Steven Gerrard. Now whilst Gerrard went on to score a hat-trick and change the game, this was more player ability papering over the cracks of bad tactics.
Those who believe Hodgson will “eventually get it right” at Liverpool will still blame the squad and suggest that in the transfer window he will address the issues he needs to. In my opinion, the squad Hodgson inherited is far superior to what it is currently achieving and his track record shows that the displays are a result of his preference for certain tactical choices as opposed to the ability possessed by the players in his squad. Looking at how open this season has been, I believe that Liverpool have a chance to snatch fourth spot from a stumbling Spurs and rowing Man City but will be unable to do so until either their manager changes his approach (something he has already said he Is unwilling to do) or they change their manager.
With the news that a new CEO is soon to be appointed at the club by next year, we can assume Hodgson still has some time left with no one directly in place to make a decision on him. Let’s hope he takes this time to analyse his team and what has been happening and makes the adjustments needed or he will soon find himself walking away from his last chance to be considered a top manager.