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Liverpool's Deep Defensive Line

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West Bromwich Albion marked the first time that Jamie Carragher hasn't started at centre half this season, and with it came the first chance in ages to see Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger paired at the back. The long-delayed partnership, one many assumed Rafa Benitez intended to use as the replacement for Hyypia and Carragher before a series of injuries made it nearly impossible to imagine, put in an almost flawless performance. Yet with constant talk throughout the first quarter of the season about an aging Carragher dragging the squad's defensive line dangerously deep, one has to ask if this change in personnel in fact led to the team playing with a higher line.

liverpool west brom position

Many will recall Agger in particular bombing forward, and combined with 58% possession one would likely assume the defenders would be positioned fairly high up the pitch. If only because Liverpool had the ball well over half the time and Agger in particular seemed to spend more than half of that time closer to the Baggies' box than his own, one would expect one or both of the players to finish the match with a high average position.

However, the average position map for the game (above) instead shows a fairly deep line. Agger's driving runs might well have been memorable, and the pair's mobility may have helped in ways that simply looking at average positions wouldn't illustrate, but when comparing the average depth of the centre back pair on Saturday against West Brom to earlier games where one of Agger or Skrtel was matched with Carragher shows that at the very least having Carragher out of the lineup didn't result in the defence holding a noticeably higher line.

liverpool united position

The week before against Norwich, in fact (left), when Liverpool held 55% of the possession, Carragher paired with Skrtel—and in the closing minutes with Agger as part of a three man defensive line—in nearly identical positions as the Skrtel and Agger duo a week later. Instead, a far more glaring difference is found by looking just ahead of the centre back duo, where against West Brom Lucas' average position reflects his contribution: screening the defence and linking play with the more attack minded midfielders and strikers.

In the match against Norwich, however, there's no bigger gap between Liverpool players anywhere on the pitch than between Skrtel and Carragher at the back and Gerrard and Adam in midfield, with the latter duo doubled up in the centre circle.

The result of that yawning chasm—namely Grant Holt's equaliser on the counter when Adam was caught in possession and Norwich saw thirty yards of open space to run into—seems even more inevitable when faced with visual evidence of the team's set up. And given the similarly deep defensive line held without Carragher a week later, it's probably less fair to blame that chasm on him dragging the line back than it is to blame it on the midfield becoming entirely unstuck and abandoning their defensive duties.

By comparison, against Manchester United (above left) Liverpool did hold a fairly high line, all while having 56% of the possession and starting Skrtel alongside Carragher at the back. Likely a conscious tactical choice by Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke, it still would result in a defensively foolish gap between midfield and defence were one to remove Lucas from the equation in favour of the midfield seen a week later. But regardless of that, it suggests that Carragher is in fact capable of playing a higher line than he often does, and that with the club playing a deeper line in every other match this season—including the one where Carragher didn't start—the depth of that line may in fact have very little to do with the players and everything to do with the coaches.

liverpool wolves position

Still, while there appears to be evidence that Liverpool's deep defensive line is largely a tactic favoured regardless of the players involved, that doesn't mean there haven't been obvious changes to how the team sets up in recent weeks. Heading back to the first two months of the season in fact finds average position maps that are consistently and radically different at the back then those from the past month, with Wolves (top right) and Bolton (bottom right) representative examples.

Wolves were one of the few times this season Liverpool has lost the possession battle, as they managed to hold the ball only 48% of the time. Bolton, on the other hand, saw 59% possession, a number much closer to those of the more recent games looked at previously. Yet on both occasions early in the season, the average position taken up by the defensive pair—Carragher and Skrtel in one and Carragher with Agger in the other—is nearly identical. And in both cases those positions are very different from what has been seen in recent weeks.

The presence of Lucas linking attack with defence and shielding against the break remains constant, but in both cases Carragher finds himself significantly deeper than his partner. At the time it might have been easy to write off as being down to his less adventurous nature, yet the shape taken by the backline in recent weeks gives lie to this—as does the fact that against Wolves and Bolton, both the conservative Skrtel and the attacking Agger take up similar average positions relative to Carragher.

As a result, it does very much look as though in the early going Jamie Carragher was indeed dragging the defensive line deeper—or sloppily allowing a gap to regularly open between him and his defensive partner. However, based on recent evidence there's reason to hope that even when he's in the lineup, this doesn't have to be the case—and also that whatever Dalglish and Clarke have said to him about pushing up to match his partner seems to have worked. On the other hand, there also seems to be evidence that regardless of whether Carragher starts or not, a fairly deep line is the preference with this squad.

Whether it's the correct approach, and whether Jamie Carragher is still mobile enough to perform as a top centre half week in and week out regardless of how high the line is, is, of course, an entirely different question.

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