The difference between two derbies – illustrating the change from Benitez to Hodgson.
It was no surprise that Liverpool lost the 214th Merseyside derby given their woeful start to the season. No Liverpool fan, not even the most pessimistic of follower, would have fathomed such baffling results and such perturbing performances on the field given the strength of their squad at the start of the season.
With some trading-up and trading-down from both Rafael Benitez and Roy Hodgson over the past couple of seasons, the majority of the Liverpool team still remain from the title challenging season of 2008-09. Crippled by the Hick’s and Gillett’s unwillingness to service the promises they provided when they took over the club, Liverpool stumbled around the Premier League last season, like a common drunk who is just about on their last legs before slumping face first into the bar.
Nevertheless, even during this turbulent period, Liverpool have managed to save face in Merseyside by having a good record over their neighbours. David Moyes admitted before the match that his team’s record against Liverpool was frustrating. Moyes speaks the truth here; from twelve Premier League Merseyside derbies, Rafael Benitez oversaw 8 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses – an impressive record in a game where it is often said that “anything can happen – it depends who wants it more ad nauseum ad nauseum” and “you can never predict anything in such a game.”
On the run up to the latest league Derby, Everton hadn’t won one in the last seven matches. Roy Hodgson should have had confidence in his squad to continue such a run. This confidence was unlikely to be shared by anyone who has seen the performances of Hodgson’s Liverpool side and Everton were likely to seize their chance and notch up a needed win against their homebody.
But to start, a look at English football reporting lexicon
Match reports that follow a Derby follow a familiar trend; there are usual hints towards the losing team ‘wanting it less’ or the team ‘lacked the passion and adrenaline. Such phrases are often hackneyed and rarely describe the actual match situation, throwing any real observations out for worn-out and banal expressions. It’s alarming how many military-based phrases are used in football reporting; such parlances are only used because it has fit with the English idea of football being ‘a battle’ where ‘no men can hide’. Such mutterings are hyped-up beyond belief when it comes down to a local rivalry, with my favourite phrase being ‘he’s the type of man you need in the trenches’ – what utter twoddle. Whereas football in Europe is seen as a mobilised version of Chess, in England, military metaphors are rife and illustrates the strength of one particular team and any mention of tactical problems are often not noted. When it comes to a derby, Rafael Honigstein has it right when he says “in England, tactics is another word for weakness.”
I don’t accept the nauseating excuse of Liverpool lacking passion or desire; these players have played at the highest level and don’t bottle it as some commentators would lead you to believe. There is a proper answer to why Liverpool lost at the weekend and it’s to do with Hodgson’s organisation of his team.
The main criticism of Hodgson has been his complete turnaround in the way Liverpool play without the ball. Hodgson’s Liverpool aim to sit deep and keep their shape – this is no surprise, it is well documented that Hodgson’s training methods are primarily based on team shape and defensive structure
Such methods are a stark contrast compared to Liverpool’s pressing game under Rafael Benitez, who if there was a ‘Arrigo Sacchi Fan Club’, he would undoubtedly be the first one to join, giving him to a free Saachi face-mask as well as a year’s membership. Not only did fans like Benitez’s proactive methods, the team reacted well to the constriction of space and forcing the opposition into mistakes. This made Liverpool notably hard to play against; Wesley Sneijder, after Real Madrid’s 4-0 loss at Anfield in 2009, stated how difficult it was to see Madrid players amongst the wall of red shirts that surrounded him every time he picked up the ball.
Such philosophy has now been dismantled and Liverpool’s new defensive mantra is around keeping a deeper line, which has a knock-on effect in all areas of the pitch. This was clearly illustrated in the Derby.
By playing a deeper line, it results in there being larger spaces in between the midfield and defence if the game is stretched. In the shot below, the gap between Skrtel and Meireles is so big it even allows Yakubu to stand beneath them without either of them touching him (a cheap shot, I know). Such large gaps allow Everton to pass around and keep possession in dangerous areas of the pitch without much disturbance.
Keeping with the terminology of the recent CSR, such a deep-line has a multiplier effect. Firstly, as mentioned already, it allows Everton plenty of time to and space to find a teammate because of the space available to them. Secondly, when Liverpool win the ball-back, they’re starting from a deeper position without an obvious out-ball – this is because the midfielders are now so deep that passing the ball to them will place them in a precarious position where they will immediately be put under pressure. With midfielders now deeper to help protect the back-four, it leads to a huge a gap between them and the forward line meaning the direct ball to the centre forward will be fruitless. However, such route one ideas are the only sure-fire way of relieving the pressure and Liverpool often went long, an act that fans do not revere to.
Everton had the right idea in the first-half, they looked to press and put real pressure onto the Liverpool back-line and midfielders. Without Daniel Agger, Liverpool look nervous at the back and Everton really made Martin Skrtel and Sotoris Kyrigakos wish they had brought a second pair of undies to Goodison Park. This pressure from Everton led to Liverpool passing it around at the back in a useless fashion, or hoofing it up to Torres for try and make something out of it.
A look at the Guardian chalkboards shows how Liverpool’s defence passed amongst themselves, rarely looking to the midfield in the middle of the park. This is especially illustrated in the first-half where Liverpool have a non-existent midfield. With Everton pressing so ferociously, the Liverpool defence had little choice to try longer balls, bypassing the midfield.
By dropping so deep, it leads to an unbreakable cycle of inviting pressure, smashing it long, losing the ball, allow the opposition to keep possession and then when they win it back deep, the cycle starts all over again
In the opening twenty minutes, Liverpool only attempted two pass whilst in Everton’s half. Such a statistic just goes to show how Everton penned Liverpool into their own half. This was a product of playing such a rigid defensive system where midfielders are now so deep they cannot link the play.
Another aspect of the Derby was Liverpool’s lack of invention and penetration when they actually have the ball.
David Moyes admitted just as much after the game, stating:
“After we got the second goal, I was happy to concede possession to Liverpool. It wasn`t a problem. They haven`t been scoring. One or two were too close for comfort but we also had opportunities on the break to get a third goal.”
It’s a clear indictment of the problems suffered by Hodgson’s Liverpool when a team isn’t worried about whether Liverpool have the ball or not. Some may have seen Everton’s tactics in the second-half as them trying to give Liverpool a lifeline but for those who have the displeasure of watching Liverpool this season know that creativity and penetration are not attributes that can be aligned to the Liverpool class of 2010-11.
Examining the second-half passing chalkboards from Liverpool shows a dreary trend – that the ball only moved sideways. There were only three successful balls into the box throughout the whole game. The chalkboard reads like a flightmap to and from London Heathrow and it just illustrates the lack of invention, creativity and confidence infused within the Liverpool players at the moment. Without a plan of attack, Liverpool found themselves launching it into the box in an act of desperation.
Looking back to previous seasons…
For Liverpool, such trends are in stark comparison to the Merseyside match-ups seen in previous seasons. The following section will look at Liverpool’s 2-0 win away at Everton last year.
There was little difference between the way the teams lined up and Everton’s off-the-ball methods – they pressed high up the pitch and kept a high line.
Liverpool on the other hand looked a completely different team both on and off the ball. On the ball they moved with purpose and obviously had a game-plan. Their movement was quick and penetrative, helping to provide a base for Liverpool to keep possession and control the match, something that cannot be said for many of Liverpool’s games under Roy Hodgson.
There are marked differences in the use of wide players in this 2-0 Liverpool win. Both Kuyt and Aurelio stay predominantly wide and high up the pitch. This stopped Everton’s full-backs getting forward and joining the midfield or looking for the overlap further up the pitch. This allows Liverpool’s full-backs, Johnson and Insua space to run into and join the midfield and time their runs into the final third.
These two players had a great influence over the game, constantly getting forward and pinning back Everton’s wide midfielders and making it hard for them to build from the back or support the Everton forward line if they went direct.
However, as with Everton’s win this year, the crux of the victory was Liverpool’s ability to win the ball back high up the pitch and cause mistakes. An examination of the interceptions in both games highlights the differences in philosophy between Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson.
This pressing high up the field was also compounded by Liverpool’s high line and offside trap that worked well against Jo. This approach is vastly different to the one employed by Roy Hodgson.
For the players and the fans, such pressing psychologically affects the game. A team are wary about being closed down so they’re more likely to play a footballing version of ‘hot potato’ – constantly moving around without taking much responsibility in fear of making a mistake. Last weekend, Everton had time to think and make their mind up about where they wanted to send the ball.
This Liverpool pressing had a knock-on effect, it allowed the front four to stay forward and expect a pass from midfield or defence. A marked problem in the derby last weekend was Joe Cole’s defensive duties and lack of opportunities to play higher up the pitch. His passing chalkboard shows how he spent vast majorities of his time helping the defence and trying to get Liverpool out of tight spots. This resulted in Torres having no support and nobody to link up with. In the previous year, Fabio Aurelio stayed wide and looked to link up with his fellow attacking trio.
This is a condensed version of events over the two games and just illustrates some of the differences between the two managers and the way they set up to play in a Merseyside Derby. It is a worry that Roy Hodgson believes his methods from Fulham can be replicated with the same “success” at a bigger club, he has shown a distinct lack of flexibility and understanding of how to manage the Liverpool squad and adapt his methods to players at his disposal.
This match was not lost on accounts of lack of passion or any of that nonsense, it’s just simply that Liverpool were hindered by Roy Hodgson’s overly defensive and negative system that has continually negated the attacking talents of this Liverpool side.