Fine tuning at Anfield
Brendan Rodgers arrived at Anfield with a mandate to play passing football but that doesn't mean the Liverpool boss is a man without a plan B, writes Sam Drury.
By Sam Drury - Follow on Twitter
Last Updated: 19/07/13 4:42pm
When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool last summer much of the talk was about the former Swansea manager's footballing philosophy. Phrases such as 'tiki-taka' and 'high block' were thrown around as fans and pundits alike tried to envisage how the Reds would play under their new manager.
The passing football he had implemented at Swansea had brought them many admirers and even comparisons to Spanish giants Barcelona. The quality was clearly not as high as Pep Guardiola's side, as it was then, but the style of play did bare some similarities. A 4-3-3 formation, the short passing, patient build up and working the ball into the box when in possession and the high intensity pressing of the opposition as soon as possession was conceded. This is what people expected from Rodgers' Liverpool.
For his part, the Northern Irishman talked about instilling an attacking brand of football at the club, with his mention of wanting Liverpool to make a trip to Anfield the longest game of opposition players' lives and his desire to inflict 'death by football' strongly indicating that possession football would again be his style of choice.
As the season got under way, it was no shock to see Liverpool using a 4-3-3 formation, attempting to play a short passing game with a patient build up and pressing high up the pitch. It was one of the more simple predictions to make ahead of the start of the 2012-13 season. How the Merseyside club would perform was rather more tricky.
The same could be said of the Reds opening fixtures but despite failing to record a league win until September, the Liverpool boss stuck with the style and system he had such faith in. The early season draw with Manchester City had shown just how well it could work when all the pieces came together. Yaya Toure described the game as the toughest he'd had in English football and but for a late mishap from Martin Skrtel, the champions would have been defeated.
However, mixed results up until Christmas saw Liverpool languishing in mid-table with a midfield stuck in limbo as the front three tried to press high whilst the back four were reluctant to step up and play a high line for fear of being caught out due a lack of pace. The result was often large gaps between the defence and midfield or the midfield and the attack, sometimes both.
The arrivals of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho in the January window gave Rodgers more possibilities and led to a change in style. The 4-3-3 had already morphed into a 4-2-3-1 and it was the latter formation that was retained.
The short passing was maintained to an extent but the pressing game was largely abandoned in favour of inviting teams on before hitting them on the break with devastating speed - something the Reds now possessed with Sturridge and Coutinho. The Brazilian's eye for a pass was another weapon that could be used effectively on the counter-attack, finding gaps as defenders hurried to get into position.
Where the Man City game showed Liverpool's 'tiki-taka' at its best, the 6-0 thumping of Newcastle showcased the more direct system at its finest.
Liverpool's results unquestionably improved from mid-January onwards and whether that was simply due to the addition of two high quality players, the rest of the squad becoming more used to Rodgers' methods or the tactical switch is hard to say for sure. In all probability, all three factors played a part.
What Rodgers must now do is decide whether to persevere with the system that helped the Anfield club to show top four form during the second half of last season or to return to the more possession orientated style that he continues to have unwavering faith in.
The chance to bring in more of his own players this summer means Rodgers should be in a position to revert to his favoured style of play with the current squad having had a year to adapt to their manager's demands and the new players selected for, amongst other things, their ability to fit in to his system.
The manager should also benefit from having a fully fit Lucas Leiva to shield the back four. If the Brazilian can rediscover his form from the season before last then he could be a big player for Liverpool this season.
Also returning to fitness for the new season is Joe Allen. The Welshman was brought to Anfield from Swansea last summer and held up as the player who personified the Rodgers system - his ideal player. However, after a fantastic start to his Liverpool career, Allen's form dipped dramatically. It later came to light that the playmaker had been suffering from a chronic shoulder injury that ultimately forced him to miss the final months of the season. If he can find the form he showed early on last season though, the 23-year-old could be a vital cog in the Liverpool machine, linking the play together and allowing the Reds to play the possession football their manager desires.
Additionally, the Reds could find a silver lining from Jamie Carragher's retirement. The centre-back was superb as he marshalled the defence during the latter half of last season but his lack of pace meant a high defensive line was never a realistic option. Playing more on the counter, this wasn't much of an issue but in home games against sides happy to play for a draw and soak up pressure themselves, a reluctance to push higher up did lead to sizable gaps between the midfield and the defence.
Kolo Toure has been brought in as the replacement for the new Sky Sports pundit and, whilst he doesn't have the pace he had in his younger days, the Ivorian is still somewhat quicker than Carragher. That should allow the Merseysiders to play a higher line, even if they don't bring in another centre-back before the end of the transfer window, as they are expected to.
One of the few players still remaining at Anfield, for now at least, who doesn't really fit into the Rodgers style of play is Luis Suarez. This may seem odd to say about a player who scored 30 goals in all competitions under the 40-year-old last season but as good a player as the Uruguayan is, there is a definite clash between the way he plays and the fashion in which his manager wants his side to build pressure.
Suarez plays the game in an all-action, 100 miles per hour speed compared to the steady build-up and working the ball around until a gap appears manner that Rodgers foresees Liverpool playing. The controversial striker could arguably ruin the work put in by his teammates by rushing to try and make something happen instantly and losing the ball.
This desire to go for the jugular too soon is something Steven Gerrard has also been guilty of in the past. Between them the pair lost possession 46 times in the home defeat to Arsenal last season and Gerrard has not been used in an attacking midfield role by Rodgers since.
However, whilst Gerrard has adapted his game somewhat in playing a deeper role, Suarez continued with the style that has worked for him throughout his career. His goal tally and all-round performances suggest he was right to do so.
Now Suarez wants out of Liverpool but the club's refusal to bow to his demands and potential suitors' reluctance to meet Liverpool's valuation of the forward mean he could remain at the club and, for all that his style contrasts with that of the team's, the no 7 is perhaps the one truly world class player at the club.
If he does stay though, Suarez may be forced to take up a slightly different position to last season. With Sturridge having impressed through the middle in his half season on Merseyside and Coutinho excelling in the no 10 role just behind him, the 26-year-old may be shifted to one of the flanks. Not that it is something totally alien to Suarez. He has played as a wide forward for both Ajax and Uruguay in the past and also played on the left for Liverpool at the Emirates in January. His trickery and dribbling skills mean there is no doubt he could succeed on either wing and under Rodgers he would no doubt have the freedom to drift inside when the opportunities presented themselves. The only question is whether he would be as effective in such a role.
What is very clear is that Liverpool will head into the 2013-14 season with far more options at their disposal than at this time last year. The Swansea style, the counter-attacking system and even the three at the back used occasionally last season are viable choices for the Kop boss.
The steadfast belief held by Rodgers in the passing game would suggest that with the arrival of new signings who are comfortable playing that way, added to a group of players who, after a year working under the manager, know his approach well, the Reds will return to the 'tiki-taka' style. However, the success of the more direct system last season gives the Liverpool boss the chance to change his tactics from game to game and even during a match.
That ability to keep opposition guessing could be invaluable for the Reds this season. After a season where a lack of a 'plan B' was criticised, having found one that doesn't require hoofing the ball up to a big man, Brendan Rodgers may feel his side can really challenge for a Champions League place this time around.