Rodgers Can Fix Liverpool’s Attack with this One Simple Trick

There is no hiding from it now, Liverpool have looked very bad to open the 2015-16 Premier League season. Just a season plus removed from averaging nearly three goals a game, the Reds have scored only three goals in five games. Two of those are already goal of the season contenders and the third was clearly offside. Clean sheets and good fortune in the first three matches obscured the weakness of this setup, but back-to-back debacles have caused panic among supporters. There are problems all over the pitch, but the feeble attack is drawing the most attention. Liverpool’s problems start at the back, however, and perhaps counter intuitively, the answer to unlocking more attacking potential starts there too.

during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between Besiktas JK and Liverpool FC on February 26, 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey.

The stats don’t lie. Since the dawn of the Dejan Lovren era at Liverpool at the beginning of last season, the team has played 43 Premier League games. Rodgers famously shifted to a back three for a period during last season, but his most used defensive formation is a back four. Rodgers’ preferred center back pairing is Lovren and Martin Skrtel, who have featured in that role in 21 of those 43 games as the center backs in a back four, including the first five games this season, well more than any other combination. The results of those games are 7 wins, 5 draws, 9 defeats, for a return 26 points with 21 goals scored and 27 conceded for a -6 goal difference. That’s on pace for 47 points over a 38 game season, which would have been good for 12th place in the Premier League last year.

Now look at the other 22 games with any other center back combination or defensive formation. Literally any other alignment of defensive players has produced 13 wins, 4 draws, and 5 defeats for a return of 43 points with 34 goals scored and 27 goals conceded for a +7 goal difference. That would have given Liverpool 74 points over a full season with a goal difference of +12, good for fourth place, just a point out of third, and in the Champions League. Now, a +12 goal difference is not typically enough to result in a top four finish, but the points haul of 74 is usually enough to reach that level.

Given that the same number of goals were conceded in the Lovren-Skrtel games versus all the others, it could be argued that it doesn’t really matter to the defense. Fair enough, but two of those other games were the season’s final two matches against Crystal Palace and Stoke in which Liverpool allowed nine goals in a display that demonstrated serious problems at the club that went far beyond who was playing in defense. But you don’t need to cut those games out and cherry pick the stats to suit your argument to understand the important lesson drawn from a comparison of these numbers. Liverpool score more goals when the Lovren-Skrtel pairing is not playing in central defense.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is the case. Lovren and Skrtel are simply not very good central defenders. When they play in central defense, the rest of the squad has to compensate for their weakness by playing more conservatively and more compact. This year it has required playing a right-footed central defender at left back who does not get into the final third much to babysit Lovren. This comes at the cost of not playing Alberto Moreno at left back, a player who is very adept at getting forward but is not as sound defensively and would create a significant vulnerability if paired with Lovren at the back.

Playing Alberto Moreno isn’t going to solve Liverpool’s attacking woes on his own. But putting in central defenders who can actually defend, like Mamadou Sakho and either Kolo Toure or Joe Gomez, will allow multiple changes in personnel and approach that will help get more out of the attacking pieces that Rodgers has at his disposal. He could drop the low block defensive setup that maroons in deep and wide positions attacking players like Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, and even Danny Ings. This set up has left Christian Benteke woefully isolated and contributed to the tepid start to his Liverpool career.

Check out Anfield Index for more analysis questioning the judgment of Liverpool’s transfer policy this summer or this great podcast critiquing the way in which Brendan Rodgers has used his expensive new recruits, especially in attack. I will just leave my contribution to that debate as registering grave doubts about whether Christian Benteke matches well with the other attacking players we have and concern that Roberto Firmino, despite his obvious skills, will be wasted if he is left on the right wing.

When the Reds take the field against Bordeaux in their opening Europa League group game, we know that neither Lovren nor Skrtel will feature in defense because that duo didn’t make the trip to France. Rodgers has also said that he hope his side rediscover their attacking form after the stuttering start to the season. The key question for the rest of the season is whether Rodgers understands that those two things are linked.

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Spurs Strategy for 2015-16 is Either Delusional or Revolutionary

dele alliSpurs fans need to lower expectations for this season. Over the summer Spurs let go players proven in top flight leagues and in their place have largely promoted kids from the youth team. Call it a bold approach, call it faith in the next generation, but do not call it a winning strategy for the 2015-16 season. The question is whether Spurs are delusional enough to believe this is a winning approach for this season or are they trying something truly revolutionary for the Premier League: punting this season in order to build for the future.

What we know is that Spurs are an ambitious club with a shrewd and driven chairman in Daniel Levy. Spurs have never shied away from splashing cash in the transfer market and have for the last decade consistently competed for a top four champions league spot.

But for this season, Spurs are more a youth team than a Champions League team. Spurs ended the game against Everton with six midfielders and forwards aged 21, 20, 22, 19, 22, and a grizzled veteran Nacer Chadli at age 26. That’s an average age of 21.6. It is great that Spurs believe their youth academy is producing top talent. But if all of these young players are champions league caliber than England is going to win the World Cup in 2018. Not only that, but most of the team will be players from Spurs youth academy, which apparently has suddenly turned into the equivalent of Barca’s and Ajax’s academies, despite being only about 15 years old.

A Champions League Midfield

A Champions League Midfield

Most surprisingly for Premier League watchers, Spurs didn’t do any panicked deadline deals in the transfer window to get a new desperately needed striker, or an even more desperately needed central midfield. Both Berahino and Wanyama were pricey and Spurs resisted making an offer to these clubs that they could not refuse. Instead, Spurs net spending was basically zero, they reduced their wage bill, got considerably younger (players out averaged age 27; players in 23 years), and promoted youth to fill the significant gaps in the squad (Pritchard, Alli). Add in Spurs new young singings to a squad that is already extremely young and raw, except at central defense, and you have one of the youngest and most inexperienced squads in the Premier league. This squad has promise, but just isn’t a champions league caliber squad this season.

So what is going on here? There are three general explanations that make sense – one isn’t believable, one is very worrying, and one would make Spurs Premier League revolutionaries.

The first explanation, Spurs have lost their ambition and are just trying to make money by developing and selling young players. You hear this shouted at times from the Spurs fanbase. But this is just not believable, as it belies the modern history of Spurs. Why build a new stadium if you are content as a midlevel club? Why traverse the globe on preseason tours if you have no ambition?

The second explanation, Spurs genuinely believe they can compete for Champions League relying on their youth academy players. This is what we are supposed to believe is true. But this is terrifying because it means Spurs have drunk their own academy kool-aid and really genuinely believe each of these young players are good enough to make Spurs a champions league team (this season) capable of going toe-to-toe with big spending United and Liverpool, let alone Arsenal, Chelsea and City. If that is the expectation, Spurs have real problems and Pochettino will not be long for the Spurs bench, as this youth experiment will inevitably fall short over the course of a 38 game season.

The third and in many ways most hopeful explanation, Spurs are punting this season. This isn’t giving up, or abandoning their ambition. On the contrary, Spurs are punting this season with a goal toward building a Champions League-caliber squad for the new stadium. If this is the strategy it would make Spurs revolutionary and one of the shrewdest teams in football.

This strategy would be similar to a rebuilding team in Major League Baseball that recognizes the playoffs are out of reach and trades high priced aging talent for minor league prospects. The basic idea is that a team accepts being terrible or mediocre on the promise that in a year or two the young talent will make them a contender.

Champions League... A long time ago

Champions League… A long time ago

This strategy makes sense for Spurs because they simply cannot realistically compete for the Champions League right now with the transfer budgets and (crucially) the wages of the top 4 and Liverpool. Spurs have been chasing the Champions League dream unsuccessfully for the last five years and the gulf in spending is widening. An ambitious club would look for a new approach.

The centerpiece of that new approach is construction of a new stadium scheduled for August 2018. This will give Spurs the financial footing to compete with the big CL clubs. But that is three seasons from now. So recognizing that there is no realistic path to the Champions League this year, and probably next, Spurs are building a squad for three to four seasons from now (hence the reason Spurs are almost exclusively buying young players that will be in their prime or near it in 3-4 years).

There are a few elements to this strategy, which Spurs clearly seem to be pursuing:

If you build it, you can spend

If you build it, you can spend

Promote and play youth players. This means playing them even over better, more established players, to season them and give them a chance to succeed. If these players emerge (Harry Kane), you have struck gold. If they are solid Premier League players, but just not quite good enough (Jamie O’Hara, Jake Livermore, Kyle Naughton), you sell for a profit.

Buy young players that could be great in 2-4 years. Spurs know they can’t really compete for top marquee talent on the transfer market without Champions League and with their low wages, so instead they seek to strike gold with expensive prospects like Son and Njie – similar to what Spurs did with Modric. All of Spurs’ buys this summer could still potentially be key cogs in 3-4 years time. The only veteran players that have been bought have been central defenders that hit their prime later in their careers. Therefore, the emphasis on youth is to attempt to build a core group of players that in 2018 are truly elite – and would have Real Madrid calling.

Sell older more expensive players that will be past their prime in 2-4 years. Spurs have offloaded many experienced players in their prime: Paulinho (27, CM, 10m), Etienne Capoue (27, CDM, 6.3m), Benjamin Stambouli (25, CDM, 6m), Roberto Soldaldo (30, F, 10m), Aaron Lennon (28, RM, 4m), Younes Kaboul (29, CB, 3m). Few would expect these players to be around in 3-4 years.

Hoard cash now, to spend big in 2017/18. Spurs will likely want to significantly increase their spending both in the transfer market and on wages as they get closer to opening the new stadium. The last two seasons Spurs have been in the black when it comes to transfers. During the 2014-15 season, Spurs sold about 10m pounds more than they bought. In this transfer window, Spurs spent as much as they sold (about 50m) but they significantly reduced their wage bill by offloading higher priced players such as Soldaldo, Paulinho, and Adebayor. They spent a huge amount on Son Heung-Min (23) from Bayern Leverkusen for 22m but that also should raise the club’s profile in Asia, which was no doubt a consideration for Tottenham. By hoarding cash, Spurs will be able to open the wallet – not just in terms of transfer fees in the transfer market, but more importantly in regards to wages – both to lure players, and to hold onto players like Christian Erickson from suitors like Madrid. To sign more marquee players, Spurs will have to likely over-pay in wages (think of what City did to attract players during their initial rise). Thus, Spurs develop the core of the squad now and then before the transitional year playing in (hopefully) Wembley, Spurs start bringing in more marquee players and begin to set a new normal for their transfer and wage budgets that is more on par with Chelsea, City and the rest.

Try to grow profile abroad. As noted above, Spurs are also spending a lot on growing their profile in the US and Asia – demonstrating big club ambition. A club content with mediocrity, without ambition would not do tours in Asia, the US, and then go to Munich right before the season to play the biggest clubs in Europe. You do this to grow the brand and become a big global club. That way when Tottenham is finally playing in a big new stadium competing with the big boys it will already have some global visibility.

Sign a young up and coming manager who showed he can develop youth. That’s the idea behind Pochettino.

So is that what Spurs are thinking? I hope so, but I am not sure, because almost no other English team would operate in such a way to essentially punt on a season. Spurs are certainly good enough to avoid the drop, but not nearly good enough to do compete for top four. So are Spurs okay with mediocrity now in the hope it pays off in the season ahead? That doesn’t really sound like Spurs, but it would certainly be bold and shrewd and unique for the Premier League.

If this is the case, it means the Spurs fan base should sit back this year and enjoy watching this team grow and develop and not stress over qualifying for Champions League or their place in the table. That is not what this year is about for Spurs. It is about building Tottenham to eventually be one of the big clubs of Europe.