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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.