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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Finally Benitez picked Liverpool’s best available XI

Normally, beating a team lying in 13th in League 1 whose star youngster wasn’t fit enough to be in the starting lineup isn’t a great accomplishment. But Liverpool’s 4-0 win at Marseille, a vitally important victory in the first in a series of three huge matches over eight days that will decide the direction of the remainder of the Reds’ season, their activity in the transfer market, and the fate of their manager, could be even more significant because it demonstrated the potential of the team when the right players are put in the right positions.

Benitez has taken a great deal of stick in the press over his team selection, most recently being lambasted for his team sheet against Reading and the “surrender” of taking off Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in the second half down 3-1. I find much of that grief to be typical media hyperbole, especially so the case at Reading given the column inches devoted to the importance of the upcoming games in three competitions, Marseille in the Champions League, Man U in the Prem, and Chelsea in the Carling Cup. Isn’t it prudent to keep more than just one eye on those games while picking your team to face a struggling bottom-table side even if they have a decent record at the Madejski?

My criticism of Benitez is not against his rotation policy in general, it is that when he moves players in and out of the lineup he often fails to keep a balance of skills on the pitch. That was true at the weekend with a midfield trio of Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Momo Sissoko. For all of Gerrard’s qualities, keeping possession often eludes him. That hole in his game is only a serious problem when his teammates can’t make up for it, and no one will argue that the calamitous passing of Sissoko or the wasteful actions of Mascherano can hide Gerrard’s errors. Liverpool’s midfield just gave the ball away too often to control the game and they paid the price for it.

At the Stade Velodrome it was a different story. Injuries precluded the selection of Daniel Agger, Xabi Alonso, or Steve Finnan—regulars who would likely be automatic selections for a game of this magnitude—but this Liverpool side fit and worked together like few other setups have, particularly the midfielders and strikers. Gerrard and Mascherano were again in the middle, but they were complimented by wingers that are comfortable and skilled with the ball at their feet. Harry Kewell and Yossi Benayoun not only kept possession, but were dangerous when they had it, forcing the Marseille defenders to cover the whole pitch. That opened up space for Torres, a handful in any circumstances, and Gerrard, whose trademark surging runs found fewer men in neon orange blocking his path. Even the energy and industry of Torres’ strike partner Dirk Kuyt was put to its maximum utility, constantly harrying the defenders allowing Gerrard a freer role and clearing the way for Torres to terrorize the defense.

So who will play in Sunday’s showdown with Manchester United? The win at Marseille Tuesday provides the blueprint—a balanced team on the pitch with game changers on the bench. Whether or not Benitez follows this formula for success rather than a simplistic look at rotation is how we should judge the manager.