31 October 2011

Trying to Find a Balance

"Balance" has been a word tossed around frequently as Liverpool tries to fine-tune its recently-acquired shape. Balance between attack and defense, balance between controlling the game and pushing the tempo, balance between direct football and pass and move football.

On Saturday, Glen Johnson started at right back for only the second time this season, for the first time with summer signing Jordan Henderson ahead of him on the right.

Liverpool have deployed a somewhat lopsided formation every time Henderson's started on the right, deeper than his counterpart on the opposite flank. Saturday's difference was that with Johnson, Liverpool were able to balance Henderson's proclivity to cut inside with an attack-focused fullback willing to stay wide and overlap.

Downing and Enrique, who have had a few more games to build an understanding, form a more orthodox pairing. Downing, a true winger, spends far more time in the opposition half, further forward, than Henderson. Enrique, therefore, spends more time coming inside, especially when in Liverpool's half, whether starting the attack or doubling up on an attacker with Downing less likely to track back than Henderson.

What's still best described as a 4-2-2-2 – two strikers, two central midfielders, and two "wide" players – easily becomes a lopsided 4-3-3 with how Henderson and Downing play their roles.

It's interesting to see Downing's average position so far forward, while Henderson's as much a part of a midfield three as a right-midfielder, especially given Adam's ability to pull wide to the left for deep crosses and diagonals. And at the same time, Lucas's holding position seems deeper than usual, almost like Busquets in front of Barcelona's center-backs, protecting the back line and ready to pull wide to cover where needed.

Simply by looking at the average position diagram, you could classify the formation as 2-3-2-3: Skrtel and Agger deepest, the full-backs and Lucas, Henderson and Adam linking defense and attack, and Downing, Carroll, Suarez up front. It's almost replicating the historic W-W formation from the 1930s. Which, incidentally, Jonathan Wilson wrote about in regards to Barcelona almost exactly a year ago. Not to compare an evolutionary, maturing Liverpool to Barca or team which won consecutive World Cups or anything.

With West Brom supremely lacking in ambition and with Thomas and Brunt on the wings – neither the trickiest opponent – both Johnson and Enrique were relatively untroubled in defense. The fullbacks attempted four tackles combined, three successful, through 90 minutes.

Against routine opposition, we got to see the Liverpool of the future, what Dalglish is seemingly building towards: a fluid, adaptable formation. If direct football, with long passes, runs at defenders and deep crosses, isn't working down the left, Johnson and Henderson make it possible for slower buildup with overlaps from the full-back on the right. Admittedly, most opponents will put up more of a struggle, will make Liverpool work far harder in both halves, and will put both Henderson and Downing under far more pressure, requiring each to contribute more in defense.

But against mid-table opposition and lower, both home and away, this is seemingly the template to be followed. Saturday's match against West Brom, with Johnson back and with Henderson having his best game so far for Liverpool, was the first conclusive demonstration that it could actually work.


Seth said...

Good stuff here.

You're right about the formation. I think this has been Dalglish's intention from day one bringing Henderson in as a CM/RM hybrid (many wondered which he would play, answer seems to be both).

What's interesting to me is, Henderson's been doing this since the first match against Sunderland, tucking inside on the right. But he got blasted on the blogs for it (not giving enough "cover" to the right back). Why did it work against WBA, but not against Sunderland. You'd think with Glen Johnson bombing forward, it would've been even more of an issue with that right flank wide open. It Seems however, that it might've actually helped things. So my question: Did this work against WBA exclusively because of their passiveness, or did it work because johnson going forward more actually took the pressure OFF of henderson to defend (somehow). In that formation chart, doesn't skrtel look awfully vulnerable back there on the right?

nate said...

I think the answer to your question, to take the easy way out, is "both." West Brom were unambitious and Johnson's ability going forward, pinning the opposite full-back and winger deeper than Kelly or Flanagan, assuredly helped.

Of course, 'why didn't it work against Sunderland' could be answered by many other explanations: because it was Liverpool's (and Henderson's) first game, not having time to build up these still-maturing understandings; because Larsson scored an unrepeatable wonder-goal; because Suarez missed a penalty and Dowd didn't send off Richardson; etc, etc.

Looking at that average position diagram, both central defenders look vulnerable. Enrique gets forward just as much as Johnson, and actually created more chances. The key to not being wholly vulnerable was (in addition to West Brom's oft-mentioned passiveness) Lucas.

Lucas' average position was deeper than against United, Arsenal, Stoke, Sunderland, or Wolves (the closest comparison). Look where his tackles and interceptions took place on Saturday: chalkboard. Mostly on the flanks, and slightly more on the right. I hate hammering the same point, his importance to this side, but it's increasingly true.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

It is very interesting watching this Liverpool team evolve and find an identity. Having watched previous incarnations, the number of talented players in the current squad excites me about what this team can achieve given time to gel. Some of the long balls Enrique plays from the flanks are astounding and I can think of a few that should have been converted into goals. Anyway, great informative post.