Two Scottish managers of vastly difference levels of experience – Norwich manager Paul Lambert had actually played under Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish when the latter was in charge of Celtic – led their stuttering teams against each other in this match. Norwich had only garnered 4 points out of a possible 15 in the previous 5 games, while Liverpool had managed just a single point from their own previous 5 games.
Both managers believe strongly in squad rotation as well as tactical versatility, and they didn’t disappoint here as both of them made changes in personnel and shape.
Norwich started the match in a 4-5-1 formation with Kyle Naughton at right-back and Adam Drury at left-back behind Elliot Bennett and Anthony Pilkington on the flanks. David Fox anchored the midfield alongside Bradley Johnson while Steve Morison was chosen ahead of captain and top goalscorer Grant Holt for the single striking position.
Liverpool went with a 4-2-3-1 shape themselves. Jamie Carragher was the benefit of Dalglish’s decision to rest centre-back Martin Skrtel, with Craig Bellamy at left wing and Stewart Downing on the right. Steven Gerrard returned to the starting line-up in central midfield partnering young players Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey. Andy Carroll wasn’t even in the matchday squad as Luis Suarez led the line.
This game wasn’t particularly inspiring in terms of the overall gameplay, but there were some interesting talking points from the match, here are 6 of them.
1) Liverpool’s rotating midfield triangle
Dalglish started the match with Henderson and Gerrard holding the midfield, as Shelvey was given license to roam forward ahead of them. Some would’ve been expecting Gerrard to be handed the most attacking position instead, reenacting his free role like when he played behind Fernando Torres to devastating effect. Yet Dalglish’s decision to start the midfield as he did wasn’t unexpected, as he has often deployed Gerrard in deep central midfield.
Shelvey’s offensive role wasn’t unsurprising either: when he had gone out on loan to Blackpool earlier in the season, he developed a knack of scoring goals. Playing in an attacking midfield position, Shelvey netted an impressive 6 league goals in 10 appearances – it’s no wonder Blackpool manager Ian Holloway was disappointed when Shelvey was recalled from his loan after Charlie Adam got injured.
Dalglish was looking to Shelvey to reproduce his goalscoring form, but Gerrard’s inherent undisciplined instincts are to push forward and thus leave spaces behind him that opposition teams can easily exploit.
The great thing about this triangle of midfielders was that when Gerrard decided to abandon his deep position and bomb forward, Shelvey diligently dropped back to cover for him. It was not unlike how Arsenal’s midfield operates: Mikel Arteta dropping back when Alex Song advances higher.
2) Shift in Liverpool’s midfield make-up
In spite of the success of this arrangement, it lasted only for the first 20 minutes of the game, as Gerrard soon took over Shelvey’s position permanently – as seen in the build-up to Suarez’s first goal when Gerrard was pressuring Fox very high up the field and successfully dispossessed him.
The Liverpool skipper’s defensive shackles were increasingly cut loose as the game went on: while he replaced Shelvey at the top of the midfield, he eventually took up a free role after half-time. Gerrard started appearing wherever space was available whether on the right or left flanks or down the middle, linking up brilliantly with Bellamy and Suarez in attack.
This would’ve been rather risky if Liverpool were set up in a 4-4-2 with only one other central midfielder, but in their 4-2-3-1 here, Henderson and Shelvey were excellent at covering their captain’s forward surges.
Shelvey still got forward when the opportunity arose, as shown when he was presented with two great opportunities in the penalty box to get on the scoresheet: he had a header which hit the post in the 51st minute and 4 minutes later, couldn’t get the right contact sliding in on a fizzing Jose Enrique cross with the ball bouncing on the wet turf.
What was really pleasing from Liverpool’s perspective was that Shelvey was intelligently timing his forward runs when Gerrard was pulling the strings from a deeper position: it was Gerrard who threaded the ball for Downing’s cross which led to Shelvey’s header, and it was also Gerrard who slipped the ball to Enrique for Shelvey’s other chance.
Henderson must also be given credit for his role in midfield. He played the deepest of all the Liverpool midfielders, not in the ‘Makelele role’ but as a passer, very similar to what Michael Carrick does for Manchester United. Henderson rarely broke forward but used the ball sensibly (unlike Adam), leaving the elaborate offensive play to his more creative teammates. He’s no Xabi Alonso, and no one is expecting him to play at that level, but he does bring some much needed calmness to Liverpool’s midfield.
So often played out of position at right midfield to little effect, Henderon’s best games have been at his preferred central midfield spot; the matches against Aston Villa and West Brom being the most outstanding examples. Dalglish seems to be finally warming up to the idea that Henderson is at his quiet influential best when played in central midfield, and needs to continue deploying Henderson there to get the best out of this young English midfielder with plenty of potential.
3) Norwich’s press
What Lambert’s team were doing very well against Liverpool was pressing very high up the field. The Norwich players didn’t look to pressure the Liverpool player on the ball, but they quickly closed down all the short passing routes whenever Liverpool had the ball in their own half.
Norwich’s press forced Liverpool players into long balls forward and/or back-to-basics clearances, and this was evident specifically with Liverpool centre-backs Carragher and Daniel Agger. They attempted 8 and 9 clearances and 10 and 6 long balls respectively, a huge jump from their usual numbers. Per league game, Carragher averages 5.1 clearances and 6.2 long balls, while Agger averages 3.5 clearances and 4 long balls.
Liverpool’s goalkeeper Pepe Reina himself had 20 long balls attempts, and while he is famed for his accomplished long throws and kicks, it was also an increase from his league average of 14.1 long balls per game.
The risk of adopting a high pressing tactic should be explained here. If Team A plays a high press, the danger they face is that if Team B is capable enough, Team B can pass their way out (like Barcelona/Arsenal at their best). Team B’s other option is to attack the space behind Team A’s defenders as a result of the Team A pressing high up the pitch together.
What high pressing aims to achieve is to force the opposition to be hurried in their play and either punt inaccurate long balls forward or unsuccessfully play their way out of trouble. The problem with Norwich’s press was that it seemed to lack the intensity required to unnerve Liverpool’s players, and therefore had mixed to poor results.
Liverpool players’ long balls (notably Reina’s) were always part of their attempts to find the speedy Suarez and to exploit the space behind Norwich’s defenders. Suarez didn’t win any aerial duels but he did help alleviate the pressure on his defenders by bringing the play to Norwich’s half.
4) Norwich’s width
The individual roles of Norwich’s wide players – E. Bennett and Pilkington – were curious to say the least. In the 4-5-1- formation, one could expect both E. Bennett and Pilkington to provide the width and crosses for Morison to attack. Instead, both of them often moved into more central positions when attacking.
It was more a surprise than a revelation that they did so, because both players are more than capable of staying wide and stretching the play, especially E. Bennett whose natural role is probably as right winger. Pilkington doesn’t play as an inverted winger, but more like how Tottenham’s Luka Modric plays when shunted out to left midfield, drifting into central areas.
As always, if width doesn’t come from the wide midfielders then the fullbacks should provide it. Norwich were dealt a big blow in the opening stages of the game in this aspect when left-back Drury had to be substituted due to injury. His replacement Russell Martin slotted in at right-back, as starting right-back Naughton switched over to left-back.
Naughton and Drury were probably meant to provide the width for their team as they so often do, but with the former in a relatively unfamiliar position (Naughton has started at left-back just 6 times this season) and the latter off injured, there was a conspicuous absence of width in Norwich’s attack.
5) Lambert’s halftime change
Norwich’s manager Lambert has established himself as a tactically-savvy manager, unafraid to change his team’s shape whenever he sees necessary, having played 4-4-2, 4-5-1 and even 3-5-2 on a few occasions.
In this match, Lambert made a half-time change as defensive midfielder Fox – whose mistake led to Suarez’s opener – came off for former Everton striker James Vaughan. Initially, it looked like Lambert was going for a flat 4-4-2, but upon the start of the second-half it became apparent that that wasn’t the case.
Lambert had decided on a midfield diamond, a 4-1-2-1-2 if you will. Bradley Johnson took over Fox’s defensive midfield position while E. Bennett and Pilkington tucked in from wide. Jonathan Howson played at the tip of the midfield diamond in a relatively free role, and Vaughan added some pace to Morison’s power.
It was an intriguing change on Lambert’s part. Norwich were already 0-2 down and had to find a goal, the only question was how they were going to create goalscoring opportunities in the second-half when they had failed to do so in the first 45 minutes. Lambert would’ve surely noticed his team’s lack of width, but by switching to a midfield diamond, he had decided to forgo width (although R. Martin and Naughton both got forward tentatively at times) and instead focus on attacking Liverpool through the middle.
Liverpool’s personnel in central midfield was surely the reason for Lambert’s decision: Liverpool didn’t have a single defensive-minded player in midfield and Lambert felt that a midfield diamond could overload and outnumber Liverpool’s players in that zone, 4v3.
It worked to an extent as Norwich were the team in ascendancy in the first 5-7 minutes of the second-half when Liverpool were unsure of how to deal with Norwich’s new set-up. Lambert’s side dominated possession in these opening minutes, earning a few corners, while E. Bennett had a strike at goal from distance from a central position which Reina palmed out for another corner. Norwich’s aerial dominance was telling as they won most of the headers from the corners they won, and they won 62% of the aerial duels on the whole.
However, Liverpool soon got to grips with Norwich’s midfield diamond as Gerrard restricted his forward runs. He still played ahead of Henderson and Shelvey, but nonetheless in a deeper position than in the first-half, helping to make up the numbers. Liverpool’s fullbacks Enrique and Glen Johnson also got used to their opposing wide men E. Bennett and Pilkington tucking in, and Liverpool were reasonably comfortable from around the 60th minute onwards.
In fact, Norwich’s tactical change led to Liverpool being very dangerous on the counterattack. Norwich didn’t have any wide midfielders to keep an eye on Liverpool’s own wingers, and whenever Liverpool won the ball back in midfield, Gerrard was usually on hand to spray the ball out to the flanks for Bellamy or Downing.
Bellamy was Liverpool’s constant outlet on the left in the first-half, and supported by Glen Johnson, Downing also got more and more involved as the game progressed because of the space Norwich left him in the second-half.
A good example of this form of Liverpool’s counterattack happened in the 58th minute when having his side won possession, Gerrard spread the ball out to Downing on the right from the centre circle. Downing then drove infield before cutting back onto his right foot for a decent shot, which Norwich’s goalkeeper John Ruddy pushed away.
One reason for the ineffectiveness of Norwich’s midfield diamond was Howson. The ex-Leeds captain and January signing has cemented his place in Lambert’s starting XI in the past few weeks, but he’s not a playmaker. Howson plays more like an attacking midfielder a little like Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, and doesn’t quite have the know-how to find space between the lines and drop into small pockets of space. Norwich needed a player who could sneak in behind Liverpool’s central midfielders like Henderson and Shelvey, not a player like Howson who’s a lot more direct than a traditional no. 10.
6) Luis Suarez
One cannot talk about this match without mentioning the outstanding man-of-the-match, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez.
Critics will point out that all 3 of his goals arrived via some terrible individual mistakes from R. Bennett and Ward, but Suarez still had plenty of work to do to score his goals. The first was a left-footed violent lashed shot, the second a sharp drill into the far corner. His third goal was Alonso-esque as he lofted a beautiful ball from 45 yards – a brilliant way to cap his first ever hat-trick for Liverpool.
Suarez didn’t just score 3 goals of stunning quality, he was also an absolute menace throughout the match, giving Norwich’s central defenders R. Bennett and Ward a torrid afternoon to forget. He buzzed around Norwich’s backline with fantastic enthusiasm, pulling both left and right, dropping deep whenever necessary and then pushing back up front well.
An indication of Suarez’s dominance over his opposing centre-backs was how he nutmegged both R. Bennett and Ward once each. The first time occurred in the 43rd minute, drawing a free-kick in a dangerous area for Bellamy to blast over, and the other time was in the 64th minute when he put the ball through R. Bennett’s legs, through on goal, only to chip the goalkeeper from 12 yards and put the ball over the crossbar as well.
Suarez’s hold-up play was also commendable, as he once cleverly chested down Gerrard’s delicate chip to him, creating an opportunity for Downing to shoot. I’ve been calling for Carroll and Suarez to start together, not only because the statistics show that goals are often scored when they play together, but also because Carroll at least provides a target in the box when Suarez goes roaming and creating havoc.
That wasn’t an issue in this match because Liverpool’s players like Gerrard, Shelvey, Bellamy and Downing were making runs into the penalty box in support of Suarez’s build-up play, and were thus offering an additional threat to Norwich’s defence rather than leave everything up to Suarez.
Paul Tomkins, a well-known Liverpool journalist, has some very interesting insights with regards to Suarez’s combined roles as both Liverpool’s primary creator and primary goalscorer. In this article here, he muses about Suarez: “This season, he’s been far more likely to net a goal after just one or two touches; so often he dribbles past three or four only to shoot miles over, as if he gets too excited, or is falling off balance having worked so hard to get into the position.” That was extremely prominent in this match: all 3 of his goals came after just 2 touches before shooting. There doesn’t seem to be a proper science behind it, but it does seem like the fewer touches Suarez takes, the more clinical he becomes.
What is undoubted is that when Suarez plays well, Liverpool play well – a true mark of the Uruguayan’s world-class ability. The real dilemma Dalglish faces is Suarez’s best position. Tomkins discusses that predicament in-depth in that same article, but the summarised version goes like this: playing Suarez as the focal point of the attack doesn’t give him a lot of room to be creative and wreck chaos on the opposition backline, but playing him off Carroll removes pace from Liverpool’s attack to get behind defences, as well as reducing the chance for Suarez – Liverpool’s top goalscorer – to score goals.
The simplest solution is to sign another striker, a goalscorer/poacher, in the summer, as the Liverpool fans are calling out for, but it’s obviously not as easy as that. Whatever the case, Dalglish needs to figure out how to bring the best out of Suarez and use it to effective measure in terms of goals, because it’s undeniable that if Liverpool are to become competitive in the coming years, Suarez will be right at the pumping heart of that.