Yesterday, Liverpool managed to earn a draw despite dramatically losing the possession battle. Arsenal had 62% of the ball, the most any opposition have had since Dalglish took the reins. Liverpool were under pressure and pegged back for long stretches of the match, but only conceded thanks to a sloppy penalty eight minutes into injury time.
Normally, you'd think that a bad thing. Even after the season we've seen, most of us are still used to the Rafa Benitez method deployed over six seasons: keep possession first and foremost. Blunt the opposition, set the tempo, play keep-away. Spain and Barcelona have won everything under the sun in recent years with similar (if far more effective) tactics, so it must be the "right method." But that hasn't been the case for Liverpool this season. And more often than not, losing the possession battle has actually been a good thing.
Simply put, whether under Hodgson or Dalglish, Liverpool have been better in matches where the opposition has more of the ball.
In the league, Liverpool have eight wins, four draws, and nine losses – an average of 1.33 points per game – when they out-possess their opponents. When the opposition has more possession, Liverpool have won six, drawn three, and lost three – an average of 1.75 points per game, and a difference of almost a half-point per game.
Liverpool have been held under 45% possession in six matches this season: v Arsenal, v Chelsea, at Wolves, at Chelsea, v United, and at Arsenal. Twice under Hodgson, four times under Dalglish. And Liverpool are unbeaten in all six, winning four while drawing twice against the Gunners.
The disparity grows when just considering Dalglish's 13 games: 3W-2D-2L with more possession than the opposition, 4W-1D-1L when the opposition out-possesses Liverpool. An average of 1.57 points per game versus 2.17 points per game. The games won with more possession have been against City, Stoke, and Fulham (all at Anfield); the games won with less possession were against Sunderland, United, Chelsea, and Wolves (all but United away from home). Getting results on the road has happened with defense and counter-attacking football. Finally.
It's been a trend all season, but the January changes were the turning point. Dalglish and Clarke have done a far better job organizing the team, especially the defense. Exchanging Torres for Suarez and Carroll improved Liverpool's ability to counter-attack, with both better at bringing in midfield runners such as Kuyt and Meireles. Liverpool are scoring more goals – having notched in every one of Dalglish's league matches – and conceding less.
But they're doing it with some similarities to Hodgson's team. As said above, players have changed, as have certain tactics (pressing higher up the pitch being the most noticeable). But Liverpool's still reliant on the counter-attack, back in a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation since injuries to Gerrard and multiple defenders, and still getting better results when conceding more possession to the opposition.
Clearly, it's not so simple as just having less possession or the likes of Stoke, Bolton, and Blackburn (or whoever Hodgson's managing) would win the league every season. But it's strange to see such a variation in results contingent upon how much of the ball Liverpool has.
At the end of August, I lamented Liverpool's lack of possession, unhappy with early performances and results under the new manager and still expecting Benitez's metronomic tactics.
Sometimes, a tiger can change its stripes. But it needs the right manager to do so.