01 February 2012

Three Midfielders, Two Halves

It's been awhile since I trawled through the Guardian chalkboards for interesting items. I know, we all missed it.

I remain convinced that Liverpool changed tact in midfield during the interval. The key seemed to be Spearing, more willing to stay in his own half and shield the defense rather than pressing higher up the pitch and leaving gaps. But the passing chalkboards suggest that all three central midfielders played differently in the first and second halves.

Both Spearing and Adam sat deeper, more content to hold their positions. Henderson was also less involved going forward, attempting fewer crosses (none of which he completed through 90 minutes), more concentrated on the right flank with Kuyt much more a striker. Spearing attempted the same number of passes, Adam and Henderson both attempted fewer. Spearing and Henderson had an improved completion rate, while Adam sacrificed a slight drop in accuracy but provided two much-needed assists.

The passing heatmaps make these trends more noticeable.

Out-and-out attack is all well and good, and often needed for this Liverpool side to score again less-fancied opposition, but the base in midfield is crucial for starting these attacks while still securing the defense. When Spearing and Adam go forward, gaps appear if either, or anyone else, loses possession, especially with both Johnson and Enrique bombing forward, which they did yesterday and often do against less-fancied opposition. And this led to a couple of Wolves' first-half chances, which, thankfully, Wolves couldn't take. Comparatively, the home side had just one second-half chance, Ebanks-Blake's rocket from nowhere, despite needing goals and shifting to 4-4-2 after Liverpool's second.

Liverpool may have had more possession in the first half (55-45% at half-time, 53-47% at full-time), but that's as much down to Liverpool being able to sit and counter after finally getting on the score sheet. Counter-attacking which led to the second and third goals. And a focus on counter-attacking also allowed Spearing and Adam to focus more on defending. But, of course, Liverpool needed to score first for that change in tactic to be successful. Round and round in circles we go.

Admittedly, Spearing's second-half improvement can also be credited to simply playing. He's missed far too much time over the winter months, first due to an unfair suspension, then following an injury in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi. It wouldn't be surprising if he needed time to find his sea legs. Hopefully, now back to fitness, he'll continue this improvement, especially with Gerrard back in the side.

Finally, a bonus chalkboard. It has little to do with the point made above, but is just as crucial to Liverpool's style of play and results.

In the first half, Liverpool attempted 17 crosses, completing five. In the second half, Liverpool attempted six crosses, completing two, one the assist for the opener.

Kuyt was 3 for 8 on crosses, Henderson was 0 for 7, Adam was 2 for 3, Bellamy was 1 for 3, and Enrique was 1 for 2. 13 of the 23 total crosses came in the first 20 minutes – an average of one every 90 seconds or so – when Liverpool were clearly on top but, again, couldn't take advantage of dominance.

I've grumbled about Liverpool's crossing before, and had Liverpool kept up its first-half crossing pace, yesterday's match would have rivaled 3-1 at Newcastle and 0-3 at City for most crosses in a league match. Punting the ball toward Carroll is an obvious tactic, something the striker thrives on. But it's not the only thing he thrives on, and usually better for the team as a whole when used as an alternative – a Plan A only if there's a viable Plan B, not the lone source of attack. The second half, where Liverpool attempted fewer and one finally led to an assist, bears that out.

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