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Damned Lies and Statistics: Pressing From the Front

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Since his arrival at Liverpool, much has been made of Brendan Rodgers' footballing philosophy of possession and pressing. Against West Bromwich Albion on the road in the league opener, 60% possession and an exceptionally strong opening half on the ball spoke to the first part of the equation—even if the day ended rather poorly for Liverpool. Against Manchester City in week two, it was the second part and a willingness to press from the front that stood out more than anything else.

The focus on maintaining possession when Liverpool faced West Brom was obvious, and nothing made that more clear than when Steven Gerrard's 82% pass completion rate—the lowest on the team—led to accusations of an off day for the captain. Compared to their opponents, however, Liverpool were the very model of restraint with the ball, as West Brom only had four players on the day who were more accurate than Gerrard. Meanwhile, four of their starters ended the match with completion rates bellow eighty percent—and two of those were bellow seventy percent.

When it came to a willingness to press high up the pitch, though, it was really only Luis Suarez who appeared a willing runner without the ball, as he led both teams in challenging for 50-50 balls on the ground with eleven total ground duels. Alongside him, Stewart Downing and Fabio Borini were both middle of the pack with five apiece, and the entire front line only managed a pair of tackles between the three of them. Joe Allen, Lucas Leiva, Martin Kelly, Martin Skrtel, and Glen Johnson all had as many or more tackles individually than the three of them put together.

None of which would seem especially damning—Suarez, Downing, and Borini were after all leading the attack, and so few would expect them to be amongst the side's top ball winners—except that against Manchester City it was a very different story. Against City, with Liverpool only managing 49% possession against the defending league champions, the pressing game that is just as important to success in the Rodgers system took centre stage thanks to an exceptional day for the front line of Suarez, Borini, and Raheem Sterling—and Sterling in particular deserves credit for his exceptional workrate without the ball at both ends of the pitch and the clear upgrade to the pressing game provided by his inclusion over Stewart Downing.

Sterling led both sides in challenging for the ball with 13 ground duels, and he was followed closely by Suarez and Borini with 12 and 11 respectively. Their 36 combined challenges meant that Liverpool's forwards were involved in 47% of the side's ground duels—a fifty percent improvement over the opening match, more than can be explained away by the 10% bump in City's possession compared to previous opponent West Brom's. By comparison, Balotelli, Tevez, and James Milner were involved in 21 and 28% of Manchester City's ground duels, while defender Kolo Toure led the side with 13.

Liverpool's attackers also combined to contribute six tackles on the day, with five of them successful—a third of the club's 18 total tackle attempts and better than Liverpool's 78% success rate overall. On the day, Liverpool's attacking trio appeared to exert near constant pressure on City when the ball was turned over, and the numbers back that up. Not all of the benefits of that—be it rushing the opposition buildup and forcing errors as they attempt to play their way out of trouble or causing immediate turnovers as they look to hammer the ball away—show up in individual player statistics, but Liverpool's attackers were still responsible for winning back the ball ten times (or 20% of the total) compared to six (12%) for City's.

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Despite being close to level in possession, Liverpool's attackers were responsible for a disproportionate amount of the home side's tackling and ball winning efforts in their second league match while City's top performers on the day in that department were their three primary defensive players—Vincent Kompany, Kolo Toure, and Yaya Toure.

Against West Bromwich Albion, particularly in the first half, Liverpool were far better with the ball than their opponents. That it all fell apart after they fell behind in the second can't be ignored, but the focus on possession remains clear in the numbers—four players above 90% passing, and none under eighty. Against the quality of City, possession became more difficult, with only Joe Allen above 90% passing and Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, and Martin Kelly all finishing just below 80%. Where Liverpool did have a clear edge in league game two was in pressing and winning the ball back high up the pitch.

At times, and in different parts of the pitch, the first two games of the league season have shown what Brendan Rodgers' brand of football looks like, and there is certainly a great deal of promise hinted at in the numbers. Now it's time to find out if the players and manager can begin to put together the ball retention and pressing sides of their game on a consistent basis—particularly against opponents who aren't favourites to repeat as Premier League champions.