Divide the pitch into three equal zones: offensive, defensive, and midfield. Divide each zone into a further six sectors, three across the pitch and two deep. Zone one is the left back sat in defence, and counting right and up the pitch zone eighteen contains the opponent's corner flag as attacked down the right wing. Sitting directly in front of the penalty area, zone fourteen is the key. This zone, this golden square, is the area from which the vast majority of goal scoring chances will be created and, conversely, the opposition's zone fourteen--zone five to the defending side--will be where most of their chances will be created.
It's simpler than it at first might sound, but it's hugely important in the way it can inform both attack and defence.
It was easy in the lead up to Chelsea to think Liverpool's three man defence that had worked wonders against Stoke might well end up a liability against the more potent defending champions. After all, much of their success in the league had come with a fairly straightforward 4-3-3 formation with quality attacking options and the ability to pressure opponents from wide positions. Against such an attack a three man defence would run the risk of being stretched wide, leaving huge gaps in the middle to exploit, unless the wingbacks were studious in defence and became part of a five man unit. In turn this would leave the midfield undermanned and overrun, which is exactly the attacking tactic that led to the downfall of the three man defensive line in the first place--three is too few to cover against wide threats while staying secure in the center, while five is more than one usually needs and leaves the side a man down elsewhere on the pitch.
However, earlier in the week while Liverpool gave their three man defence a run against Stoke, a side perfectly set up to be guinea pig, Chelsea was holding their own experiment by giving the 4-4-2 diamond they had used at times in the past a workout against Sunderland. Their diamond and attacking pair tore Sunderland to shreds playing through that most dangerous zone in front of the penalty area, and in the end it turned out that these two midweek matches had as much to do with Liverpool and Chelsea's subsequent fixture against each other as it did with the points then at hand: Chelsea was testing a formation that they hoped would allow Torres and Drogba, two central strikers most effective largely on their own, to share the pitch, while Liverpool was testing out a formation tailored to stop them. Unfortunately for Chelsea two central strikers unused to playing from wide, and with a third striker sat centrally behind them at the tip of the midfield diamond, was hardly the sort of formation likely to stretch Liverpool's three center backs and force the wingbacks to abandon their roles in midfield to fully support the defence.
Not that Liverpool's 3-6-1 was identical in both matches, with the most obvious shift being the rotation of what had been a square foursome of central midfielders against Stoke so that on the weekend they were set out in a diamond to mirror Chelsea's midfield. Less obvious but just as intriguing were the altered responsibilities of the center backs, as in the weekday match against Stoke the central of the three--in that case Sotirios Kyrgiakos--was tasked with man marking the opposition's single striker, while the wider two defenders were given slightly more freedom to move up the pitch when they weren't mopping up around him. On the other hand, against Chelsea's two central strikers it became the job of the outside two--in this case Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger--to man mark the strikers while Martin Skrtel sat between them looking to lend a hand as needed. It hadn't been entirely obvious at the time, but, despite the tweaks between the Stoke and Chelsea matches, earlier in the week Liverpool had been testing out a formation to neutralize Chelsea with Torres even while Chelsea was reacquainting itself with a formation to accommodate him.
|The midfield diamond, as seen for much
of the match against Chelsea.
In any case, Chelsea's need to include both Torres and Drogba in the starting line-up necessitated a formation that failed to pressure Liverpool in the wide areas, which in turn allowed wingbacks Kelly and Johnson to spend much of their time in the midfield once again. This gave Liverpool a stronger position in the middle of the park than might have been expected for an away side at Stamford Bridge, as well as giving the more advanced midfielders freedom to press Chelsea high up the pitch when Liverpool didn't have the ball, with Kelly and Johnson occasionally pulling inside towards Lucas to form what could almost be termed a 3-3-3-1.
Against a side weak in the central areas such an attacking trio would put the most pressure on, against a side with only a pair of center backs and perhaps no true holding midfielder, it is entirely likely that Chelsea would have owned their zone fourteen against Liverpool just as they had against Sunderland. In fact there's every chance that against much of the league an attack of Torres, Drogba, and Anelka will run riot. Liverpool, though, had three center backs to track the two strikers, while Lucas tirelessly tracked the more reserved Anelka from a defensive midfield position just as he had at Anfield when the two sides first met, and Chelsea never managed to adjust their style of play to pose questions to their opponent's obvious tactical weakness.
Chelsea looked to overload the most dangerous area on the pitch with their £90M strikeforce, but Liverpool was well prepared for it, and Chelsea wasn't ready with a Plan B that would change the dynamic.
More generally, this golden square in the final third where so much of the attacking impetus comes from--both in goals created directly and in the creation of chances that lead to corners and spot kicks that themselves can lead to goals--has played a large role in the refinement and growing importance of the holding midfielder. Though it isn't always an explicitly understood concept, many top sides and managers have long recognised the area of danger just outside the penalty area. It's "the hole," the stomping ground of the now traditional number ten that grew to fame in South America, the place where the self-proclaimed trequartista Joe Cole always wanted to lurk, and while this role may have developed largely as a natural filling of empty space in the same way the attacking Brazilian fullback was initially birthed by an instinctive filling of space, the largely defensive holding midfielder that came about in response to these two largely instinctual actions is an exceptionally measured response.
With the world's top fullbacks becoming increasingly offensive, and with a growing need to cover the dangerous area at the edge of the box, holding midfielders who fill a role nearly as defensive as the classic defensive fullback have long been both necessary for overall team balance as well as a sensible way of clumping one's most defensive players in the areas the opposition is most likely to create scoring chances from. It's always difficult to completely abandon the romance of storming box-to-box midfielders, but if a side is to have at least four largely defensive players for balance if nothing else, those in the midfield areas are best placed to add to defence and stop opposition attacks. Along with the lateral flexibility against the break and a central position from which to cycle play on stalled attacks, it's part of why all the myriad modern 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-2-2 variants, as well as 4-3-3 systems with either one or two holding midfielders, have valued midfielders whose least meaningful contributions will be goals and assists even if it goes against what is for many an instinctual understanding of the midfielder's role in football.
|The midfielders in a central stacked quartet, as seen after Liverpool went a goal up.
Beyond those large scale particulars relating to why most successful sides set up the way they do--or at least share a handful of overlapping fundamental concepts--there are interesting tactical lessons to be taken from the concept of zone fourteen as a focal point in attack, and one of those lessons was seen when Liverpool went up a goal and then parked the bus so tightly it would have made Sam Allardyce weep with envy. Following Raul Meireles' goal, the midfield diamond rotated back to a square, tightened up, and largely retreated to the defensive zone. It would have been a frustratingly defensive approach to watch had it been used from the start of the match, but up a goal on the road against a Chelsea side that had won four in a row--and that even after Torres had been removed continued to try to flood the middle--it was far more understandable, as well as being eminently sensible.
The end result of this defensive shift was that rather than the pair of central defenders and pair of midfielders sitting in the middle of two disciplined four man defensive lines so commonly used by sides looking to shut up shop, Liverpool's zone five--Chelsea's zone fourteen--was defended by a unit of three center backs buffered by a unit of four stacked midfielders who operated somewhat interchangeably within their stacked quartet. The wide areas, though dangerous, are always less dangerous than the center, and Chelsea--like many top sides--showed little interest in stretching the pitch horizontally and whipping in crosses if they had a sustained spell of possession. Recognizing this and dropping seven players to defend the most dangerous area on the pitch while the wingbacks were left largely to themselves to defend against occasional wide pressure left a frustrated Chelsea without a real sniff of goal in the final minutes. It was better than nine men behind the ball: It was seven men packed into the only area Chelsea was really attempting to exploit. Looking ahead, then, Liverpool fans will be thankful that Dalglish would clearly rather attack when possible--and even from this exceptionally defensive set up that ended the game, Liverpool tried to get forward when oportunities presented themselves--but if somebody were to show Tony Pulis tape of Liverpool defending over the last thirty-odd minutes against Chelsea, the results could be terrifying.
With the way Liverpool set up towards the end, new signing Luis Suarez was never likely to come on for the struggling Maxi Rodriguez as it would have meant changing to a less secure formation. Still, with Kuyt seeming to tire around 80 minutes it was a little surprising he wasn't brought on in a straight swap for the industrious Dutchman to get some fresh legs running at an increasingly desperate Chelsea. Still, by then Liverpool's original diamond, set out to match and negate Chelsea's, had done its job commendably. All that was left was to shift it back into the most secure stance possible and watch the opposition run into the wall over and over again.
The more attacking displays in most of the matches under Dalglish so far, seen while the team has mostly embraced a very fluid 4-3-3 system, have rightly drawn praise. One sincerely hopes that Wigan next weekend will mark its return and a chance to absolutely steamroll an opponent. But when it came time to defend against Chelsea on the road, the Stokes and Blackburns of the world could have learned something about parking the bus against narrow opponents from watching Liverpool put on another master class under the returned Kenny Dalglish and his partner in crime Steve Clarke.