The visit of Manchester United in September 2012 to Anfield sealed Liverpool’s worst start to a season in over a century – 2 points from 5 games. Precisely a year later, the same fixture has contributed to arguably Liverpool’s best start ever – 9 points and three clean sheets from 3 games.
What does this tell us? We’ve already observed that Brendan Rodgers is a manager who grows with every game. His first half-season with Liverpool yielded 25 points from 19 games; the second resulted in 36 points and a string of good results. So far this season, the squad (without Luis Suarez) has been impressive – solid if unspectacular. The tables in a sense have been turned: last year, he was the new manager under pressure when Sir Alex Ferguson marched his troops in. This time, David Moyes is feeling the heat, while Rodgers is reasonably secure. And his stock is rising.
Of course, there’s no telling how long this run of good form will last, and it would be laughable to revel in a three-match run – the league has just kicked off, and many ambitious campaigns have fallen apart in inglorious fashion at a later stage.
But the manner of Liverpool’s victories offers food for thought.
Each is a 1-0 win, fashioned from a first-half goal followed by dogged defending in the second half. If we count the final-day win against Queens Park Rangers last season, Liverpool have notched up four consecutive 1-0 wins. And in the latter three, most of the pressure has been applied in the first half – high pressing, more shots on goal and greater possession – followed by retreat and a compact defensive shape in the second half.
This marks a change in strategy. Until now, Rodgers has been a template manager, taking the ‘death by football’ approach – dominate possession to control the match. But Liverpool now appear prepared to let their opponents have the ball in non-threatening areas. Today United enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, at 57%. But the pressing patterns are revealing: Liverpool pressed harder in the first 45 minutes, then sought to protect their lead. Playing a rough 4-5-1, the home side shut off the central area; with United’s frustrated wingers resorting to long crosses that the tall centre-back pair of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger dealt with easily.
This tactical flexibility was perhaps prompted by Rodgers recognizing that his players cannot press the opposition high up the pitch for the entire 90 minutes, and defenders like Skrtel are not entirely comfortable with a high line.
But a defensive shape offers Liverpool the option of a counter-attack – and here they are surprisingly well-equipped. In Sterling and Sturridge, Liverpool have attackers who can quickly cover ground, benefiting from Steven Gerrard’s excellent long passes. And while Suarez doesn’t fit the counter-attacking bill, his ability to find space means that he can benefit from this approach as well. Players like Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva, meanwhile, are energetic and physically efficient where it comes to winning the ball back and forcing attacking midfielders deeper.
While they are yet to score on a counter this season, playing defensively is a potential strength that Rodgers has started to adapt.
Before starting his managerial career at Watford, Rodgers assisted Jose Mourinho at Chelsea (as did Andre Villas-Boas and Steve Clarke, now managers at Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion respectively). At the time, Chelsea were (in)famous for their style of play: park the bus and launch the battering ram called Didier Drogba. Taking a 1-0 lead and then defending the blue-bottomed drawers out of it was a Chelsea speciality.
Both Mourinho and Chelsea have since placed a greater emphasis on attack, but Rodgers may still be sticking to the rules he learnt from the Portuguese master-coach. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Liverpool dominated possession last season, but were largely under-productive, often blowing leads to draw or losing games they should have won. They were also criticized for being too predictable in their approach. Might this not have frustrated the Northern Irishman into changing to a more familiar style?
It wouldn’t be the first time; last season an injury forced Rodgers to employ a counter-attacking 3-5-2 away at Everton. What surprised everyone was not the tactical switch but how well Liverpool seemed to adapt. A packed midfield with a defensive inclination offers more protection for the defenders and is better at protecting leads. Whether his Chelsea experience influenced him or not, in resorting to first principles, the Liverpool manager has unexpectedly found – for the moment – a winning formula.