New boss Brendan Rodgers looks to oversee a revolution in style at Liverpool this summer, as Kenny Dalglish's under-performers are given a much needed revamp. Alex Keble, editor of tactics website TheChalkBoard.org.uk, asks: what changes will Rodgers make? Who will be leaving, who will be joining, and which current players will come to the fore?
Brendan Rodgers' playing style is often compared to Barcelona's, and for good reason. The system depends upon a short passing style that aims at patient build-up and possession dominance.
When in possession, the passing is fast, precise and simple, as they wait for the opposition to tire, slowly pulling them out of position and exploiting the space. When out of possession, they press high up the pitch, quickly closing down the opposition to regain the ball immediately. In theory, as the opposing players are tired and lying deep in their own half, high pressing forces them to clear the ball aimlessly.
These two core concepts compliment one another, as highlighted by Rodgers himself: “The only time we rest is when we have the ball. When we haven’t got the ball is the moment for intense pressure to get the ball back. In order to recuperate and conserve energy, we’ll build our way through the game.”
When they have the ball, the opposition are forced to work hard, while the team in possession patiently turn the screw. As well as conserving energy, they can prevent the other side from scoring ("If we have the ball, you can't score, no matter how big or strong you are. I've always worked off that").
Last season Swansea would happily recycle possession over and over again if they needed to, showing immense discipline in attack and defence. Players are expected to calculate precisely when to move forward and when to press. Risk taking is forbidden; keeping possession is everything.
Rodgers' players must be highly technically proficient. They must be adaptable, mobile, and like the ball on the ground. So, who will fit this system, and who will be replaced?
Rodgers' utilises a 4-3-3 formation, which heavily relies on the confidence and consistency of its central trio. Due to the fluidity of the system and the high pressing style, all players are expected to contribute defensively. With a carefully orchestrated zonal pressing system, theoretically all three of the central midfielders should be making tackles and interceptions.
As well as being vital to attacking play, both Britton and Allen were excellent defensively. Allen averaged 2.1 interceptions and 3.1 tackles per game, while Britton made 1.6 interceptions and 1.7 tackles. Their defensive work in the victory over Arsenal exemplifies this.
In attack, all three players must constantly make themselves available, for fluid movement, and be prepared to recycle the ball many times over before making a creative pass. The midfield must dominate, whilst feeding the energy of the wingers. Rodgers has commented, “when going forward, the best way to move the ball up the field is to create angles of diagonal pass. If you have two banks of four across defence and midfield there are no diagonal passes on. The system needs to be more fluid.” Pass and move. Pass and move. Pass and move...
Britton and Allen were amongst the top four passers in the league last season, with an astonishing 93.5% and 91.2% pass completion respectively. Yaya Toure, Mikel Arteta, Michael Carrick, Luka Modric and Alex Song were the only midfielders to make more passes than the Swansea pair.
The importance of their ball retention and systematic passing style is made evident by these screen grabs, taken from the 1-0 victory over Liverpool in Rodgers' final game before making the switch to Anfield.
The creator of the team comes from the advanced play-maker, leading the team from the top of the triangular triumvirate. His role is more simply defined, playing in a traditional attacking midfield role.
Who fits the bill, and who doesn't?
Rodgers' had already acknowledged the important role Lucas will play under his leadership. He is an absolute all-rounder, contributing equally to defence and attack. Liverpool's player of the year in 2011 played only 12 times last season before a knee injury ruled him out for seven months.
He makes an average of 53.7 passes per game with an 84.2% percentage completion - head and shoulders above any other Liverpool player. Defensively, Lucas makes an average of 5.4 tackles per game and 2.8 interceptions per game; again, far higher than any of his team mates. He is exactly in the mould of the central midfielder Rodgers' tactics require.
Lucas' Man of the Match performance against Man City in November clearly backs up this claim, and more strikingly, shows how similar his playing style is to the Swansea pair schooled by Rodgers. Lucas, Britton, and Allen all pass the ball around in a similar area of the pitch in similar directions and over similar distances.
Another player back in the fray is Alberto Aquilani, a regista in the classic Italian mould, the former Roma man never stood a chance in a Dalglish team. Aquilani is comfortable on the ball, using his vision and footballing intelligence to play as a deep-lying playmaker. If Rodgers is able to discipline the player and control his propensity for trying the Hollywood pass, then he could certainly perform a useful job.
Jordan Henderson's first season at Anfield was disappointingly tame, although his willingness to accept that he played “too safe” last campaign is a positive sign, suggesting a self-consciousness that may help him develop into a top player.
At Sunderland he was described by The Guardian as having an “adhesive first touch, vision, quick feet, pace, stellar passing and crossing ability and sure-footed tackling, allied to abundant energy”, claims validated by the screen grabs below. His energy and mobility manifest in an intricate passing style that would impress Brendan Rodgers. Note his use of diagonal passing and important defensive work.
Who will they look to sign?
Liverpool have now officially approached Swansea over Joe Allen. We don't need to go into any more detail as to why that would be a good signing; the Welshman lives and breaths Rodgers' system.
With Gerrard able to occupy the advanced role that Sigurdsson took for Swansea, the trio of Lucas, Allen and Gerrard mirrors perfectly the relationship between Britton, Allen and Sigurdsson last season.
Brendan Rodgers employs explosive wingers on each flank, to exploit the full width of the pitch. Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair were among the best dribblers in the division in 2011/12, with 2.0 and 1.7 successful dribble per game, respectively. The following screen grabs show the importance of these players hugging the touchline, stretching the play as much as possible.
Interestingly, both Dyer nor Sinclair rarely seem to receive the ball near the byline. Try it yourself – take any Swansea game last season and use Stats Zone to look at the passes receieved dashboard for the wingers; virtually no activity past the 18 yard line. It is highly likely that, since they dominate possession and force the opponent to play on the back foot, there is very little room for them to drive to the byline. Counter-attacks are not a key element of Rodgers' tactics.
Bellamy and Downing are both players that possess pace and dribbling skills, and either player could feature in one of the wide positions.
Who will they be looking to sign?
Rumours of Sinclair rejoining Rodgers seem unlikely, considering he would already have broken his agreement not to buy players from Swansea if Allen joins Liverpool.
Daniel Sturridge would be a good signing, after the winger flourished under AVB at Chelsea and Owen Coyle at Bolton in a similar position. Rodgers would most likely lose a straight battle for his signature with Spurs, however.
Whoever Rodgers' signs, they will need to possess pace and, as ever, a good footballing brain. His interest in Clint Dempsey is testament to the importance placed on intelligence.
It came as no surprise that Andy Carroll was soon linked with a move away from Anfield. Rodgers has absolutely no intention of playing the ball off the ground next season; Swansea won the fewest aerial challenges of any team last year, with 5.9 per game.
Luis Suarez may be expected to perform as a lone striker next season, unless he will be moved into one of the wide positions to accommodate new signing Fabio Borini, who has had excellent spells at Swansea and Roma.
If Rodgers is able to sign Joe Allen, and perhaps a winger, then his Liverpool squad should already be capable of quickly adapting to his Spanish-style system. Dalglish's depleted, eclectic squad doesn't initially look like one prepared for a Rodgers revolution, but certain players frozen out under King Kenny may make a triumphant return.
Bellamy, Aquilani, and Henderson may find themselves greatly improved under the former Swansea boss. With the addition of Joe Allen, the squad will already have the foundations for Rodgers' tiki-taka vision.
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