Liverpool's tactical chess against Stoke, well-analyzed by Noel from Liverpool Offside, worked a treat yesterday. Best described as a 3-4-2-1, it was interesting to see the roles played by each in the new formation.
What caught my eye in the chalkboards was how roles overlapped and fit together, increasing the side's overall cohesion. Both Agger and Skrtel played as supplementary center-backs, bordering on orthodox fullbacks. Kelly and Johnson were up and down the pitch as wingbacks. Lucas and Aurelio formed the base of the central midfield square, while Gerrard and Meireles each fluidly roamed in a free role.
Most notable was how Agger and Skrtel supplemented the attack with Stoke pinned back. Both chalkboards look more like orthodox, deep lying fullbacks rather than center-backs. With Kyrgiakos man-marking Carew into invisibility, Agger and Skrtel both had license to get forward. That's a major part of Agger's game, but one hilarious moment saw Skrtel charging towards goal a la Mark Lawrenson, beating defenders before striking a pitiful shot wide.
But Liverpool prospered in each section. Gerrard was everywhere in a familiar free role. Lucas steadily ran the show, with an 89% completion rate against pressing, physical Stoke. Liverpool could have done with more end product from both wingbacks – Kelly looked more comfortable on his preferred side, only to have crosses routinely fail to find heads – but each worked diligently to give Liverpool real width.
The greatest compliment I can bestow is that Liverpool looked wholly comfortable in this unfamiliar system. Benitez infrequently threw tactical curve balls, such as the 3-4-3 in an 0-1 loss to Sunderland and the 3-4-2-1 which beat Portsmouth 3-2 in 2009. But in those matches, whether win or loss, it took time for Liverpool to come to grip with the changes. Yesterday, the team looked like they'd be doing this all season, taking 30 minutes to adapt and duly threaten Stoke. That's a credit to Dalglish and assistant manager Steve Clarke. As is the fact that Liverpool have kept three successive clean sheets for the first time all season.
A couple more notes of interest:
• While it doesn't fit with the overall theme of "partnerships," Reina's passing rate needs to be highlighted
35 of 39 – 90% – is an incredibly high completion rate for a goalkeeper. And it's not as if all were short passes out to a defender. Out of 11 attempts over the halfway line, Reina completed seven, which is a credit to Kuyt's play as the lone striker. Against Fulham, he completed 16 out of 24. Against Wolves, 14 out of 35. Just a wonderful display from a keeper who's already superlative when distributing the ball. And to think we were worried when his passing rate plummeted under Hodgson and Mike Kelly.
• Following the Wolves match, I wrote about the decreasing number of passes since Dalglish took the reins. Last night put paid to that notion. Liverpool attempted 578 passes, completing 449 – a 78% rate. Compare that to 379 attempted at Wolves, 434 attempted against Everton, and 517 against Blackpool. The number of passes rose against Fulham – to a similar 459 completed out of 574 – but Liverpool were far more effective yesterday, evident in both the style of play and score line.
• Glen Johnson attempted the fewest passes of any Liverpool starter with 36. Only one Stoke player – fullback Andy Wilkinson, with 43 – attempted more than Johnson. The midfielder with the most completed passes was Pennant, with 22, the same number of passes Liverpool's deepest center-back completed. It's not hyperbolic to suggest Liverpool passed Stoke into submission.
Welcome back, Liverpool.