Liverpool 2-1 West Ham: a view on tactics

Posted by Consigliere on August 28, 2006, 09:21:48 PM

Liverpool kicked off their first home league game of the season against last season’s FA Cup Finalists. Aside from Kuyt’s debut, one of the most interesting aspects of the game was perhaps the way in which Liverpool set themselves out tactically, to play with a particularly open, attacking formation.

Pennant started wide on the right, Garcia notionally on the left but as is usual with his style of play, he had licence to roam anywhere across the front line. Garcia has sometimes been described as an attacking midfielder or winger, but he’s a difficult player to pigeonhole – he is perhaps more of a withdrawn forward who's natural game is to play in a free role. Gerrard – who on more than one occasion has described himself as an ‘attacking midfielder’ - played alongside Xabi Alonso in the centre of midfield. With three forwards, one winger, and an attacking midfielder, this was a Liverpool team brimming with attacking intent.

Such an adventurous formation was no doubt brought about by a number of factors. The enforced absence of Sissoko with his physical dominance, ground coverage and ball winning ability was undoubtedly a factor. But there was perhaps also the need to give the players that had been signed during the summer an opportunity to play and show what they could do.

It is also unlikely that it would have escaped Benitez’s attention that when Liverpool last played West Ham, we struggled to break them down. Were it not for a couple of exceptional strikes from Gerrard - as well an assist - it would have almost certainly have been the team from East London lifting the FA Cup rather than the one from Merseyside. Given that West Ham play an open, attacking game, this was always going to make for an interesting and exciting match.

Width, wingers, pace, movement, and attacking momentum are all things that excite the crowd. It’s not difficult to agree that a team that sets itself out in such a manner stretches the opposition, and creates space in which others can play. The attacking benefits are obvious – as Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle’s and Ossie Ardiles’ Tottenham will testify. It was interesting hearing Mark Lawrenson’s comments on how effective Liverpool were in moving the ball across the pitch at pace with players interchanging positions, particularly for Crouch’s goal, where Pennant found himself on the left before spraying the ball to Gerrard who in turn found Garcia in a centre forward’s position.

However, with any strength there comes a weakness and that was apparent when West Ham had the ball and were on the attack. It was surprising how Liverpool set out their shape when West Ham had the ball in the middle of pitch. More often than not, Liverpool seemed to be outnumbered in central midfield with both Alonso and Gerrard coming up against 3 or 4 West Ham players who could play a quick, short interchange of passes leaving Gerrard and Alonso to chase shadows.

It’s worth watching the West Ham goal again, because although you could say that Aurelio was out of position, the fact is, West Ham played straight through our centre midfield before feeding the ball out wide to Zamora. Exactly the same thing happened a few minutes later when Harewood missed a gilt edged chance. On a couple of other occasions, West Ham were left to run directly at the Liverpool centre backs with no midfield cover in front of them. You can be the greatest centre back in the world but if you have no midfield cover in front of you, you really do have your work cut out. If Carragher had been playing, I have no doubt that he would have given the midfield players the hairdryer treatment at half-time. There's no reason why you can't have an effective midfield two that can stop the ball being played through them - the classic example is Viera and Petit - but Alonso and Gerrard simply aren't the type players that can provide that type of defensive security.
If you look at any of Martin O’Neil’s teams, the way that they set themselves out in terms of the shape of their team when the opposition have the ball is very apparent. Look at your own half of the pitch, draw a smaller rectangle within it, and put 10 players in it in a 4-5-1 formation, each with an area of the rectangle to close down.  It’s extremely difficult for the opposition to break down or play through such a compact “box” formation. Liverpool did something very similar during the Houllier era and Houllier’s Liverpool side could hardly be described as one that was easy to break down. Against West Ham, Liverpool were far too open with Garcia and Pennant staying out wide, when they should have been tucking into midfield to help out Gerrard and Alonso. Compress the space and it’s much more difficult for the opposition to play through you. I’ve no doubt that it’s something that Benitez and the coaching staff will want work on.

© Consigliere 2006

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