Hodgson’s men struggled through no fault of their own
With Javier Mascherano refusing to play, a response to the Liverpool board rejecting a derisory bid from Spanish giants FC Barcelona, Roy Hodgson had a tactical headache. He had options to replace “El Jefecito’ with youngster Jay Spearing or risk Christian Poulsen, who was recovering from his debut on Thursday. This would have resulted in Steven Gerrard playing in an advanced midfield role, something of a ‘hot topic’ among football-fans. However, Roy Hodgson opted for a 4-4-2 with Gerrard and Lucas in midfield with N’Gog and the now-fit Fernando Torres up-front.
This tactical headache which Hodgson suffered developed into a tactical migraine by half time. With his system floundering, Liverpool were categorically struggling against Manchester City’s 4-3-3.
Yaya Touré given key to Liverpool’s midfield
The game was decided in the middle of the park, where Lucas and Steven Gerrard struggled with the compact trio of Barry, de Jong and the more advanced Yaya Touré – who looked every bit worth of the supposed £28million spent on his services.
Within the first ten minutes, the overarching narratives to match reports were observed – as well as the result. Liverpool’s midfield were chasing shadows for the ninety minutes, unable to match Manchester City’s ability to keep possession and always having a spare man in midfield. This was not the fault of Lucas but the fault of Roy Hodgson.
Yaya Touré seemed to be the one who played in a more advanced position, dropping into the pockets of space left by Lucas and Gerrard chasing Barry and de Jong.
This extra man reaped dividends possession wise. In the first-half, Manchester City had 60% of the possession, a direct result of the triangles Manchester City were drawing. As a result, they controlled the midfield and were able to pass themselves around Liverpool, orchestrating the direction of the game with embarrassing ease.
Examining Yaya Touré’s passing is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he only misplaced one pass the whole game. Moreover, the more interesting point is that of the direction of their passes. On the left hand side of midfield, he looked to switch play in advanced positions to the right hand flank, where Adam Johnson was effective against stand-in left back Daniel Agger.
Touré’s passing was tactically intelligent. His sweeping passes across the midfield, where Liverpool had one man short took advantage of this spare man. With Jovanović and Kuyt both tucking in to aid the tormented Lucas and Gerrard, there was always a potential for a one on one against the full-back. This constant switching of the ball to the flank is perfectly explained by Gerard van der Lem, Louis van Gaal’s right hand man whilst at Ajax in the unparalleled ‘Brilliant Orange’ by David Winner. The direct quote is regarding wingers being doubled up on and the rejection that switching play negated the creative instincts and dribbling skills of Marc Overmars and Finidi George, however, the principles remain relevant for this point.
Our way of thinking was that if there were two defenders marking one of our players in one position, it meant somewhere one of our players was free. So we tried to find that free player… Maybe he is on the other side of the field. So we tried to reach him with one ball back, instant control and a pass: then the other winger can go.’
Touré’s applied the same principles taught by van Gaal and van der Lem to his own game. This switching of play was super-effective against the narrow midfield that Liverpool deployed. Jovanović, not a traditional left winger, plays in between the lines and in the channels, not looking to scour the flanks for space. His tucking in meant he was constantly trying to close down one of the central midfielders, leaving Adam Johnson in a one-on-one situation against Daniel Agger – a position that led to Martin Skrtel conceding a penalty for City’s third goal.
There’s never a bad time to quote Arrigo Sacchi
The hard time the Liverpool were destined to have was increased further through Steven Gerrard playing in a position that is becoming more and more difficult to justify his selection there – central midfield.
His positional sense last night was as questionable as Javier Mascherano’s moral fibre; time and time again Gerrard was found waltzing up field, leaving Lucas as the only protection in front of the back four. Against the surprisingly well-oiled City trio, Liverpool’s midfield stood no chance. This was shown for the first goal, his willingness to chase the ball, rather than observing players movements lead to James Milner’s having a free one to the bye-line.
When in possession, Gerrard showed the passing discipline that engulfed the whole English National team in the World Cup. His willingness to make things happen, although a wonderful footballing trait to have, is often misplaced in its manifestation. For all the long, raking balls that he’s applauded for, there are many that show his frivolousness. In last night’s game, he had the worst passing statistics than any of the other central midfielders on show (49 passes completed out of 63 attempted).
Arrigo Sacchi, always quotable, none more pertinent then this gem:
“When I was director of football at Real Madrid I had to evaluate the players coming through the youth ranks. We had some who were very good footballers. They had technique, they had athleticism, they had drive, they were hungry.
“But they lacked what I call knowing-how-to-play-football. They lacked decision making. They lacked positioning. They didn’t have the subtle sensitivity of football: how a player should move within the collective. And for many, I wasn’t sure they were going to learn”.
“You see, strength, passion, technique, athleticism, all of these are very important. But they are a means to an end, not an end in itself. They help you reach your goal, which is putting your talent at the service of the team and, by doing this, making both of you and the team greater.
“In situations like that, I just have to say, Gerrard’s a great footballer, but perhaps not a great player.”
Perhaps Benitez saw the same when he placed him in a more advanced role? His performance on Monday would suggest that Sacchi has a point.
Kuyt and Jovanović, their necessary movement playing into Manchester City’s oil-sodden hands
As a result of the outnumbering in the middle of the park, to keep possession, Kuyt and Jovanović had to cut inside and move deeper and deeper to help retain possession. The logic is simple, a shorter pass is more likely to be accurate than a long one. To move Liverpool up the pitch, the two wingers had to consistently move inside to receive the ball.
This was ill-judged, it shrunk the pitch, tightening it in the areas that Manchester City were strongest – the middle of the park. Touré, de Jong and all Barry are all strong, hard-working and capable in the tackle, making the retention of possession a near impossible task for Liverpool’s midfield. Hodgson’s 4-4-2 turned Liverpool’s traditional bread and butter – keeping possession; into a bitty, soggy crouton mess.
Torres and N’Gog earn their first coaching badge
Amongst the backdrop of Hodgson’s tactical stubbornness, Liverpool’s forwards looked to take matters into their own hands. Knowing what needed to happen, one of the two looked to drop deep and play as a link between midfield and attack. Even in a traditional 4-4-2, there usually is a forward who drops deeper, connecting midfield and attack – Torres and N’Gog are not this type of forward and never will be (just like Steven Gerrard is not a central midfielder, oooooooooooooh). The need for them to drop deep was exasperated because Yaya Touré often got tight to the deepest lying midfielder, making him incapable of receiving the ball. This led to the Liverpool defence by-passing the midfield to make a pass to a forward who had dropped deeper.
It is tempting to say that the result was predictable given the way the two teams lined up, but that would be reducing the game down to a rock, paper, scissor contest (as in 4-3-3 beats 4-4-2 , etc. etc.). Hodgson’s unwillingness to change systems, when the problems were glaring, showed inflexibility on his part. One just hopes that instead of caving in to the footballing populist opinion that 4-4-2 shows attacking intent, as Andy Gray and fellow football-fans around the country proclaimed, Hodgson does not turn a blind eye to the philosophy and system that made Liverpool stronger under Benitez.