Tactics: What has Kenny changed at Liverpool?

by Joshua Askew

Kenny Dalglish’s return to Liverpool has been billed as a Newcastle-esque cry for a Messiah that wouldn’t work out, with an outside chance of relegation, which ignores several things.

Firstly, Newcastle fans aren’t nearly as stupid as made out. They wanted Kevin Keegan because he was a better manager than Sam Allardyce; they didn’t expect miracles.

Secondly, Keegan didn’t take Newcastle down; it was a mixture of Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer. Keegan’s return wasn’t as brilliant as his original tenure, but it certainly wasn’t awful. A call for a Messiah could actually be successful as long as you don’t get Dennis Wise involved.

And last of, Dalglish is a better manager than Keegan. He oversaw arguably the most beautiful team in English football’s illustrious history and actually has some trophies to his name. What’s more, Dalglish has still been involved in football and at Liverpool, working at the academy since 2009, meaning the players already know him, while Keegan admitted to not even following football while out of the game.

Thankfully, the King has fared better than Keegan did in the early stages of his return – either equalling (Man United and Everton) or bettering (Everton and Wolves) all of his predecessor Roy Hodgson’s results. But what has he changed to turn Liverpool around?

Pressing higher up the pitch

The main problem with Roy Hodgson’s tenure was his insistence on playing a deep defence. In theory, Hodgson’s tactics should have solidified the defence but lessened the frequency of goalscoring opportunities; in reality, it ruined both.

Pressing high up the pitch allows you to win the ball back closer to goal, meaning you create better and more frequent chances, plus it’s a much more effective way of getting the ball as defenders are usually the worst players on the ball. The only real problems with it are the gaps the pressing leaves and the huge space behind the defence for the ball to be hit over the top into, but neither was a major problem at Liverpool – they were drilled well enough to cover one another and Pepe Reina, arguably the best sweeper keeper in the world, able to dash out to meet any balls that got behind the defence.

Playing deep and passively should make you more solid defensively: there’s more players around your defence and less space to play the ball into except where it’s not useful, such as in their own half. It is, of course, also more difficult to score goal since the forwards have little support with their teammates so far down the pitch, but play the perecentages and force the opposition into pushing more men forward and you could catch them on the counter.

However, the theory falls down in relation to Liverpool because they simply don’t have the players to employ it. Playing deep only works if you’ve got physically imposing defenders who can read the game well, otherwise the opposition can just hoof the ball into the box to score. Though he looks big and hard, Martin Skrtel is suprisingly poor in the air, while Glen Johnson and Paul Konchesky aren’t particularly good readers of the game. With so much pressure being put on them, Liverpool’s defenders needed to be a very specific type – they didn’t fit the mould, so it didn’t work. The only players who actually suited the style were Jamie Carragher and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, two of the least talented players in the squad.

Playing so deep also messes with the passing style that became the standard in Benitez’s reign. With the defenders so much closer to goal, they are more wary of losing the ball and giving the opposition a clear goalscoring opportunity, forcing them into hoofing. But even if they do play it shorter, there’s no guarantee Liverpool would create better chance – playing deeper means you win the ball back deeper, ensuring it will take longer to get the ball to goal and giving the opposition more time to get back into position.

Pass-and-move

It’s the Liverpool groove. Does Fernando Torres look like a target man to you? Daniel Agger a hoof merchant? No, didn’t think so. For all the talk of the squad inherited not being good enough, the issue was that it was actually too good. Hodgson’s methods involve getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible to minimise risk – at first, this means endless ugly hoofing, but as the players get more accustomed to it and they get drilled into their positions, meaning everyone knows where everyone else will be at all times, this improves, resulting in some of the better short passing game towards the end of Hodgson’s time at Fulham, but it ultimately spits in the face of what a talented player stands for.

Liverpool’s success was built on a patient short passing game when everyone else was hitting it long on the advice of Charles Reep, a philosophy brought back to the club by Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard tailored his squad to suit this style, in came the like of Lucas Leiva and Maxi Rodriguez and ball-playing centre backs like Agger and Martin Skrtel. There were only a handful of players that didn’t fit in, such as Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, but their weaknesses were minimised – Carragher was told to play the ball as simply as possible and Gerrard was stationed high up the pitch where he could do much more good than harm.

Hodgson changed this and it failed, none of Liverpool’s players could adapt to the style because it required brawn rather than ability. Dalglish returns and switches back, then, after some initial teething problems, performances pick up. Pass it out, find gaps, if you can’t, give it back and start again. Not exactly rocket science, get players comfortable on the ball and you’re sorted, yet I’d be surprised it his predecessor’s side ever managed ten consecutive passes, let alone the 31 pass build-up for Torres’ second goal against Wolves.

Also, the movement can bring out the best in other players. Take, for example, Christian Poulsen – looking like one of the worst players to have donned a Liverpool shirt under Hodgson, the Dane, while certainly not setting the world alight, has improved already under Dalglish. With full-backs and centre-backs now free to move forward, Poulsen has a purpose; whenever they stride forward, he covers, watching him against Fulham and Wolves reveals an intelligence that is easy to miss. At 30, he’s unlikely to be able to get up to the pace of the Premier League, but he’ll at least show that he’s not that bad a player.

Glen Johnson at left-back

A switch that suggested to many Dalglish was out of touch with modern football may have revealed something of a master tactician below the overcoat. Initially, at Blackpool, the change looked like a mistake. However since then, Johnson doesn’t look like the liability he had been over the course of the last year.

It’s often overlooked that Johnson was good defensively early on in his Liverpool career – it was only when Liverpool stopped pressing so high up the pitch that he lost form. Positioning matters a lot less when further away from goal, especially when someone is as quick as Johnson. Nevertheless, it does still matter and it’s the shift to the left that has improved Johnson’s. He has a tendency to be caught wider than he should be, creating a larger gap for the ball to be played through between him and the centre-back, meaning the opposing player can pick up the ball more centrally and that Johnson is forced to turn, taking longer to get to the ball. Playing narrower means the ball can’t be easily played through that gap, so it has to played wider, into less dangerous positions.

As he’s right-footed, Johnson will naturally come inside more than a left-footed player, narrowing him without requiring him to think about it and making sure that gap isn’t there to exploit. It also doesn’t hamper his attacking ability as much as much as it would most other players either – Johnson actually has a very good left foot, just think of his goals against Sunderland and Bolton or against Mexico for England.

Not playing Raul Meireles on the wing

16 games; 0 goals. 4 games (forced off with an injury shortly into the first match); 2 goals and a major part in a third. Guess the managers.

3 Responses

  1. rowan says:

    Ahh at last, some intelligent comment regarding football.
    To the point, factual and well informed.
    thank you

  2. Great read, thanks for this Joshua.

    Each point is spot on. Johnson’s could be layered by Martin kelly’s ability at right back too.

    One other notable change has been Pepe Reina’s distribution.

  3. Varun says:

    Johnson when he ventures forward now looks very dangerous not on his own necessarily but from a team perspective, although he does this only a few times.

    I think they need some one like Cole but with speed to complete the squad,
    Liverpool lacks blistering pace on the pitch.

    Cole’s failure to adapt so far has been a big let down, if only he could get in form, Liverpool could spoil a lot of things for a lot of teams in the coming months.

    Rafael Benitez’s legacy at Liverpool is not over, He re-laid the ground works for the Liverpool youth system that will start producing in few years to come,
    He even brought ex-barca youth coach over, that counts.

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