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.

Dalglish should try Dirk Kuyt as Lucas replacement for Liverpool

Dirk Kuyt should be Lucas' replacement; photo by Danny Molyneux

The news that Lucas Leiva has been lost for the season with a torn ACL (something with which I can empathize as I am five weeks out from surgery to repair my own torn ACL, it sucks – best wishes to Lucas) will really test Liverpool’s squad as there is not a natural replacement for the Brazilian. The importance of the defense midfielder is one of the tactical evolutions of the last fifteen years. Charlie Adam is too slow, Jordan Henderson and the also injured Steven Gerrard are too attack minded, and Jay Spearing (who will probably get the job) has yet to prove himself. But Liverpool have a player with all the qualities you want in a defensive midfielder – quickness, energy, endeavor, discipline, and  the willingness to put in tackle after tackle – he just isn’t thought of for this position because he’s nominally a striker: Dirk Kuyt. 

It’s hard for me to say this, as I have long been down on Lucas – even last season when he was named the team’s player of the year, but Lucas has really come into his own and is one of the main reasons that Liverpool enter this weekend as the joint best-defense in the Premier League. He learned from a master when Javier Mascherano was at the club, and Lucas can now be seen breaking up play from sideline to sideline. He still struggles with his distribution, especially going forward, and he at times can get caught ahead of the ball. But there is no question that Lucas has emerged as one of the top defensive midfielders in the league and his presence in the Liverpool XI will be missed. Continue reading

Can Spurs keep it going to capitalize on City wobble?

Redknapp's Spurs keep pressure on City; photo by James Boyes

Manchester City have looked like Champions-elect since their strong start to the season was capped with the 6-1 destruction of the holders Manchester United at Old Trafford. But with Liverpool giving City their first real domestic contest after another disapointing outing in the Champions League, a Spurs team which has quietly taken 28 from its last 30 available points must keep their amazing run going as City deal with adversity for the first time. The Premier League title may not just be a Manchester preserve this season.

City had dropped only two points all year, an improbable give-away at Craven Cottage after dominating the game and even going two ahead against Fulham. But their form in Europe has been indifferent–two wins, two losses, and a draw–and they look likely to drop out of the Champions League at the group stage. But earlier European disappointments, even when coupled with controversy in the shape of Carlos Tevez, had not spilled over into their league form. Yet Liverpool really took it to City at Anfield on Sunday, capitalizing on a tiring City squad that hardly threatened in attack and can thank Joe Hart for several world class saves to keep it level. Continue reading

U.S. gets win and goals but defense looks porous against Slovenia

Carlos Bocanegra earned his 100th cap in the American's 3-2 win; photo by Paul Blank

Scoring more goals in one half than the team had in Jurgen Klinsmann’s first six games in charge combined was a welcome change, as was the resulting 3-2 victory, only the German’s second as manager. For the first time in his tenure, Klinsmann set out two dedicated strikers and the change in tactics certainly contributed to the increase in chances and goals. Getting the win ended a three-year drought for the US squad in Europe and sends the national team into its January training camp on a high note.

The news wasn’t all good from the Ljubljana, however, as the defense reverted the worst of the Bob Bradley era, poorly organized and conceding chances and goals at an unsustainable rate. A tactical shift also was a factor here, as Klinsmann deployed just one defensive midfielder to screen the back line. But the problems that plagued the U.S. defense in the past, which Klinsmann appeared to have left in the past, returned with a vengeance. The defenders struggled to keep a consistent line and the spacing was terrible, leaving huge gaps which were frequently exploited by the Slovenes. Continue reading

Five lessons from USA v France

Jozy's strong play best thing for US during France game

It is hard to find positives from the dismal performance of the United States during their 1-0 defeat to France in Paris. Yes, it was very disappointing and it would be easy to go the full Lalas and limit analysis to whining incessantly “where is the possession this Jurgen Klinsmann keeps talking about?” But just because it was disappointing doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from this matchup on the road against a team that has just come through a year of competitive fixtures and is now unbeaten in its last 16 games. Here are five lessons from France pointing towards the next game against Slovenia.

Altidore looks more polished after strong start at AZ Alkmar

Jozy Altidore was excellent and it would be lazy to look at the score line and the minimal chances and say the striker failed to do his job and get a goal. But he was clearly the most threatening American player and more importantly, he displayed skill and class on a number of occasions to fashion the odd half-chance virtually single-handedly. In fact, while it didn’t look like much in real time, the replay clearly showed that Altidore was tripped in the box after a brilliant turn in the 20th minute. That could have been a penalty.

Read the rest of this column at Guardian Sports

 

Is Arsenal the best place for Brek Shea?

Arsenal not the best Euro destination for Brek Shea; photo by Albumen

News that Brek Shea will join Arsenal on a two-week trial following the USMNT’s games in Europe against France and Slovenia is big news and clearly an indication that the FC Dallas left-winger is likely the next American to make the leap to Europe. But are the Gunners really the best landing spot for Shea? I don’t think so, and that’s not because of this blog’s general antipathy to Arsenal (Max is a Spurs fan after all). Shea needs to play in an environment that is conducive to his development, and Arsenal just doesn’t fit the bill right now.

The lure of playing for one of the Premier League’s and Europe’s top clubs is obviously strong. And the Gunners are still in the Champions League and are climbing the table with four straight league wins after a rough start to the season. But you can’t shake the feeling that Arsenal’s restive supporters–having endured six straight seasons without a major trophy–are just a couple of bad games from returning to the mood of the early season when Wenger’s position seemed very much in doubt. Continue reading

Five lessons from Klinsmann’s first five games

Klinsmann after USA victory of Honduras; image courtesy of Nathan F

What hope does Jürgen Klinsmann’s USMNT have against France on Friday and Slovenia on Tuesday after mixed fortunes in his first five games in charge?

Progress not Miracles

Just one win and two goals is probably not what Jürgen Klinsmann imagined the return would be through his first five games in charge of the U.S. men’s national team. But, as Amy Lawrence described last month, this is a long-term project on Klinsmann has a great deal of latitude to remake U.S. soccer from youth development through the senior squad.

As the U.S. looks ahead to France this Friday and a World Cup rematch with Slovenia next Tuesday, Klinsmann’s first five games underscore that U.S. fans should be looking for progress not miracles. This U.S. squad, when fully fit and available, is deeper and more talented than any previous iteration with highly skilled veterans and some real potential stars. Klinsmann’s task is to take a U.S. soccer system which has produced uneven results over the last decade and move it into the upper echelon of soccer nations – and that task is more difficult than going from the poor performances of the 1990s to the largely respectable return during the 2000s. Here are some key things we’ve learned so far about that project:

Full column at the new Guardian US website

Association Football is Back!

We’re back. Life intervened—we both got married and got new jobs—to make it very difficult to devote the kind of time necessary to keep up the blog at the frequency posting we wanted and as a result, we got away from writing anything. But we’ve missed it, and thanks to the strong admonitions of friends and a few very loyal readers, we’re going to start posting again.

The focus will remain the same: the growth of soccer in the United States both on the field with the U.S. Men’s National Team and MLS and off it as the sport grows in popularity and as a successful business; the English Premier League, Max’s Spurs and Ken’s Liverpool give us plenty to write about; the global governance of the game; and the occasional convergence of soccer and international politics.

We will be posting less frequently than our previous efforts but we will make each post count more as our style will favor the long-form column full of analysis.

One new wrinkle is that we will be more active on Twitter and Facebook. So please follow us on Twitter @assocfootball and checkout the Association Football Facebook page.

Thank you to those who have encouraged us to get back to doing something we truly loved. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Merge Gold Cup and Copa America for genuine tournament of the Americas

Merge continental tournaments into true Copa Americas

This is the second post in a series of five recommendations for USSF President Sunil Gulati

International tournaments are soccer’s Holy Grail. Club soccer has exploded around the world and changed the business of game, but it’s still the World Cup that grabs the attention of fans like no other competition. Europe’s continental championship is just a tick below the World Cup and South America’s is well above other such competitions. These tournaments are not just great for fans, however, as consistent high-level competition is a huge advantage for national teams. Our continental championship, the Gold Cup, is a very poor tournament that does little for fans or players. A merger of the North and South American competitions in a true Copa Americas makes sense on competitive, fan interest, and importantly, financial grounds.

While the US national team has several years until its next truly consequential game, the first match in qualifying for Euro 2012 is just a few months away. The qualification round is the best of both worlds for the development of top European teams, as there is a mix of very weak teams and strong sides with a reasonable margin of error to get through to the tournament finals. The weaker and middling sides allow teams like Germany to bring younger players into the squad in competitive matches against weaker opponents while there are enough tough games to keep the team sharp. This works for fans too, as it’s just a short World Cup hangover until meaningful games begin again. And needless to say, the national soccer federations reap huge windfalls from playing numerous qualifying games on top of another major tournament. Continue reading

Starting the Jurgen Klinsmann campaign for US national team coach

This post is the first in a series of five recommendations for USSF President Sunil Gulati

Klinsmann is the right man to coach the US

Bob Bradley has had a successful run, but it’s time for him to move on to a new challenge and for US soccer to bring in a new coach to take soccer in America to the next level. There is really only one man for the job: Jurgen Klinsmann.  The former star striker and German national team coach is obviously a big name in world soccer, but after two good summers in a row US soccer no longer needs to prioritize borrowing other nation’s big names to be considered a serious soccer nation. There are four main reasons he should become the next US national team coach: he takes a holistic approach to building national team system from the playgrounds to the World Cup, he would develop a recognizable American style of play, he knows US soccer intimately and has thought about what it would take to transform the sport in America, and he is one of the best strikers of all time and would be a fantastic mentor to the future of US soccer, Jozy Altidore.

Let’s not forget to pay Bob Bradley his due. He took over in very difficult circumstances after a disastrous 2006 World Cup and an unsettled coaching search and not only righted the ship quickly, but won the Gold Cup in his first year, orchestrated a dazzling deep run in the Confederations Cup, won Concacaf World Cup qualifying, and won Group C at the Finals in South Africa. But despite those successes it wasn’t all roses. Bradley struggled to adapt his favored system to his personnel and was prone to play favorites rather than the best players. And while he fostered a remarkable resiliency within his team that produced too many comebacks to count, it is also true that his team found itself in need to come back far too often for it to not be partly down to poor match preparation and tactics. A four-year cycle is the right time to move on and that may be to Fulham if the rumors are believed. Continue reading