**This weekend’s guest post comes to us from Peter, who’s been posting as PDubz18 for awhile now. Written prior to the start of the international break (England v. Spain coming up, brace yourselves for poppy poppy poppy. Also, annihilation.), he discusses the system Liverpool's used so far, and how the personnel fit into the general approach utilized by Kenny Dalglish and his staff. You can direct any questions for Paul, or information about how to get a guest post slot of your own, to firstname.lastname@example.org.**
Coming off the bender that started with the wonderful performance at Anfield last Saturday, I figured I would write up some mindless drivel about Kenny Dalglish's system and squad. Hopefully it can divert some of the attention/drinking to more happy matters, such as the international break coming up. Actually, maybe that is not a happier matter. Kenny and his staff seem to be building up the variety of the squad; the players bought in the summer transfer window have been bridging gaps present in previous seasons. I'll talk a little about the general formation first and then go into the players the management seem to be going after to fill the formation.
Dalglish has fielded remarkably similar formations throughout the past year; they have all been a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2/4-3-3 mixture. The players that fill the system, however, tend to determine the tactics of the system. For example, when Raul Meireles and Dirk Kuyt started against Manchester City at Anfield last, the formation was a very narrow 4-2-2-2 with Meireles as a narrow attacking midfielder and Kuyt as a sort of inside forward. Liverpool ended up dismantling Manchester City, largely due to the effective 4 v. 3 midfield battle. Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll found lots of space in between City's defense and midfield lines; two out of the 3 goals came from central midfield play between Meireles and Carroll.
After the addition of Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique, the formations have become more of a 4-4-2/4-3-3; Downing tends to start high up the pitch and attempt to link up with Jose Enrique's overlapping runs (more on this later). On the other side of the pitch, Jordan Henderson and Martin Kelly/Glen Johnson are the more narrow pairing; at times, Henderson appears to tuck in as a central midfielder and support the play through the middle when circumstances allow. Johnson's tendency to come inside away from the touchline also contributes to the narrowness of the right side of the formation.
Starting in the center of defense, Dalglish seems to always select two central defenders with different sets of instructions. Jamie Carragher always tends to be the sweeper-type central defender who tends to be limited in his pass selection. Daniel Agger, on the other hand, has tended to be the ball-playing center back who tends to support midfield play. Martin Skrtel has fulfilled both of these roles depending on injuries to good effect; however, he seems to get more freedom than Carragher when he is on the field. It will be interesting how Sebastian Coates is brought into the mix. I imagine that he will be a Skrtel type of player --- somewhere in between Carragher and Agger in defensive and offensive responsibilities.
The fullback positions are where it seems to get interesting. All three of the first team fullbacks (Jose Enrique, Glen Johnson, and Martin Kelly) have been told to play their natural game and take up positions where they feel comfortable. The interesting caveat to this is that Kelly and Johnson have wildly different styles of play. Kelly seems to hug the touchline more and use his speed to get around opposing fullbacks, while Johnson tends to come inside and link up with midfielders early in the play and use his dribbling to open up space. Consequently, the whole Johnson vs. Kelly debate is not a matter of who is more effective (they are both effective in different ways), but it is a debate of which will suit the tactics required to break down the opposition. Johnson has played in 3 Premier League games thus far this season, and he will need some gelling time which Dalglish is giving him by starting him the past few games. After he gets comfortable, however, we should see Dalglish and Clarke using them as tactical needs dictate. Enrique tends to stay out wide and overlap with Downing, then fire in crosses from the byline (e.g. assist for Andy Carroll against Everton).
Dalglish tends to have a similar midfield line in every game he has overseen. His central midfield is always a pair of midfielders who act as a double-pivot. This midfield style is the cornerstone of the 4-2-3-1 and most 4-4-2 formations. The most successful double pivot midfields in history have relied on one destroyer (in our case Lucas) and one creator (in most cases Charlie Adam). In the stretch of last season, Jay Spearing acted as a pseudo-creator to mixed effect. I have read many comments about the fact that Spearing has been left out in favor of the less defensively disciplined Adam; an interesting point, but Spearing does not have the range of passing that is required to partner Lucas in the double pivot. In time, he might develop that part of his game, but at the moment we are stuck with Charlie Adam*.
*A note about Adam: He has been given a lot of playing time to develop his partnership with Lucas, and it seems to be advancing. Every time I watch him play it frustrates me that he always tries to pick out the hardest pass on the pitch instead of keeping it on the ground. I admire his vision, but I think he needs to be told to keep it simple more often, and save the Hollywood passes for a special occasion.
The wide midfield positions are by far the most tactically interesting positions on the pitch. This season, the most commonly selected players were Downing and Henderson; last season the two most selected players seemed to be Meireles and Maxi/Kuyt. Last season, the lack of a wide player rendered our system very narrow, and consequently there was very little variation in attack. Over the summer we added two players that are capable of playing in wide midfield positions, albeit with different qualities. Henderson is a young central midfielder who has been deployed out wide due to his athleticism. Similar practices of deploying talented, athletic young central midfielders on the wings is actually fairly common (to name two examples, Schweinstiger and Samir Nasri). These players seem to be able to influence the game better from the center of midfield, and tend to play narrower than natural wingers; this can be seen from some of Nasri's goals at the beginning of last year.
On the other side of the formation, Stewart Downing has been the commonly picked wide midfielder. Downing is the winger that many fans have been calling for in every transfer window the past few years, and finally he arrived. After a strong start to the season, he has started to have gelling problems with Enrique; it seems like a match does not go by where they do not have at least one misunderstanding. The fact is that Enrique and Downing tend to occupy the same space due to similarities in their attacking game. Earlier in the season Enrique did not go forward as much because he was still getting to know his teammates, but the past few weeks he has been one of the main offensive sparks on the left side. At the end of the first half against Swansea, Dalglish tried out switching Downing and Henderson. Downing seemed like he thoroughly enjoyed his ability to cut in onto his stronger foot. However, Henderson was incredibly ineffective on the left side; this poor performance earned him a substitution at half time.
Dalglish's emphasis in midfield is variety, whether it is the nature of his double-pivot or the differences between the wing play tactics. I assume that by deploying his wing very wide and his right side very narrow, he is trying to open up the left channel for Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll, or Downing. The best recent example of this strategy can be seen starting 40 seconds into the Swansea highlights, which should have ended in the game-winning goal. The goal is of course to open up that channel at will instead of only in the first 10 minutes of the game.
The forwards have been the most expensive part of the squad, with about 60 million pounds splashed on 2 players who have the potential to be perfect foils for one another. After being signed from Ajax, Suarez made an instant impact; he has come dangerously close to becoming a legend at Anfield in his first season at the club. He is a very complete striker, who seems to be able to score in any way required, whether it is a poacher's effort or cutting in from the wing, or even using his head. On the other hand, Carroll is the big tall target man who has a cannon of a left foot and a hammer of a head. Despite having some struggles early on with fitness, Carroll has turned in a few great performances in the past few weeks (if we forget about that miss against Swansea). Their partnership is just starting to click, and I imagine that once they start playing well together they will be a force with which to be reckoned.
The first consideration in any of Kenny Dalglish's team selection has been the variety of the squad. Dalglish has always tried to field a dynamic team, capable of attacking in more than one way. Near the end of last season he had to use the resources he had already, but his squad preferences have become very apparent over the past few months.
As fans, we have to let the squad gel and not become too impatient. The performance against Swansea was very disappointing, but remember our manager has just come back into club management after being towards the edges the past few years. He will learn how to motivate the players against lower opposition, and he will get the team to where it needs to be.