Defensive Issues And An Identity Crisis Are Halting Liverpool’s Attempted Modification

In some ways, like it has been for much of his career, Steven Gerrard’s recent history is a very accurate encapsulation of Liverpool’s. Perceived as something which used to be great, but not anymore, the expectations at the start of 2013/14 were relatively low. Come the end of the season, Steven Gerrard had been included in the PFA Team of the Year and Liverpool had finished second in the Premier League – just inches away from their first title since 1990. Now a few months on, both he and the club are back to being mere shadows of what they once were.

Though Gerrard’s inclusion in that team of the year was somewhat generous, and his record of 13 goals and 13 assists was significantly boosted through set-pieces, he still had an excellent season. There were certainly faults which were clear to see, but his lack of defensive nous was put up with in exchange for the attacking qualities which he possessed. Again, just like Liverpool as a whole.

Brendan Rodgers managed to get those improved performances out of him through a change of role. Having been a box-to-box midfielder for the majority of his career, Rodgers opted to move him further back and utilise him as a deep-lying playmaker. From here, just in front of the backline, Gerrard could receive the ball more regularly from his centre-backs and be under less pressure when doing so: thus giving him more time to turn and operate with the ball. He was designated as the one to link play from back to front, using him there at the expense of some form of defensive screen.

As a result of a number of factors, Gerrard’s performances with the ball have been a very large step down this campaign. Without him exerting control upon a game and dictating things as he did, his inclusion as the deepest of Liverpool's midfielders can no longer be so justified by his qualities in possession. That means that his place in that role should now come down to what he can do in defensive areas – a department which he falls very short in. 

The defensive stats of Steven Gerrard in comparison to other holding midfielders in the Premier League for 2014/15 so far.

The defensive stats of Steven Gerrard in comparison to other holding midfielders in the Premier League for 2014/15 so far.

When compared to other holding midfielders in the Premier League, it’s no coincidence that he statistically bears most resemblance to Mikel Arteta of Arsenal – a side whose primary problem for a long period of time has been the absence of a proper protective presence in front of the back four. The differing roles those two operate in compared to the other three in the table (as playmakers, as opposed to stoppers) explains the contrast, and it brings up a very important question which links the clubs of those two together; how sustainable is it to have someone who contributes so little defensively in that area of the pitch?

The answer, well, is not very. Gerrard’s lack of mobility and his numerous defensive inadequacies were somewhat covered up last season, both by Liverpool’s own attacking threat and the energy of others around him. Jordan Henderson (who would have been more deserving of a place in the PFA team in 2013/14 than his teammate) has been in indifferent form alongside Gerrard lately and that certainly hasn’t helped, with his shuttling providing a great foil to the captain last season as his frailties became more apparent, but it’s part of a much bigger systematic issue which goes way beyond just the two of them. One which has seen them concede a rather awful 29 goals (13 of them set-pieces) in 19 matches this season.

It’s often said that defending starts from the front, and that undoubtedly applied to Liverpool last season. A lot has been made of Luis Suárez’s departure from an attacking sense, and rightly so, but it was also he who was so often the initiator of the high tempo game which proved successful for Brendan Rodgers. The Uruguayan led from the front, using his energy and tenacity to instigate a pressing movement, and it was an infectious kind of attitude which he had – his example would spread through the rest of the team and they would follow religiously in closing the opposition down. And just as players will follow a good example, the same can happen from a bad one.

Despite what most of the media say, not everything is Mario Balotelli’s fault; however in this instance his contrast to Suárez is massive. Going from someone with a phenomenally high intensity to someone with a significantly lower one and a different style is hard to adjust to. Rather than the perceived attitude problems and so on, it’s his style in itself which should have raised the most issues over whether Balotelli was a good addition or not to this team in the summer. Without a Suárez-like figure to start the process, other players appear slightly confused over when and whether to press.

The intensity of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez was a vital component of Liverpool’s pressing game last season.

The intensity of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez was a vital component of Liverpool’s pressing game last season.

Daniel Sturridge’s injury woes and Raheem Sterling’s stagnation have contributed too, as they often worked very well together with Suárez, and the closing down has now gone from an efficient and effective machine (perhaps not in organisation but in intensity) to what is in comparison a poorly coordinated, inconsistent and low intensity mess. It’s likely that, combined with Rodgers putting his three best and quickest attackers alongside each other up top, the pressing was instilled (whether intentionally or accidentally as a result of having those three together) as a mechanism to protect a defence which couldn’t be trusted – or even trained properly – to see out games.

Being constantly on the front foot offered some much-needed relief to them, whether that meant they would be put under less pressure or that the amount of goals conceded often proved irrelevant for such a free-scoring side. To put their struggles into perspective, no Premier League side has ever finished in the top two and conceded as many goals as Liverpool did last season (50); the next highest was Man Utd’s 45 in 1999/00.

With the quality of pressing lowered and the amount of goals being scored having declined drastically this season though, there is no longer as much protection or an excuse for such a poor level of defending. It means that Gerrard is left isolated, not only exposing but accentuating his own faults as a holding midfielder, and that in turn leaves the backline wildly open. Even the best defence would find it difficult in this situation where the rest of the team is malfunctioning and a lot of space is left in behind the ineffectual press – and the players they have right now hardly cover themselves in glory either.

In fairness to them, it should be taken into account that 75% of what is arguably Liverpool’s first-choice defensive line-up are still adapting to a new club though, something which means they need time (as well as doing Simon Mignolet – who’s struggled enough by himself – no favours either). Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo are clearly talented but are young and have the matter of adjusting to a new country and league as well, let alone just a club, whilst Dejan Lovren appears unsuited to playing in the high block system which is employed.

After Lovren gives the ball away and is cleverly dragged out wide by Oscar, Liverpool fail to track a midfield run properly – and Ramires gets into the area which the Croatian leaves.

After Lovren gives the ball away and is cleverly dragged out wide by Oscar, Liverpool fail to track a midfield run properly – and Ramires gets into the area which the Croatian leaves.

That, about Lovren, was something which Paul Mitchell (the man who scouted and recommended the Croatian to Southampton) noticed at Lyon and saw as the reason why he was often regarded as a bit of a mistake waiting to happen in France. Yet last year, played in a way to suit him properly, he was one of the league’s best performing centre-backs. It’s not as if Liverpool are buying particularly bad defenders or anything, just the whole environment for them to thrive isn’t there.

The away game at Real Madrid this season demonstrated the overriding importance of an organised system compared to personnel. A centre-back pairing of Kolo Touré and Martin Škrtel isn’t exactly the epitome of defensive excellence, but together they conceded just one goal at the Bernabéu and played relatively well in a set-up which was employed with the intention simply to withstand pressure. That isn’t to ignore specific deficiencies and inexcusable mistakes, something which has been far too common (especially from set-pieces), but solely blaming the individuals is harsh.

Rodgers ended up with the sole emphasis of his side being based upon individual brilliance, rather than the system. That worked tremendously well in attack, but with Suárez leaving, Sturridge’s injuries and many players losing form (both after the World Cup and having over-performed last year) it’s unable to carry them any longer. It’s also clearly not sustainable for the defence, with the likes of Chelsea and Southampton demonstrating the importance of a cohesive unit, and not having a system to fall back on when the best players are struggling is a big worry.

The 2-0 loss at Anfield to Chelsea last season is the most iconic of the three moments (the others being the 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park and Jordan Henderson’s red card against Man City causing him to miss vital games) at the tail end of the year which cost Liverpool the title, and it is a quote from Brendan Rodgers after that game which is starting to be more and more regular referred to now in their current plight. “Anyone can ask a team to just sit back and defend on the edge of the box.”

The gap between Liverpool’s defence and midfield is easily exposed, with two players dropping in there to exploit the large amount of space.

The gap between Liverpool’s defence and midfield is easily exposed, with two players dropping in there to exploit the large amount of space.

In a way the context of how that quote was being used seems to be a little misplaced, with it referring to the incredibly low block Mourinho used rather than just defending in general, but there is a relevance to it – Rodgers needs to prove that he, like supposedly ‘anyone’, can get a team to defend properly. Now, it’s nice and easy to say that’s what he needs to achieve, but it raises the issue of how to actually do so. And that’s a rather more complex situation than just a couple of tweaks.

Perhaps the most solvable issue for the short-term revolves around what to do with Gerrard. One possibility, which is completely justifiable on his current form, is dropping him altogether – favouring someone who can provide a proper defensive screen. Lucas Leiva is the natural pick for that, though Emre Can (who has been impressive in his few appearances so far) could be selected for a more mobile, technical and vertical choice.  The alternative option is to keep the captain in the team but in a more advanced role, meaning he can still play (as he did in the away game at Ludogorets, albeit unsuccessfully) but it importantly allows for a protective presence to be included as the deepest, holding midfielder.

Other than that though, the defensive issues are much more long standing than simple personnel ones; for that, the first stage Rodgers needs to do is get a clear structure in his head and stick to it for the foreseeable future. Tinkering with systems last season allowed his attack to thrive like never before but it’s near suicidal if you want a properly functioning defensive unit. When most of them are experiencing a new environment, the last thing they’ll want is more change. In fact, as a result of all these alterations, it seems like right now the club – and Rodgers in particular – is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis.

Brendan Rodgers has to decide on the direction which he wants to take this new Liverpool side in.

Brendan Rodgers has to decide on the direction which he wants to take this new Liverpool side in.

The incredibly high tempo football of last season proved to be somewhat of a revelation, but it’s very out of sync with what Rodgers has done as a manager in the rest of his career. Rather than the pace and directness of 2013/14, he’s always favoured a patient, possession-orientated build-up. Perhaps the success of the former from their 2nd place finish has him unsure over exactly how to mould the identity of this new Liverpool squad, which isn’t as suited to that style without Suárez in particular. The differing playing styles of some of the signings certainly suggests indecision.

Combined with the big turnover of players, that helps to explain the lack of cohesiveness in both attacking and defensive phases – no clear ideal and a series of mixed messages will not be of benefit to anyone. Picking a definitive style, rather than being somewhere in between two, which really fits the players will help: especially whilst many of them are out of form or still adjusting. When the individual brilliance isn’t working, or if it isn’t there altogether (Liverpool are arguably not favourites for a top four finish on paper alone and did over-perform last year), the system has to be there to rely upon.

Building upon the basics and working up again seems to be the solution, and it will be a long-term one. The goals aren’t coming, the flair players aren’t producing and just as importantly the confidence which surrounded the squad for much of the last campaign seems missing. The way their title challenge collapsed so suddenly was unfitting of how well they played, and something like that can be very damaging mentally. Slowly adjusting to the brand new situation and working that confidence up again will be important.

As Spurs have similarly experienced recently with Gareth Bale, recovering from the loss of such a key player and reshaping your side completely takes time – it’s a process which often takes more than a season. There are lots of changes to incorporate and that cannot be rushed. The issue is that, currently, the correct adjustments just don’t seem to be being implemented and there are limited (if any) signs of improvement. Rodgers has to recognise that and place the right foundations in, and the sooner he does that the quicker this struggle can come to an end.