Breaking down Liverpool v Burnley

In the Yossi-Benayoun-0014-0 dismantling of a plucky Burnley side that has already beaten Man U and Everton, Liverpool displayed exactly the kind of tactical flexibility that was so sorely lacking last year when dropped too many points against inferior sides. Much commentary about Liverpool’s title chances focused on their seven home draws—two against newly promoted sides like Burnley—four points that cost Liverpool the title.

It is understandable why most of the plaudits will go to Yossi Benayoun for his richly deserved hat-trick. But little attention is being paid to why Liverpool accomplished so easily what eluded them last year. Two key differences from last season’s approach point the way and give hope to Liverpool fans that this might yet still be the year. First, both full backs consistently got forward into the attack, adding more offensive weapons and creating space for Benayoun et al. Second, and even more significant, moving Steven Gerrard into the Xabi Alonso role brought an attacking dimension to Liverpool’s standard 4-2-3-1.

Liverpool fullbacks now part of attack

The most underappreciated tactical aspect of modern soccer is the importance of the attacking fullback, especially at international level. English legend and Irish national team coach Jack Charlton said after USA 94 that the most important attacking player on the field is the full back. As Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian documents, successful international sides have all had the most dangerous attacking fullbacks: “Jorginho and Branco for Brazil in 1994; Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu for France in 1998; Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002; and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy” in 2006.

The addition of Glen Johnson and the return of Emiliano Insua have brought attacking fullbacks into Liverpool’s side. Going back a few years, Liverpool’s fullback tandem of Steve Finnan and John Arne Risse was pretty formidable, but lacked goals from open play or close control. Alvaro Arbeloa was much more a defender than attacker. Fabio Aurelio was good from a dead ball, but doesn’t offer much down the flank.

In Johnson and Insua—who appeared in a few games last season before being injured captaining Argentina’s U-20 side—Liverpool finally have a pair of attacking fullbacks who are good on the ball and get forward at every opportunity. That is precisely what is needed against teams like Burnely that are not going to be much of a threat on the wings.

To his credit, Benitez turned Johnson and Insua loose. There was one moment before the first goal when there were three Liverpool players in the Burnley box: Fernando Torres, and Johnson and Insua. Benayoun should have opened his account five minutes earlier than he did when he headed a good Insua cross wide from six yards. When Benayoun did break the deadlock, he received a great pass from Johnson and knifed through Burnely for the goal.

Now, this doesn’t come without a cost. Burnely was able to settle in the minutes after the first Benayoun goal and attacked down their left. Johnson was beaten rather easily and allowed a decent cross that came to nothing, but similar problems gave rise to criticism of Johnson during the last two England games. But against teams like Burnley, let’s say I’ll gladly trade a few chances that wont likely result in too many goals allowed for a bunch of chances created that probably will.

More attack from Alonso’s spot

As I discussed in my Premiership preview of Liverpool, Alonso was a deep-lying midfielder that orchestrated the attack at a deliberate pace and rarely ventured forward himself. He could control the pace of the game extremely well, even against the best opposition. But against teams that conceded the possession advantage to Liverpool, his skills were less important.

This is why I am very eager to see what his replacement, the more attack-minded Alberto Aquilani, can do. Aquilani is out at least a few more weeks as he recovers from off-season ankle surgery, and up to know Alonso’s spot had been taken by the Brazilian Lucas. I am not a fan of Lucas, who is chronically wasteful of the ball and most of the time looks to have the touch of a drunken blacksmith.

But for the game against Burnely, Manager Rafa Benitez was forced to make another move because defensive midfielder Javier Maschareno was injured on international duty with Argentina. Lucas slid over to take his place and Gerrard moved back into the Alonso role. When I saw the lineups, I immediately wrote in my notes “will Gerrard push up more than Alonso?”

The first ten minutes were rather scrappy, with Burnely getting a couple of good chances straight from Liverpool defensive mistakes. But at about the 12 minute mark, Liverpool took over possession and began to stroke the ball around the pitch with confidence and precision. For a bit, they held the ball well without looking particularly dangerous, but by the time Benayoun missed the header from Insua’s cross, a goal was clearly coming.

The second goal came from a fast-paced break straight from a Burnley corner—now isn’t that a change—and moments later Gerrard forced a brilliant save from Burnely keeper Brian Jensen. The third goal was all Gerrard, a bursting run from midfield, collecting a slightly errant pass, pushing past the defense and squaring for an easy tap-in for that man Benayoun again.

Again, as with more offense from the fullbacks, there is a trade off. Just before the stroke of half-time, Martin Paterson tested Jose Riena with Burnley’s best move of the game that followed Gerrard getting caught up field. Had Burnley got that goal, the second half might have been a much different affair. But once again, more attacking positions taken up by Liverpool players against weaker teams will result in more chances created than chances given up. With Liverpool’s superior finishers and defenders, that’s a trade off worth making.

Gerrard isn’t going to play in the Alonso role many times this season unless Aquilani is largely unavailable. But Gerrard’s great skill in the withdrawn striker’s role is his ability to link up with Torres, who despite Liverpool’s dominance had a rather poor afternoon. That’s what gives me hope that an attacking threesome of Torres, Gerrard, and Aquilani up the middle is going to be a real handful in the Premier League this season. This season we saw a glimpse of what Liverpool can be. I hope we see it again, and again, and again…

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