Following the defeat to Chelsea in the EFL Cup, the wave of confidence that Liverpool fans have been surfing along on so far this season with seven wins in seven seems to have been instantly replaced with one of fear.
The question is no longer how this Chelsea team will manage against Liverpool when they were so easily carved open by Arsenal. Instead, it is how this Liverpool side can contain Eden Hazard. The answer, as always, will likely be:-
- Stay compact
- Use pressing traps
- Ambush the Chelsea centre-halves when they drift wide on the ball
- Drop into a mid-block when either of the above two options are not on.
However, the most important battle of this game won’t be Salah v Hazard. Or which of the two most expensive keepers in the world bring lettuce hands to the party. No, it will be which of the two number 6’s do a better job of controlling the spaces around them and which midfield copes better with being pressed on the ball.
This season already, Liverpool are a different team than last season in terms of the composition of their midfield. With Georginio Wijnaldum in number six role and two aggressive pressers in front of him – the system feels a lot more functional while also tough for opponents to break down. Wijnaldum, being Liverpool's most tactically adept player, simply ensures he closes up the spaces both vertically and horizontally on the pitch to ensure when they press or set a trap, they cannot be easily exposed should the Reds fail to win the ball back.
The clear distinction of duties for each role both on and off the ball also seem to best suit those carrying them out. Naby Keita & James Milner hunt the ball, attack spaces & create. Wijnaldum focuses on delay in transitions to ensure the pressing midfielders have time to get back goal side of the ball for another bite at trying to win it back.
However, the balance when Wijnaldum isn’t in the #6 role just doesn’t feel the same. Liverpool are still somewhat effective with the ball, but off the ball have been too easy to play through at times. This is also supported by the data across the six league games, albeit small sample sizes involved.
The above table shows the differences in big chances both for and against dependent upon who is playing in the #6 position for Liverpool so far in the league this season. Liverpool are yet to concede a goal or even allow a big chance to be created against them, with Wijnaldum occupying that role in front of the defense this season. In the 368 minutes he has occupied that role, 10 big chances have been created for Liverpool and 0 for the opposition.
This is due to how each individual sees the game in front of them. Henderson is a natural runner in the mold of a box-to-box midfielder and therefore wants to solve problems by running. Hunting the ball. Chasing runners. Whereas Wijnaldum sees the game in terms of space. Therefore he wants to solve problems by compressing spaces & closing passing lanes. Likewise, how each player attempts to regain possession is also different. Henderson, as a classic English footballer, will steam into tackles taking the ball, man, and anything else in his way. For Wijnaldum, with Dutch coaching at youth level, tackling is about taking possession of the ball. Therefore not committing yourself in the tackle but instead shepherding people out of play, delaying their progress, matching their run, toe-poking the ball away to a teammate or, if possible, getting a foot on the ball to take it from the opponent.
The pros and cons of each are clear. The traditional English way of tackling for the ball is more aggressive, visible and strong tackles often leave something psychologically on the players. However, if you are not in control of the ball at any point and therefore simply trying to make contact with the ball (and player) means you often have no control over which team has possession once the tackle occurs. It also has a psychological element to it. Henderson & Milner’s 2 or 3 big tackles against PSG seemed to set the tone for the game. You got the feeling in those moments, the battle for the midfield was won that night.
Whereas the more continental approach of trying to regain possession of the ball without committing yourself means your team’s structure usually remains more stable. When a player takes himself out of the game due to committing in a tackle, it often requires teammates to step out of their position to deal with the player in case his tackle is unsuccessful. It also gives a better chance of ensuring that the team comes away with the ball. This also helps to reduce unnecessary fouls and cautions issued to players.
However, it is less visible. It won't lift the crowd, it probably isn't making many highlight reels or feature on Match of the Day. Statistically, it may not even be recorded as anything at all as you shepherd your opponent out of play, or into an ambush. Often simply forcing them to make poor passing choices while unbalanced.
All of this is borne out when comparing the tackling stats of the two players competing for the #6 role in the side. According to Opta, Wijnaldum has been dribbled past 2 times in 520 minutes this season – or once for every 4,5 tackles he has completed. Whereas Henderson has been dribbled past 4 times in just 244 minutes this season – or once every 1,5 tackles. Henderson is three times more likely to get beaten by an attacking player with the ball then Wijnaldum when attempting to tackle.
It was immediately clear also the dangers of being dribbled past in that position against Chelsea as Hazard waltzed through Liverpool's midfield onto the left, past Keita, then Moreno and scored. Some warning signs were also there against Leicester as Henderson was dribbled past twice in the space in front of his defense; both times resulting in a shot on goal which Alisson needed to save.
For these reasons, Henderson’s more combative approach to the role is likely going to clash with the team's system on occasion. It also illustrates why Liverpool look more stable both visually and statistically with a more tactically-oriented player in the role who solves problems with positioning & jockeying, than a more physically-oriented player who tries to solve problems with running & tackling.Published 29 Sep 2018, 10:47 IST