30 August 2010

Is possession still nine-tenths of the law?

The thing that's the hardest for me to wrap my mind around when watching Roy Hodgson's team compared to the side we saw for the last six seasons is how much less possession Liverpool's had so far. Watching a promoted West Brom dictate the play for long stretches at Anfield, with Liverpool only winning the possession battle 51-49% thanks to an improved second half (having less of the ball than Albion in the first), hammered the point home.

Keeping the ball was rarely a problem under Benitez. Even in terrible losses last season, with the team either comprehensively beaten (say, at Fiorentina) or unlucky as sin (at Sunderland), Liverpool almost always had the edge in possession. Going through all of last season's results was painful enough, but if memory serves, we'd probably see similar statistics in the previous five campaigns.

Seven games is an incredibly small sample size (and two of the seven were against what was basically part-time opposition), but through those seven, Liverpool's only had the edge in possession four times: twice against Rabotnicki, at home against Trabzonspor, and yesterday's narrow win. So far, Liverpool's averaged 50.9% of the possession this season. Last season – where we all can agree that Benitez's team was beyond woeful in a more than a few matches – Liverpool averaged 57.3%.

Out of the 56 games in 2009-10, Liverpool had less possession than its opponents ten times: at Chelsea, against United, at Arsenal in the Carling Cup, against Tottenham, against Everton (down to 10 men), at Lille, against Lille, at United, at Benfica (down to 10 men), and at Atletico. Liverpool won four of those matches and lost six. The four wins came at home, the six losses on the road. Surprise, surprise; Liverpool had an absolutely terrible record away from Anfield regardless of who had more of the ball.

I'm certainly not saying possession is the end-all, be-all of football, as demonstrated by last year's win-loss record. Liverpool dropped points in a lot of games where they had more of the ball. Clearly, it's what you do with the ball that counts. But the amount of possession the team's had so far this season is markedly different (and at times, frighteningly low) compared to what we saw under Rafa, and, again, it takes some getting used to.

I'm also not saying it can't work, as Inter proved against Barcelona in the Champions League or Switzerland proved against Spain in the World Cup. Or as Fulham proved in last season's Europa League. But it's a lot harder to score if you don't have the ball, and the Spanish tiki-taka style is the one currently in vogue, both because of its aesthetics and Spain and Barcelona's recent successes. The modern game's seemingly becoming more and more about ball retention, and Liverpool's gone backwards in this regard so far.

If Liverpool continues in this vein, the team would have to be very good on the counter attack and resilient in defense. Again, that sounds an awful lot like Hodgson's Fulham – can't teach an old dog new tricks, a tiger doesn't change its stripes, etc. Managers have their own beliefs and tendencies, and they usually change their teams more than their teams change them.

But Torres, a striker able to conjure something from absolutely nothing, would be indescribably important – even more so than in the past few seasons. It also necessitates utilizing the entire field – especially the flanks, where Liverpool's struggled for years (Hodgson frequently used inverted wingers at Fulham) – and having midfielders who can quickly open up space with movement or long balls. There were a lot of complaints about the Lucas/Poulsen pairing in the last two matches, and on the surface, it appears the pairing will struggle with this style of play.

I'll continue to argue Lucas is underrated (and can play the pass-and-move game when the shackles come off; see his goal against Benfica, for one) and Poulsen needs time to settle, but questions will persist about both. While one "destroyer" will be needed to add steel to the back-line – and either can play that role, although I'd assume Hodgson is more comfortable with Poulsen given his history with the player – I doubt we'll see both on the field much going forward, especially with the addition of Meireles – a midfielder who fits into the dynamic pass-and-move mold. The simple "ticking-over" that Lucas provides, which aligned with Benitez's tactics, seems far less important if Liverpool continues with what we've seen so far this season.

I know we're barely into Hodgson's tenure, and it's hard to draw any conclusions when the manager's still assembling his preferred squad. But it's still incredibly strange to see Liverpool struggle to have and hold the ball. And, like when any new manager comes in, patience is required. It'll take time for the tactics to work, especially when the majority of players are accustomed to the controlling the tempo and steadily building attacks.


nate said...

And since I went through the trouble of looking up the possession statistics for this season and last, I'm going to post them here. My head hurts now.

at Rabotnicki: 57% - 43%
v Rabotnicki: 66% - 34%
v Arsenal: 36% - 64%
v Trabzonspor: 53% - 47%
at City: 45% - 55%
at Trabzonspor: 48% - 52%
v WBA: 51% - 49%

at Spurs: 53 - 47% (1-2)
v Stoke: 76% - 24% (4-0)
v AV: 68% - 32% (1-3)
at Bolton: 80% - 20% (3-2)
v Burnley: 61% - 39% (4-0)
v Debrecen: 68% - 32% (1-0)
at WH: 58% - 42% (3-2)
at Leeds: 58% - 42% (1-0)
v Hull: 64% - 36% (6-1)
at Fiorentina: 61% - 39% (0-2)
at Chelsea: 48% - 52% (0-2)
at Sunderland: 69% - 31% (0-1)
v Lyon: 53% - 47% (1-2)
v United: 43% - 57% (2-0)
at Arsenal CC: 43% - 57% (1-2)
at Fulham: 64% - 36% (1-3)
at Lyon: 54% - 46% (1-1)
v Brum: 78% - 22% (2-2)
v City: 57% - 43% (2-2)
at Debrecen: 71% - 29% (1-0)
at Everton: 54% - 46% (2-0)
at Blackburn: 60% - 40% (0-0)
v Fiorentina: 58% - 42% (1-2)
v Arsenal: 51% - 49% (1-2)
v Wigan: 54% - 46% (2-1)
at Pompey: 55% - 45% (0-2)
v Wolves: 67% - 33% (2-0)
at AV: 58% - 42% (1-0)
at Reading CC: 51% - 49% (1-1)
v Reading CC: 57% - 43% (1-2)
at Stoke: 55% - 45% (1-1)
v Tottenham: 45% - 55% (2-0)
at Wolves: 52% - 48% (0-0)
v Bolton: 66% - 34% (2-0)
v Everton: 39% - 61% (1-0)
at Arsenal: 52% - 48% (0-1)
v Unirea: 59% - 41% (1-0)
at City: 56% - 44% (0-0)
at Unirea: 64% - 36% (3-1)
v Blackburn: 55% - 45% (2-1)
at Wigan: 62% - 38% (0-1)
at Lille: 43% - 57% (0-1)
v Pompey: 65% - 35% (4-1)
v Lille: 48% - 52% (3-0)
at United: 44% - 56% (1-2)
v Sunderland: 63% - 37% (3-0)
at Benfica: 48% - 52% (1-2)
at Brum: 58% - 42% (1-1)
v Benfica: 51% - 49% (4-1)
v Fulham: 65% - 35% (0-0)
v WH: 66% - 34% (3-0)
at Atletico: 40% - 60% (0-1)
at Burnley: 54% - 46% (4-0)
v Atletico: 52% - 48% (2-1)
v Chelsea: 56% - 44% (0-2)
at Hull: 61% - 39% (0-0)

Bryce said...


Do you see the first choice central midfield probably being composed of Gerrard and Meireles with Cole in the hole? Or does one of Poulson or Lucas need to be in there instead?

I guess we will know soon enough once Cole serves his full suspension?

nate said...

Hard to say without having seen Meireles play for Liverpool, but I'm initially hoping Gerrard stays in the hole, Cole moves out to one of the wings, and Meireles is paired with either Lucas or Poulsen.

I'm sure circumstances will change as Hodgson's team takes shape (and depending on opposition to a certain extent), and I still fear Joe Cole will go straight back into the middle, but we'll see.

Milo said...

Isn't it normal for a new manager to build up the defense first, especially when you have little time to prepare? With good defense as a foundation, you can gain confidence and start focusing on the attack.

Give Roy some time to prove himself.

nate said...

Not necessarily; Roy Evans certainly didn't start with the defense. But this wasn't about the attack. It was about the amount of possession Liverpool's had in matches so far. There's nothing about 'goals scored' or 'shots taken' or Cole's effectiveness linking midfield and attack or whatever. It was about style of play so far, compared to what we've seen for the past six years and compared to what we've seen from Hodgson in past jobs.

I've argued, and will continue to argue, that Hodgson needs time to implement his ideas. I say it in the above post.

Also, "good defense" was the foundation of Benitez's teams, up to last season's imbalance and failures. But his methods were different: if you have the ball more of the time, the opposition is less likely to hurt your defense. Which is kind of what I was getting at here. 'The best defense is a good offense' and whatnot. Although, I guess that can be read as a critique of Liverpool's attack to date.