August 10, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Signs of a Revolution

Brenden Rodgers has made no secret of his intention to impose the style of play he used to success at Swansea on his new Liverpool players. But he’s also been careful to say that the way your team plays is dependent on the players at your disposal, and that we might not see a carbon copy of his Swansea side.

That sounds like a word of caution, but actually, Rodgers ought to be able to deliver a style of play closer to his ideal with Liverpool than he managed at Swansea, given the higher quality of players at his disposal (even if one or two are ill-suited) and increased access to funds.

A team committed to playing like Stoke might actually perform better with inferior players. Their style is so dependent on specific qualities – like strength and arial ability – which aren’t considered vital for top players, that a player like Crouch may well fair better than a David Villa in their system. The way they play depends on qualities which aren’t typical of top players, while with Rodgers’ philosophy the opposite is true.

His playing ‘philosophy’ depends on mobility, control, vision and tactical intelligence – all qualities typical of top class players. With that in mind, what he achieved last season with Swansea was incredible; he did brilliantly to recruit players good enough to play in his style without any real money to spend.

Now with Liverpool, Rodgers must feel like he has a wealth of personnel to choose from who are capable of playing the way he wants, and last night’s game showed that the players are adapting already.

 

Three Forwards & High Pressing

The most noticeable thing about the way Liverpool lined up was that this was not like Rafa’s 4-2-3-1, or even like Mourinho’s 4-3-3, where the two wide players in the forward ’3′ often dropped back into a midfield ’5′. Against Gomel, the ’3′ were all forwards playing deep in the opposition half committed to attacking, rather than wide attacking midfielders often seen in a forward ’3′. Against stiffer opposition we might see a slightly less offensive approach, but it looks as if – against weaker opposition at least – a player as attacking as Suarez could play in one of the two wide roles.

We know that when the opposition has the ball, Rodgers likes to press the ball high, with forwards hunting in backs of two and three. The idea is to regain possession as soon after losing it as possible, in order to attack again from an advanced position. Against Gomel – and in the first half particularly, when the tempo was higher – Liverpool regained possession in Gomel’s half on numerous occasions, with Suarez and Gerrard especially effective. Both have always been the kind of players who like to harass opponents on the ball, and it seems Borini is another who will help Liverpool to defend from the front.

 

Play The Way You’re Facing & One-Touch Football

They say the key to finding someone when you’re single, is to stop looking, and there’s something about taking a less direct route to goal which seems to help some teams score on the football pitch, too. One of the problems with Liverpool’s play last year was that we consistently tried to force the game, desperate to charge towards goal and create a chance every time we got possession.

At Barcelona, players don’t always try to play a killer ball, or even turn so they face the opposition goal. Often, Xavi will play the ball sideways along the floor to Iniesta from just meters away. After releasing the ball, Xavi moves into space and Iniesta plays a similar ball to someone already in his field of vision (as opposed to turning) and then moves off into space himself. This might sound like good old ‘pass and move’, but the key here is passing the ball quickly to someone already in your field of vision, rather than lingering on the ball to find a ‘perfect’ pass.

Several of these passes together are the foundation of Tiki-Taka, and we began to see Liverpool play simple, short balls to players directly in their path last night, particularly with Gerrard, Downing and Johnson playing in ‘triangles’ down the right. Playing this way also lends itself to quick one-twos in tight confined spaces, so the high number of give-and-goes we saw last night – especially between Suarez and Gerrard – suggests the players are already coming to terms with Rodgers’ playing style.

One-touch football (or half a touch if you listen to Xavi) is also a key component of ‘Tiki-Taka’, where the ball is moved on quickly without players dawdling on the ball. At one point in the game Liverpool passed the ball 15 times without any player taking more than two touches (it ended with Agger taking four touches to move forward with the ball into Gomel’s half).

 

Split Centre-backs & Ultra Attacking Full-backs

Another feature of Barcelona’s play is the way the two centre-backs (Puyol and Pique) drift wide when the team has possession, with Busquets dropping in-between them to cover the middle. This allows the fullbacks to push deep into the opponents half without leaving gaps in behind, and is how the team transitions from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3.

Against Gomel, there were times when Liverpool had possession that Agger was practically on the left touchline, and Lucas took up a position in central defence. With Agger and Skrtel drifting so wide, Enrique and Johnson especially were given license to attack at will, operating more as wing-backs than full-backs. This also meant the two wide players in the forward ’3′ could roam, knowing the full-backs would provide attacking width and keep the shape.

 

Encouraging Signs

Considering this was just the second competitive game of the season, with many senior players only just back, a new playing system, and some key signings yet to be made, the signs from the second leg game against Gomel were extremely promising. Gomel aren’t a strong side, and would no doubt be fighting relegation in the Premier League, but they are already 15 games into their season and Liverpool routinely failed to perform against similar strength sides last year.

By the time we line up for the first game of the season the players ought to be even more comfortable with the playing style, and the addition of Joe Allen, who already knows the system well and will take up a key position within it, can only help the side become more coherent.

It might not be until Christmas until the team can consistently play the way Rodgers wants, but on last night’s showing we might be seeing us play like Swansealona before many of us expected.

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