A tactical analysis of Liverpool's success this season
The 2013-2014 Barclays Premier League season is coming to a close and there’s no doubt that it has been one of the most unpredictable and exciting seasons one can remember. Some clubs failed to achieve the expectations set while others such as Crystal Palace have definitely surpassed expectations. However, when one looks back in retrospect at the whole campaign, the major success story has to be Liverpool.
The same club which finished 7th in the 2012-]2013 season have not only achieved the objective set at the start of the season of finishing in the Champions League positions but have also mounted a serious challenge for the title.
Now, obviously the question that arises is how did that happen? It is a result of the combination of many factors such as managerial changes at other clubs and in contrast, stability at Liverpool. Plus the sudden yet enjoyable (Hey! I’m a LFC fan) fall of the perpetual title challengers Manchester United created that extra space up at the top of the table which allowed Liverpool to really challenge for the title.
But the real underlying cause for Liverpool’s terrific progress this season is a remarkable change in the system in comparison to last year from a possession based team to a clinical, incisive, clever team.
The Liverpool system
Experts and Pundits keep stressing on the fact that Liverpool this season are much more of a counter attacking team this season as compared to last year. But the stats don’t support this argument, and according to Opta Stats, the number of counter attacks this season, surprisingly, is the same they had last season, which is 27. The real change is in the style of play when the team does not have the ball.
Possession football, as was employed by Rodgers in the last season is basically built on two pillars.
- Keeping hold of the ball, moving it around, thus tiring the opposition
- Pressing quickly when the ball is lost
Now, keeping hold of the ball is all well and good, but it is literally useless when there is no penetration in the final third. Any well organised, defensively set up team can negotiate possession of the ball. One example was Barcelona’s loss to a far inferior side in Real Valladolid. They lost 1-0, despite having 80% of the ball. In short, possession does NOT guarantee you a result.
So Rodgers made a few, yet vital modifications to the tiki-taka system. He’s instructed the fowards and the midfielders to press higher and try and nick the ball in their opponents half itself. This concept is called Gegenpressing, started by Jurgen Klopp, and needless to say, it has worked splendidly for Borussia Dortmund. The 2013 Champions League final is a testimony to this fact.
Basically, its a high energy, high tempo pressing game with added emphasis on breakneck speed transitions and quick passing. This system has two particular advantages -
- It does not give the opposition defenders time to settle and get into a rhythm which defenders get into quite easily when facing a possession based side. Klopp emphasised the importance of getting the ball up the pitch as quickly as possible. He doesn’t mind the old school long punt up the field by the centre half if it unsettles the defender, and presents a goal- scoring chance. The perfect example is the 4th goal by Liverpool against Arsenal. Coutinho nicks the ball in his own half, plays an absolutely unbelievable though ball to Sturridge and BOOM!. Total no. of passes to create the chance : 1.
- Secondly, since gegenpressing is a highly energy sapping process, players are bound to feel the strain in a game of 90 minutes. Gegenpressing has a solution to that too, as teams can then keep hold of the ball and move it around in a slow tempo, to allow the attacking players to recover. This is done in short spans during a game to ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness for future attacks. It can be used to kill games off too. Liverpool used this to perfect effect against Manchester City, when after Coutinho’s goal they just kept the ball, slowed the tempo down and dampened Man City’s spirit.
Shot Conversion %
The change in the system is for sure one of the reasons for this unprecedented success, but a deeper analysis reveals that the mental aspect of the team in terms of decision making and conversion rate has also greatly improved. In a simulation conducted by Colin Trainor of StatsBomb, it was found that Liverpool can expect to score once every 14 shots fired towards goal.
Liverpool’s current shot conversion rate of 16% (99 goals from 638 shots) is the highest conversion rate by any team over the last 5 seasons.
In a nutshell, its been a tremendous season for Liverpool Football Club and the signs are that it is only going to get better with more intelligent and more tactically aware players coming in. Long live the good times! YNWA.