02 May 2011

Chalkboards: Fullbacks Switching Flanks

It's not hyperbole to suggest that yesterday saw yet another Dalglish tactical masterstroke, this time with a half-time change.

The early goal meant Liverpool were comfortable, but Newcastle's response pegged the home side back as the interval approached, mainly through Jonas and Enrique's work down the left.

Newcastle were the first side to exploit John Flanagan's youth. Flanagan more than held his own against Milner, Nasri, and Fahey, but Jonas' pace and footwork troubled the right back, putting in a few dangerous crosses and getting Flanagan harshly booked in the 29th minute.

But Johnson's return from injury gave Dalglish the necessary leeway. At left back in the first half – where he played when Kelly impressed prior to each's injury – Johnson switched to the right in the second and promptly shut Jonas down. At the same time, the change also benefited Flanagan, now up against Joey Barton, a player who's had an excellent season, but isn't a threat to beat the fullback for pace or deliver a whipped cross.

The change is evident in chalkboards from the 1st and 2nd halves. For the first two sets – Newcastle's crosses and Jonas' crosses – I superimposed successful crosses atop the unsuccessful attempts, something I wish you could do within the Guardian's flash application.

Three of Newcastle's four successful crosses came from the right and in the first half. Jonas was especially quiet after the interval, with six unsuccessful crosses, four of which were closed down quickly. For all of Barton's 73 passes yesterday, he only attempted one cross, in the 68th minute. It was immediately closed down by Flanagan. Lovenkrands and Ameobi aren't the strongest in the air, while both Carragher and Skrtel have played well of late, but crosses are one of Newcastle's two main weapons (along with set plays, which were atrocious yesterday). That Liverpool were able to nullify that weapon was a major factor in the second half romp.

The duels chalkboard also highlights the difference Johnson made. He had six successful tackles, one successful take-on, and one unsuccessful tackle at RB, compared to two successful take-ons, one unsuccessful take-on, and one won aerial duel when at LB (not shown). Flanagan had one unsuccessful aerial duel, two successful tackles, and two unsuccessful tackles when on the right. He had no individual duels when on the left.

While Johnson was more effective on either flank, this isn't a critique of Flanagan. Glen Johnson is an established England international. John Flanagan is an 18-year-old making his fourth start. Their passing chalkboards are fairly similar, although Johnson's unsurprisingly more involved on either side of the pitch, especially in the opposition's half. It's worth noting that a Flanagan cross, albeit an unsuccessful one partially cleared by Williamson, set up the opener.

Yesterday's performances were even more impressive considering Johnson's just back from a month-long injury, while Flanagan – in only his fourth start – has never played on the left, at least for the senior team. Each shifted seamlessly after the interval; with Liverpool clinging to a 1-0 lead, the change helped close the minor, exploitable gaps, and the home side soon got the additional goals needed to kill the match.

After suffering through the harsh medicine of Hodgson's regime, it's wondrous to have a manager willing and able to make the necessary changes, whether it's a pre-match formation surprise or a mid-game alteration. And it's yet another reason why Dalglish's permanent contract is a mere formality.

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