Manchester United’s Tactics: How It Works

Manchester United may have lost to one of Jose Mourinho’s classic smash-and-grab strategies, but their form prior to the match against Chelsea was one of the best in the league: winning 6 straight Premier League games, albeit sandwiching an FA Cup Quarter-final loss to Arsenal. That marked their best winning streak this season, the undoubted peak of their campaign so far, headlined by confident, dominant performances over fellow top 4 challengers Tottenham, Liverpool and local rivals Manchester City.

The Red Devils’ upturn in form has coincided with a shift away from the 3-man defence that manager Louis van Gaal initially preferred, towards a flexible 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 formation. The first game that truly had United fans swooning over their team’s stylish display was the 3-0 win over Tottenham featuring a midfield 5 of Michael Carrick, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young, with Wayne Rooney playing as a lone striker. These players kept their places in the starting line-up for the next 4 games – excluding Carrick who was ruled out by another injury in the latest match at Stamford Bridge – indicating van Gaal’s satisfaction with their performances.

How are the likes of Fellaini – once derided his own club’s fans – consistently keeping players such as British record signing Angel di Maria and precocious youngster Adnan Januzaj out of the starting eleven? The easy answer is that the former is enjoying the best form of his United career, while the latter duo have simply failed to perform. Looking closely however, it is clear that van Gaal has done his bit to amplify Fellaini’s rich form, by taking a leaf out of David Moyes’ book – not his woeful Mancurian version, but his more successful Merseyside one.

Everton's left wing terrors

Everton’s left wing terrors

Fellaini’s most memorable playing period was under Moyes at Everton, where the Scot successfully built his team around the giant Belgian. Tim Cahill’s departure meant that Everton had lost an offensive aerial threat, but Moyes found a replacement in employing Fellaini in a central attacking midfield role. Moyes understood that simply having a target man without assistance was pointless, so he specifically instructed Fellaini to base himself in between and just ahead of the opposition’s right-back and right-centre back. This meant that Fellaini enjoyed healthy support from Everton’s strongest component of their team: the partnership between Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines.

van Gaal has done the same for Fellaini at Manchester United: Ashley Young and Luke Shaw/Daley Blind pick up the knockdowns from their afro-headed teammate who stations himself resolutely towards the left wing. Young and Shaw/Blind have their own effective partnership as well: Young shifts infield dragging his marker out of position as Shaw/Blind races ahead on the overlap to receive the ball and cross, or act as a decoy.

This tactic may seem predictable in an age of inverse wingers, but United’s adaptation is accentuated by the large, looming physical presence of Fellaini. Whereas most teams try to build 2v1 situations out wide, United go one step further by pushing 3 players to the left flank, purposefully creating a triangular overload that has left two of the best right-backs in the league – City’s Pablo Zabaleta and Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic – floundering. Zabaleta was a particular victim of this combination, as Fellaini won the ball aerially off him to start the move for United’s equalizing goal in their 4-2 win.

Fellaini Aerial Duels v Chelsea & City

Fellaini’s aerial duels versus Chelsea & City show his tendency to drift left

But that’s not all that Fellaini does. When not laying the ball off to his teammates, his job is to attack the opposition’s penalty area like a striker, which relieves some of the offensive burden off the sole striker, usually Rooney. To exploit his aerial prowess Fellaini relies on crosses into the box – exactly what Young’s main asset is. The English winger whips in an average of 1.5 accurate crosses per game – the second-highest in this category for United this season. The Young-Fellaini combination is best exemplified by the latter heading in the former’s cross for United’s second goal in the same 4-2 victory over City.

The advances from left-back is also a major source of chance creation: Shaw’s searing acceleration from the overload produced United’s best goalscoring opportunity against Chelsea with Rooney driving his shot past the post, and Blind notched an assist for Herrera against Aston Villa through a pull-back from wide left.

Passes Received: Shaw vs Chelsea & Blind vs Villa

The location of Shaw’s and Blind’s passes received highlight their advanced positioning

Away from the left side of United’s play, van Gaal has been able to slowly welcome his ‘second captain’ Carrick back into the fold after injury, and finally recognizing the value of Herrera to reward him with a regular starting position (much to the delight of United fans). These two players, together with Juan Mata, have also been instrumental in United’s recent resurgence.

Carrick, still a considerably underrated player outside of United, holds the midfield in front of his defence by gliding across the field and recycling possession where necessary. Herrera usually plays as the second midfielder equally competent in distributing the ball with precision, but given more license to advance and probe offensively. Mata completes United’s trio of technical, possession-seeking midfielders in the middle of the pitch, albeit drifting in from a nominal right-sided position. van Gaal is also fortunate that Blind and Herrera are both capable of falling back into the primary holding role, as the latter did against Chelsea due to Carrick’s enforced absence through injury.

Passes Made- Herrera v Chelsea & Carrick v City

Herrera & Carrick topped the number of passes made in the matches with Chelsea and City

While Carrick’s and Herrera’s duties are largely straightforward, it is Mata’s role that deserves greater inspection. The former Chelsea favourite is most natural in a No.10 role, and continues to function almost as a pure playmaker for United. Although initially struggling to impose himself at United, he hit a rich vein of form with 3 goals and an assist in his last 3 games before facing his previous employers. Relative to Carrick and Herrera, Mata is given additional attacking freedom and is responsible for taking bigger risks and making the final pass. Within the United squad, he is ranked third in goals (8), assists (4), and average successful key passes per game (1.4), while topping the internal charts for pass completion rate (89.8%) and average successful through balls per game (0.2).

All the statistics point to Mata being a key player for van Gaal’s team, and in a way, the numbers do not lie. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that he has yet to firmly nail down his place in the starting XI. He was disappointingly ineffective against Chelsea, a luxury that United cannot afford given his lack of contribution off the ball (that famously convinced Mourinho to sell him to United in the first place). An off-day perhaps, but Mata needs to be more consistent in his attacking, penetrative inputs to justify his place in the side. When he produces, it can be spectacular as seen from his beautiful goal at Anfield where he was the beneficiary of the Spanish connection with Herrera. Watch this space.

Mata's visceral scissors kick goal against Liverpool

Mata’s visceral scissors kick goal against Liverpool

Though Carrick’s, Herrera’s and Mata’s abilities on the ball are unquestioned, the trio’s defensive capabilities are much less pronounced with two diminutive Spaniards and a lanky Englishman. However, Herrera alleviates some of these concerns by regularly putting in a hardworking shift when his team are out of possession. The deceptively combative midfielder averages 2.5 tackles per game – the joint runner-up in the United squad on par with Blind – and ranks in the top six United players in terms of average number of interceptions per game (2).

Herrera v Chelsea - Recoveries & Interceptions

Herrera’s dedicated defensive shift against Chelsea

Whether Herrera’s defensive diligence is sufficient to protect his team’s central midfield against the best opponents is a question that has yet to be asked, given the lethargy of City’s display and Chelsea’s willing concession of the initiative against United.

Rather, United’s biggest problem is when Rooney is not played in a central striking position. Without Carrick and Blind against Chelsea, van Gaal’s desire to maintain the scheme of having two ball-playing midfielders in the centre of the pitch meant that Rooney dropped into Herrera’s usual role as the second midfielder. The United captain was surprisingly disciplined in central midfield, clocking a respectable 8 ball recoveries and attempting 6 tackles.

Rooney's defensive contributions

Rooney’s defensive contributions

Rooney launched a game-high 25 passes into the attacking third, demonstrating his passing abilities. However, his positioning was still generally too deep and far away from Chelsea’s penalty box to provide any substantial threat, as evidenced by the location of the passes he received.

Rooney: Passes made and received

Rooney: Passes made and received

This problem was further exacerbated by two points: firstly, Mata’s similar lack of incisiveness in the final third; and secondly, Falcao’s failure to be fully involved in the game. The striker received the ball just 27 times – the lowest of all his teammates who started the game.

It is difficult to fault Falcao for a lack of effort: he continued making runs till the final whistle, but was not picked out by the likes of Rooney and Mata. He did have two good chances to open the scoring for his side, but one shot was blocked while the other crashed against the outside of the post. Perhaps they were indications of his waning finishing ability – a sad state in light of Falcao’s previously unrivalled predatory instinct that briefly made him the world’s best No.9. Given Robin van Persie’s similar decline and James Wilson’s lack of experience, Rooney prevails as van Gaal’s best striker – providing verticality to a United side that is susceptible to suffering from a dearth of penetration in central areas.

On a brighter note, van Gaal has done well to develop a system that has made certain areas of his team greater than the sum of their parts. The Fellaini-Young-Shaw/Blind partnership on the left flank, together with the Carrick-Herrera-Mata combination in the middle of the park, are two such examples. van Gaal has been hampered by injuries preventing him from creating any real significant defensive pairing, but as an infrequent United observer, both Chris Smalling and Paddy McNair looked pleasantly comfortable with the ball against Chelsea.

Man Utd's 4-1-4-1 Formation

Man Utd’s fluid 4-1-4-1 setup vs Chelsea

Football has always been about the associations between players within a team, whether the reliability of the central defensive duo or the understanding between the fullback and his winger ahead of him. However, the shift away from playing with two strikers, as well as the celebrity media obsession on the individual, means that there has been much less emphasis on such intangible connections. Still, the very best teams operate around these partnerships that give them an extra competitive edge: Leo Messi’s link-up with Dani Alves on the right flank at Barcelona’s all-conquering peak, Spain’s Sergio Busquets-Xabi Alonso-Xavi midfield triumvirate, or even United’s own Dwight Yorke-Andy Cole striking partnership of ’99 fame.

It is to van Gaal’s credit that he has discovered and kept these associations – they have been one of the fundamental drivers of United’s recent renaissance.

van gaal thumbs up

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West Ham 3-1 Liverpool: Shackling Gerrard

Liverpool’s defeat at the hands of West Ham can be attributed to a number of factors: the Reds’ snowflake-like defence, the Londoners’ aggression and quick tempo compared to the Merseysiders’ hesitancy and limp start, and injuries to key players such as Daniel Sturridge and Joe Allen (although the Hammers were also without Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Matt Jarvis).

However, the most intriguing feature was the tactical battle played out between Brendan Rodgers and Sam Allardyce. The former is rightly regarded as part of the brigade of bright, young strategist coaches that include Borrusia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp, Tottenham’s Maurico Pochettino and Everton’s Roberto Martinez, while the latter is often lampooned for his lack of sophistication.

In this particular encounter however, Allardici emerged triumphant after his team outplayed Rodgers’ with a well-drilled and organised formation display.

Starting Lineups

the starting XIs

West Ham lined up with what looked like a flat back four and a diamond in midfield: Alex Song anchoring, the tireless Mark Noble and Cheikhou Kouyate acting as shuttlers, and former Liverpool man Stewart Downing in an unfamiliar role at the tip of the diamond. Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho and provided the firepower upfront.

Rodgers handed Fabio Borini his first start of the season after the Italian striker looked destined to leave the club in the transfer window earlier, and paired him with his compatriot Mario Balotelli in attack. Martin Skrtel returned from injury and displaced Mamadou Sakho in central defence, while Lucas came in for Phillipe Coutinho who did not make the squad after the midweek Champions League game.

First 20 minutes

West Ham raced into a two-goal lead within 7 minutes through a textbook free-kick routine, and either a brilliant lob or a fortunate mishit cross (depending on your take) from D. Sakho.

What lay the foundation for their dream start, however, was their energy and tactical display.

Though Valencia and D. Sakho looked like traditional strikers on paper, in reality they were really playing as wide forwards. Rather than occupy Skrtel and Lovren, the two new summer signings stationed themselves out wide closer to Manquillo and Moreno. They then looked to attack the space in between Liverpool’s fullbacks and central defenders, before driving towards goal centrally, similar to the style of Barcelona’s Pedro.

West Ham’s Valencia and D.Sakho as wide forwards rather than central strikers

This caused plenty of problems for Liverpool, as their attack-minded left-back Alberto Moreno frequently found himself caught out of position – including West Ham’s second goal – and their right-back Javier Manquillo struggled to grasp with Valencia’s pace and his darts infield.

West Ham were thus playing without an orthodox striker, and Downing could arguably be a false nine – playing centrally but in a much more withdrawn position than Carroll would have, for example. This did not mean that Downing played the same role as Lionel Messi however; Downing’s primary responsibility was a defensive one – to press Steven Gerrard and prevent him from dictating Liverpool’s play. His secondary responsibility was to spin in behind Gerrard and thread through-balls or create overloads on the left wing.

Compare Gerrard’s passes into the attacking third: vs West Ham and vs Ludogorets

It was a role Downing played to perfection, and Gerrard often found himself without time and space to turn and deliver the ball forward. Instead, the Liverpool captain was regularly forced to play it backwards or sideways to his defenders and goalkeeper. The knock-on effect was that Liverpool’s shuttlers, Jordan Henderson and Lucas, had to continuously drop back to offer Gerrard a short option to move the ball up the field.

West Ham’s tactical discipline was extremely commendable, as their own shuttlers, Noble and Kouyate stuck tightly to their opposite players. In summary, West Ham were pressing as a tight and organised unit from the front: Valencia and D. Sakho pushed Liverpool’s fullbacks back, Downing man-marked Gerrard, while Noble and Kouyate followed Henderson and Lucas bravely.

This had 2 major benefits for West Ham:

First, they were winning the ball back high up the pitch through their bold pressing which forced Liverpool into mistakes, as well as their tough tackling.

Secondly, they were preventing Liverpool from attacking, as Liverpool’s midfield and defence could only either sent long aimless clearances upfield, or play the ball backwards to keep possession, albeit in sterile areas.

West Ham won the ball back a lot higher up the pitch than Liverpool

West Ham tackled high up the pitch while Liverpool were forced to tackle in deeper areas

Rodgers’ switch to a 3-man defence

22 minutes into the match, Rodgers took action and made a decisive substitution in an early attempt to change to tide of the game: 20-year-old Manquillo was taken off for M.Sakho. Liverpool resumed the match with 3 central defenders: Skrtel on the right, the left-footed Sakho on the left and Lovren down the middle.

M.Sakho comes on to form Liverpool’s 3-man defence

It was a logical remedy following West Ham’s successful plan of marking Gerrard out of the game. Rodgers was probably looking to Juventus’ default template of playing a 3-5-2 for inspiration, given the two sides’ similarities of playing an ageing regista (Andrea Pirlo in Juventus’ case).

The switch had several positive effects for Liverpool:

Primarily, it gave Liverpool an additional ball-playing player at the back (Juventus have Bonucci in this role). M.Sakho has a tendency to play his way out of trouble when hoofing the ball away from danger is a better option, but his ability to pass forward relieved some burden of responsibility from Gerrard. He even managed to create a chance by playing a long through ball to Moreno down the wing.

In addition, it gave Liverpool some pace and width. Moreno was given greater attacking freedom on the left, but more significantly on the right was Raheem Sterling. However alarming Liverpool’s reliance on the 19-year-old teenager, Sterling remains their most important player (particularly in the absence of Sturridge).

Sterling was virtually anonymous at the tip of the diamond in the first 20 minutes as the ball was stuck in defence, but the change in formation shifted him away from the congested central areas. He moved wide where he was afforded much more space to inflict damage. He was undoubtedly Liverpool’s best player in this match, lashing in a thunderous strike and continuously probing down the right flank thereafter.

Sterling

Sterling rifles in his goal on the volley

Second-half

Rodgers made one more change at half-time, bringing on Adam Lallana for Lucas in midfield. Though Lucas was the player from both sides who made the most number of tackles (5) across the whole game despite playing only 45 minutes, he lacked the dynamism and incisiveness to contribute in attack.

The change resulted in a slight tweak of Rodgers’ formation: the midfield triangle was now flipped: Gerrard remained the deep-lying playmaker but Henderson dropped deeper alongside his skipper, and Lallana played a very attacking role where he was allowed to drift out wide or come infield centrally.

Lallana received the ball in more advanced positions compared to Lucas

He provided a good link to Liverpool’s Italian attack, showing some nice turns and attempted through-balls, but with Liverpool still failing to equalise, West Ham changed their approach around the 60th minute mark. It was signalled by Allardyce’s substitution of right-back Guy Demel for Carl Jenkinson, the latter a much more cautious player going forward. West Ham began to retreat into their own half and played on the counterattack.

One more change to win the game

Rickie Lambert was introduced in place of the tireless but ineffectual Borini in the 75th minute, but surely Rodgers should have changed his formation once again. With West Ham inviting Liverpool to break them down, having 3 central defenders now seemed like a waste of manpower. It would have been an undoubtedly daring choice to remove a central defender, move back to a flat back 4 or even just 2 central defenders and throw on another attacking player like Lambert or the speedy Lazar Markovic, but Liverpool were still down 2-1 and had little to lose.

In any case, Allardyce responded immediately with the removal of Valencia for James Collins, putting on 5 defenders to shut up shop. Lambert did little of note as a rather immobile targetman – a bit too similar to Balotelli – and could only watch as Downing capped off his fantastic performance by picking up M.Sakho’s loose header and sliding a through-ball for substitute Morgan Amalfitano to make it 3-1 to the Hammers.

What now for Liverpool?

3 defeats in the first 5 games of the season makes for a very disappointing start, and the biggest worry for Rodgers should be the lack of intensity and combativeness, as well as the recurring mistakes in defence, particularly at set-pieces.

Liverpool look unable to start matches like they did last year: flying out of the blocks, pressing opponents and winning possession high up the pitch like West Ham did to them. The loss of Suarez is definitely a massive factor in this style of play – while Balotelli has displayed an admirable workrate and commitment to the team, there is no striker in the world bar perhaps Mario Mandzukic that closes down from the front like Suarez.

Borini still looks dreadfully out of depth as a Liverpool player – all running but with no end product – while the injuries to Joe Allen and Emre Can forced Rodgers to hand Lucas a starting spot in midfield.

Lucas remains a particularly unfortunate player – once derided by both Liverpool and opposition fans, he raised his game to become an influential figure in midfield following the departures of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, breaking up play neatly and recycling the ball to the likes of Gerrard further forward. However, a series of thigh and knee injuries in recent times have severely limited his fitness and mobility. With Gerrard permanently converted into a rather statuesque regista in front of the defence (essentially taking Lucas’ position), Rodgers requires his other midfielders to provide energy and power, something the Brazilian cannot offer anymore.

Another serious issue is the way opposition teams have begun shutting down Gerrard so successfully. Man-marking the Liverpool captain has proven thoroughly effective in rendering Liverpool toothless in attack, cutting off the supply to the likes of Sterling and Balotelli who have suffered from woeful service.

Gerrard was man-marked out of the game by Downing

Gerrard was man-marked out of the game by Downing

One obvious way to circumvent this is to have an additional player in defence or midfield confident and competent enough to pass the ball forward, just like what Rodgers did in the game by adding M.Sakho to the mix.

The other would be to decrease the reliance on Gerrard. The template for a successful team built on a regista would have to be the Milan side from 2002 – 2007. With two great shuttlers in Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf protecting Pirlo, plus an additional playmaker in Rui Costa, Milan had a fascinating number of options in attack. Liverpool unfortunately do not have the personnel in midfield for the same approach.

Rodgers’ preferred system featuring Gerrard as a regista brings about a number of problems this season: Gerrard’s ageing 34-year-old legs, the increased number of games with the return of the Champions League, as well as the lack of alternatives in Gerrard’s role. Against top teams that dominate the ball, Gerrard’s defensive nous is found wanting and he is often outclassed by the movement of the opposition’s no.10. Against lesser teams that allow Liverpool more possession, Gerrard is easily shackled by the opposition’s organised pressing and man-marking like Aston Villa and now West Ham did.

It is clear that Rodgers has a myriad of problems that need to be addressed, the continued reliance and importance of Gerrard in the side being one of them.

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A new tactical age for Liverpool, a diamond midfield?

Almost every article written about Brendan Rodgers inevitably uses the word “philosophy”, which is associated with his “passing football”, “possession” and often, his insistence on a 4-3-3 formation that served him so well at Swansea City.

Yet the current Liverpool manager has displayed his tactical versatility this season, acknowledging that depending on the opposition, he might not have the players to play his favoured 4-3-3 effectively. His most well-publicized formation tweak – perhaps because of its uncommon application in England and Manchester City’s struggle with carrying it out to winning ways – was employing a 3-5-2, one that has been used to varying degrees of success.

Rodgers’ preference for width is obvious in his 4-3-3 (with wide midfielders sticking to the touchline) as well as his 3-5-2 (through the use of wingbacks with plenty of license to attack down the flanks). Hence, Rodgers’ choice of personnel in Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Southampton was intriguing: there seemed to be 4 defenders (Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique), 4 central midfielders (Gerrard Lucas Allen Shelvey) plus 2 forwards (Sterling Suarez).

In other words, there didn’t seem to be any wide attackers bar perhaps Sterling. Some television stations viewed it as a 4-3-3 with Shelvey shifted out as a wide attacker, while others thought that Shelvey was playing as a central striker with Sterling and Suarez out on the wings.

As the game went on however, it became clear that Liverpool were really employing a 4-4-2 diamond shape. Lucas held the midfield, Gerrard was on the right of diamond, Allen on the left and Shelvey playing as the furthest forward midfielder.

Liverpool's formation included a midfield diamond

Liverpool’s formation included a midfield diamond

The midfield diamond has proved unpopular in England because of the nation’s like of wingers (giving rise to the 4-4-2 being the most basic English shape), although this season, Manchester United have often played a similar formation following their purchase of Kagawa.

Despite Liverpool’s midfield diamond, Rodger’s team didn’t lack any width at all. This was due to the attacking forays of their fullbacks Johnson and Enrique, both of whom pushed forward relentlessly to make up for the lack of wide midfielders in their starting XI. Johnson’s offensive abilities at right-back have never been in question and he proved a real threat down the right flank with 3 shots and 4 key passes.

Enrique, who had a rather impressive run on the left wing of a 4-3-3 in past games – scoring a goal, assisting a few more and even leaving Downing, a traditional winger, to take up the fullback slot – was back in his usual left-back position. However, Enrique’s attacking play was not diminished at all, and it looked as though he was still playing as a left winger despite being fielded as a left-back.

Compare: there is little difference between Enrique's passes received against Tottenham where he was a left winger, and that against Southampton where he was a left-back

Compare: there is little difference between Enrique’s passes received against Tottenham where he was a left winger, and that against Southampton where he was a left-back

The statistics prove that point well: there is little difference between the location of the passes Enrique received against Tottenham where he was a left winger, and that against Southampton where he was a left-back – indicating his constant commitment to attack.

Simultaneously, Sterling and Suarez also both helped to stretch Liverpool’s play by pulling wide. There was nothing different about the way Suarez played, as he dropped deep and to the flanks and tried jinking past defenders – all part of his natural game that Rodgers encourages by giving his top goalscorer a free role.

On the other hand, Rodgers often gives Sterling a much a more basic and simple responsibility: try to get in behind defences by staying wide and sticking to the touchline, either the right or the left depending on where Rodgers plays him. In this game however, Sterling was allowed much more creative license. Though he still hugged the touchline, he had permission to switch from flank to flank whenever he felt like doing so.

Sterling's drifting from wing to wing indicated his increased tactical freedom against Southampton, as compared to his rigid instructions against Tottenham

Sterling’s drifting from wing to wing indicated his increased tactical freedom against Southampton, as compared to his rigid instructions against Tottenham

The location of the passes Sterling received against Tottenham act as a microcosm to his tactical instructions in this breakthrough season of his: stick to one flank; in the Tottenham game, he was played as a right winger so that was where he stayed. Compare that to the location of the passes he received against Southampton, where he moved to the left flank a lot more than he did against Tottenham.

What this resulted in was Liverpool fielding two forwards who were tirelessly working the channels as well as the flanks, similar to how Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side employs Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. The constant lateral movement of both Suarez and Sterling created plenty of problems for the opposition, because Southampton’s centre-backs Jose Fonte and Maya Yoshida didn’t know whether to follow them out wide.

Of course, the theoretical issue for Liverpool would be where their goal threat would arrive from, given that their forward players were spending plenty of time out wide. That has been the biggest problem for Liverpool stretching back to the years when Gerard Houllier was manager: there weren’t enough players in the opposition’s penalty box, often relying on either

a) the long ball forward for a big targetman (Heskey, Crouch) to knock down to a quick nippy striker (Fowler, Owen, Cisse)

b) individual moments of magic (Gerrard, Torres, Suarez)

In other words, Liverpool were often labelled a one or two-man team because of their dependency on a few individuals to get goals.

Against Southampton however, Liverpool counteracted this potential problem brilliantly, via the constant movement and rotation of their central midfielders, the majority of whom were willing to get into the box to get on the end of crosses and trouble Southampton’s defence.

Shelvey was the best exemplification of this enthusiasm as he made his first Premier League start since being sent-off against Manchester United in a 1-2 home loss back in late September. Shelvey seems to have lost Rodgers’ trust since that red card, but the young midfielder certainly did not do his future chances any harm here. He’s often been tagged as the closest player Liverpool have to Gerrard because of the former Charlton player’s verticality and eye for goal (and also his tendency to make a reckless challenge or two), but while the Liverpool skipper was a true box-to-box midfielder back in the day, he was also one of the last of the kind. Shelvey in contrast, plays a lot more as an attacking midfielder, and played at the tip of the diamond against Southampton.

Shelvey passes received display his constant movement around all areas of the field

The passes Shelvey received display his constant movement around all areas of the field

The location of the passes Shelvey received are again a good indicator of his positioning, in this case, his perpetual movement around all areas of the pitch. Though he did not receive any passes in Southampton’s penalty box, it was far from a lack of trying because he was a constant presence in and around that area. Shelvey managed to get 2 out of his 3 shots on target, including a blistering drive from the right side, struck with the outside of his boot that cannoned off the far post.

His captain Gerrard had one of his better games too despite being played in a slightly new position on the right of the midfield diamond, laying on a game-high 6 key passes and 2 through-balls for his teammates. Gerrard has come under some criticism this season, particularly because of some high-profile errors which have directly led to Liverpool conceding goals, with some suggesting that Gerrard has been unable to adapt to Rodgers possession-based game. Rodgers has rubbished that claim and rightly so, given that so far this season, only 3 other players in the Premier League have played more key passes per match than the Liverpool skipper.

Gerrard's new position on the right of a midfield diamond

Gerrard’s new position on the right of a midfield diamond

One of Liverpool’s best players made his comeback in this game, and it was his reappearance that made Rodgers’ midfield diamond really function to perfection. Lucas finally returned from his second significant injury layoff, and took over the holding midfield position that Allen gladly relinquished to him.

The Brazilian remains one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, and though he showed inevitable signs of rustiness – giving the ball away on a few occasions – he also exhibited the defensive steel and awareness that Liverpool lacked in his absence. To give credit to Allen, the Welshman did try his best, producing a commendable effort filling in, but nonetheless still remains second-best to Lucas.

The number of tackles Lucas made against Southampton versus that of Allen's against Tottenham

The number of tackles Lucas made against Southampton versus that of Allen’s against Tottenham

A quick glance at the above diagram already establishes that fact: Lucas made a huge 8 tackles, only 1 of which was unsuccessful, as compared to Allen’s 3 attempted tackles in the same holding role in the previous match against Tottenham. The location of Lucas’ tackles are also significant as they were in various areas of the pitch, a display of his incredible work rate and tenacity.

Lucas' aerial duels and fouls committed against Southampton

Lucas’ aerial duels and fouls committed against Southampton

In addition, Lucas won a game-high 4 aerial duels despite his relatively short frame, and committed 4 fouls. Again, the location of the fouls deserve a greater inspection: they all occurred far away from Liverpool’s defensive third, demonstrating Lucas’ intelligence at picking the right place to break up opposition attacks through clever tactical fouling. To top Lucas’ performance off, he didn’t pick up a booking and lasted a fantastic 88 minutes before being substituted for Jamie Carragher.

Lucas’ return allowed Allen to move back to his preferred position a little higher up the pitch as a second function midfielder, acting as the link between defence and attack. Allen did so playing on the left of Liverpool’s midfield diamond, albeit in a much more conservative role as compared to Gerrard on the right of the diamond.

Allen moved back to playing as a second function midfielder on the left of the diamond

Allen moved back to playing as a second function midfielder on the left of the diamond

The difference in Allen’s role is stark when comparing his passes received in the Southampton game versus that in the Tottenham game. With Lucas anchoring the midfielder, Allen played ahead of the Brazilian and received the ball in much more attacking positions in the Southampton game. Allen’s repositioning made much better use of his reliable passing, as it helped Liverpool retain possession in more advanced areas and keep up the offensive pressure on the opposition defence. This was especially evident in the first half where Liverpool’s single-minded pressure led to them recording 6 shots on target within the first 36 minutes: an average of 1 shot on target every 6 minutes.

Does this switch to a midfield diamond herald a new tactical age for Rodgers’ Liverpool? It’s difficult to make a judgment based on just a single game, against a poor Southampton side still in the relegation zone after this match no less. Concurrently, the midfield diamond does not solve Liverpool’s poor finishing – they hit the wordwork twice this game, and could only score a single goal through through Agger’s looping header from a total of 23 shots, 8 of which were on target.

Furthermore, Suarez picked up a yellow card for a handball in this game, reaching a tally of 5 yellows for this season and ruling him out of the next game against West Ham, so Rodgers may find it difficult to replicate the midfield diamond without Suarez’s movement up front.

If anything, it adds another option to Rodgers’ tactical arsenal knowing that his Liverpool team are capable of executing not only his standard 4-3-3, the more counterattacking 3-5-2 as well as this 4-4-2 consisting of a midfield diamond.

Lucas getting stuck in

Lucas getting stuck in

Most importantly, Lucas’ return liberated the whole team’s defensive responsibilities, as the likes of Gerrard, Allen and even the fullbacks Johnson and Enrique bombed forward, all safe in the knowledge that Lucas was behind them to help shore up the defence. It all cumulated into Liverpool’s attacking players producing fantastic off-the-ball movement, and a first-half performance which Rodgers hailed to be “as good as we’ve played, consistently”.  Once mocked, now the pivot on which Liverpool’s season could be turned around, the Liverpool fans should rejoice that Lucas is back.

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In Belgium, an Old Quarrel Gets a New Slant

NYT’s James Montague reflects on the effect of Belgium’s national football team on Belgium’s political position, another fantastic example of football’s power to bring together and unite people.

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NextGen is that rarest of things in football – a genuinely good idea

Barney Ronay of the Guardian Sportsblog writes about the wonderful nature of the NextGen series: how it has helped young players (and a manager no less) make the step up to full-fledged first-team football.

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The Super Sub: An Unsustainable Situation

F365’s Daniel Storey outlines what exactly makes super subs, as well as the difficult situation they’re in when trying to earn a position in the starting XI.

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England’s courtship of Wilfried Zaha and Raheem Sterling is just the start

The Guardian’s Barney Ronay underscores the growing issue of young players’ dual nationality in international football, with a specific focus on England’s Sterling and Zaha.

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