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Guest Post: Liverpool's Defensive Tactics, Part Two

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Part two of the tactical analysis after the jump.

ii.

All of that brings us, by the long way 'round, to what appears to be Hodgson's more standard approach to defending. It was on show before United, popped right back up again against Northampton before leading directly to Sunderland's equilizer, and despite occasional snarky comments about the new boss being the same as the old boss that seemed to get tossed around by some in the early days of September it bears no relation to anything that's ever been called a 4-2-3-1. Certainly Hodgson has looked to employ variations on the 4-2-3-1 in attack, at least when it comes to midfielder positioning moving forward, and the imprecise nature of formations as they shift between attack and defense and vice versa can make it easier at times to point to the formation being banged on about by the commentators than what the players on the field are actually doing.

Still, whatever his intent moving forward, the players do not fill the rolls typically associated with a 4-2-3-1 in defense, relying on banks of four that haven't heard of this newfangled defensive midfielder dealie that people keep banging on about. In this case it is a distinctly narrow variation on the old English standard 4-4-2 to the point that it very nearly could be said to employ four center backs and four central midfielders when the players stick to their roles. Discipline, shape, and caution are the keys here, with the goal of a packed defense that is difficult to play through and break down, but there are negatives like uncovered flanks and conceding possession that necessarily go along with it. After all, if your main goal is to maintain shape, extreme caution is required to lessen the chance of an individual player being beaten one on one such that another defender might be drawn out of his position in support, starting a fall of defensive dominos and introducing chaos to the world. A passive, narrow fullback is a fullback who is less likely to get skinned alive, and he leaves the center backs and wide midfielders to stick to their own rolls while inevitably playing off the opponent and giving them acres of space to pick a cross more often than not.

That isn't to say it's a necessarily bad way to set up a defense, but as with any system it requires certain types of players, especially on the back line where a pair of towering tree-like defenders are meant to be flanked by conservative fullbacks--or even converted center backs who are good enough but not tall enough to hack it in the center of the system. Kygiakos with the afore-mentioned Hyypia would have had the potential to be an unbeatable core for such a line, perhaps even one best flanked by Carragher and, if he ever managed to play his way out of the dog house, Agger.

At times, though, unfamiliarity with the system--or a refusal to stick to it--has led to mistakes that Hodgson could conceivably point to as reasons for its failure. One of the most obvious was City's first goal as Agger, filling in at left back, allowed himself to be pulled into acres of space as he attempted to press the city attacker. Meanwhile the midfielders and central defense stuck to their shape, resulting into a huge, exploitable hole that was quickly filled by a city attacker well onside and clear on goal. Agger created a gap through seeking to pressure, thee Liverpool players kept their shape and watched it happen, the intentionally deep line didn't bother stepping up, and you start to see the beginnings of Agger playing himself out of favor with the head coach. While some would argue against the foolishness of leaving the opposition free to wreak havoc on the flanks and point to moments against Birmingham and Sunderland, there is an argument to be made that if the players had all stuck to it with more of a will the system wouldn't have looked quite so bad nearly as often.

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Moving out from defense, then, the deep and narrow set up and cautious intent also effects the transition game in rather obvious ways, as ideally it requires a traditional hold-up man to secure clearances and absorb pressure while the four midfielders work their way into the attacking half. Any support from the fullbacks is inevitably quite delayed. This reality does mean that on top of looking nothing like a 4-2-3-1 in the defensive end, trying to transition to such a formation in attack as has been the case at times this term will be quite difficult: either the outside midfielders must provide the width as they go forward and stick to something like a 4-4-2 in attack, or they stay narrow and the wide support must come from fullbacks who are chasing the game from their own sixteen yard box after the ball has quickly bypassed midfield and arrived at the striker.

To say a 4-2-3-1 shape in attack will be slow in developing, then, is an understatement, and that's not even getting into the way it puts added pressure and responsibility on the striker and fullbacks. This was very much the case against Birmingham and for much of the Sunderland match as the nominally wide midfielders were more determinedly narrow in attack than anything witnessed over the past few years and yet little or no support was provided by the fullbacks as their added defensive duties hindered any ability to commit early on the overlap. A strategy such as this seems confusing at best, as it appears as though the manager is either demanding narrow play to the point it appears the midfielders have been told that to get chalk on their boots will result in the death of family members, or that he is insisting on a defensive set-up that hurts the ability to find width in overlapping fullbacks. Perhaps, at least if you are to accept the need to employ such a system, it then comes down to Torres being unable--or unwilling--to be Zemora Mk. II, holding up play until the midfielders awaken from their slumber so that they can in turn hold things up until width belatedly arrives.

In the end, though, whether it's down to players unable or unwilling to commit to it or the shortcomings of the system itself, it's a frustrating set up to watch game in and game out. At best it doesn't seem to match with the starting center-backs and at least one of the fullbacks, and it hardly seems to be effective at transitioning into attack. How on earth did it look so good against Arsenal, then? While being down to ten men no less.

In the end it boils down to Arsenal having neither the will to play a wide game nor the forwards to exploit Liverpool in the air even if they had been willing to play such a game. Tight, narrow, passive, and disciplined; clogging the passing lanes and frustrating the opponent. Narrow banks of four are the perfect defense against Arsenal, no matter the height of your center halfs. This is even more true when they don't have Bendtner in the line-up, and at the end of the day you have to say that a European Championship winning manager couldn't have come up with a better defense against Arsenal--and that he certainly came up with worse on occasion. For all that Roy's gotten a lot of flack lately and people are beginning to clamor about wanting the old boss back, it has to be acknowledged that Hodgson's defensive approach worked to perfection here.

It has also, unfortunately, appeared more and more to have been a lucky coincidence rather than the result of conscious intent.

iii.

The difficult question isn't why a system that demands a pair of narrow and disciplined defensive lines succeeded once against Arsenal, it's why anybody thought it would succeed--especially with this set of players--against City or Sunderland or even Northampton. With the right players in the back, and with the right players in attack to compliment them by offering the possibility of counter and hold-up football, it's a potentially useful system--or at least it is if the opponent shows attacking impetus, as to not mince words this all boils down to parking the bus at the end of the day. If it has seemed increasingly like an attempt to fit square pegs into round holes, though, it's because that is largely what has taken place so far. And if you find yourself wondering if a future of round pegs capable of parking the bus is what you'd really like to see, you're not alone.

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So once again we're back to United, asking why things looked so different that time around. At the time there seemed a general hope that it was a sign of things to come. Now it's hard not to wonder if it was simply adrenaline pulling players out of position while those around tried to cover the spaces they left as best they could, saying to hell with tactics that had left gaping holes when they'd stuck to their posts in the past and relying on instinct this time around. It's hard not to wonder if the promising signs against United were down to a break-down in Roy Hodgson's tactics rather than through any intent. There is, however, some evidence to suggest the tactics were intentional: though Fulham's defensive stylings were often a more disciplined version on what has been on display by Liverpool so far this season, on occasion--with one such occasion being a Fulham-United match in that heady spring of 2009--one does see a defensive set-up so similar to Liverpool's recent offering against the same opponent as to be nearly indistinguishable.

On the right flank Baird drops inside of Pantsil (fig. 1), allowing the fullback to push wide while providing cover if he's beaten or drawn higher up the pitch, which would otherwise leave an exploitable gap for an overlapping United fullback. Meanwhile, when the ball is crossed in we see Danny Murphy dropping into the back line without having tracked an opponent to end up in that position (fig. 2, with the right center back being out of position after making an ariel clearance), nearly a third defender in a tightly packed middle while a second central midfielder provides a shield in case the ball drops to a late-arriving midfielder (fig. 3). There's will, a planned intent in the accordion action of the back line, with the defenders not only willing but eager to provide pressure while the midfielders actively look to cover holes.

Of course, Fulham fell 3-0 that day with Berbatov putting in a rare quality showing for United. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe for the match at Anfield Hodgson will have to try narrow, passive banks of four.

Perhaps though he does have at least one other trick in his book, even if he only likes to pull it out against United. It didn't do a lot to help him win two seasons back, but two tricks are better than one if you're looking for a bright side. Or just trying to find some faint reason to justify any bit of hope for something different. It's still hard to fathom, though, when the set up against squads Liverpool is still better than on paper reminds one of the way half the league set up against Liverpool a few very short seasons ago. With the players Liverpool still has on hand, and with what Liverpool aspires to be--or should, everybody agrees, aspire to be--it seems unnecessary, even if one attempts to understand the rationale behind the tactics and find mitigating arguments here and there to suggest that not every flaw has been with the system. If it is to be the system, though, there does appear to be room for improvement even within its limitations. So at least there's that.

Still, in the end this was never about seeking to damn Roy Hodgson. Rather, it was about trying to understand his approach just a little bit better. If it's going to be this hard to find enjoyable distraction from the ownership issues by simply watching the players on the pitch, then that seems as good a pastime as any.

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