Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea side were applauded from the field by Liverpool supporters after their performance at Anfield back in November. That is rare to see in the modern game – even in front of a set of supporters renowned for appreciating good football – particularly because of the scoreline. Swansea hadn’t even won the game. They had drawn 0-0.
In terms of turning possession into shots, Swansea were actually one of the least efficient sides in Europe. They tended to hold onto the ball for extremely long periods, particularly at the back, even when trailing in games. It’s difficult to think of a side – even Barcelona – who place such emphasis upon ball retention over chance creation.
In one sense, it’s a defensive tactic – the more you hold onto the ball, the less chance there is that the opposition will threaten. This approach broadly worked for Swansea, although they only had the joint-tenth best record of goals conceded in the league last season, and they also conceded the seventh-most shots, which is surprising considering they enjoyed the third highest possession.
Rodgers’ approach was essentially very pragmatic. He knew his side excelled at holding onto the ball, but by Premier League standards Swansea were not particularly potent upfront, nor overwhelmingly secure at the back. Therefore, the longer Swansea were in possession, the better. They might create only a couple of clear-cut chances a game, but that was a better situation than forcing the ball forward too quickly, conceding possession and allowing the opposition into the game.
A clear feature of Rodgers’ game is his insistence on the goalkeeper passing out from the back. He actually recruited Dutchman Michel Vorm specifically because he was comfortable with the ball at his feet, and this style should suit Pepe Reina – renowned as a very good distributor of the ball, although often over longer distances than Vorm’s passes.
That said, Vorm did often hit the ball long when the opposition pressed Swansea’s centre-backs at goal kicks – see the difference in his distribution between the Bolton and Stoke home matches.
Daniel Agger is perfect for that style, too, while Martin Skrtel won’t be uncomfortable. At Swansea, right-back Angel Rangel was considered one of the best players on the ball, so almost all Swansea’s moves went through him – that might happen at Liverpool with leftback Jose Enrique, though rightback Glen Johnson is also good on the ball.
In midfield, Rodgers is likely to want neat, reliable passers. Lucas Leiva fits into this strategy perfectly, while Jordan Henderson should also benefit from Rodgers’ appointment, as he provides energy to connect the midfield and attack.
Steven Gerrard should have the discipline to adapt, though there could perhaps be question marks about Charlie Adam – he tries ambitious passes too often, and while Rodgers did favour quick switches from flank to flank, Adam’s pass completion rate will have to rise dramatically if he wants a place in Rodgers’ midfield – compare his passing to that of Leon Britton...
Upfront, we’re assuming that Rodgers will play a wide front three, with two wingers and a central striker. Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy are a perfect fit for either role, and Dirk Kuyt might be favoured for his versatility and hard running too. Stewart Downing might have more of a problem – he’d be pushed higher up the pitch, whereas he generally likes getting the ball to feet and running with it – though after his poor 2011/12, he should be open to a change of role.
There will inevitably be questions about how Andy Carroll will fit into a side based around short passing, but Carroll isn’t just a static, lumbering targetman. When he starred for Newcastle in the first half of 2010/11, he was potent all-round striker – quick across the ground, good at working the channels, and excellent when presented with a chance in the penalty box on his favoured left foot.
Carroll is not the antithesis of a short passing system, and has been wrongly typecast as a mere header of the ball. He could benefit from being asked to play an all-round game, and while Rodgers tending to stick to 4-3-3 at Swansea, a system with two strikers in home matches is perfectly possible.
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