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On Unconventional Wing Backs and the Return of Death by Football

When they didn't have the ball, Liverpool's unconventional approach showed its weakness, but their unconventional approach meant that weakness mostly didn't matter.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Brendan Rodgers sent out a side with at least five midfielders. Six if one counts Raheem Sterling, filling in at striker on the night, as more midfielder than winger. If the side had tried to play too fast, too ambitious, or had just looked as disjointed as Liverpool sides too often have this season, it would have been a disaster.

Instead, at least for most of the first half and in the early stages of the second, they were patient. They did the one thing a side overloaded with players comfortable in the middle of the park would be expected to: they held possession. And then they held it a little longer. As if to drive home the point, their opening goal came after a quite ridiculous 51 passes.

The lack of natural width hurt them at times, particularly when they didn't have the ball, but so long as they avoided forcing passes and worked patiently, that mostly wasn't an issue because their opponents mostly didn't have the ball. Rodgers arrived at the club preaching death by football. Last night, for the first time this season, they delivered exactly that.

"For us to come and dominate and score the goals we did was very pleasing," said the manager following their 3-1 victory over Bournemouth. "Despite the result at Old Trafford, I saw moments in our game that I thought were good. We created a lot of chances, so I certainly see signs of us getting back to where we were, but we know there's a ways to go."

Though the creation may have been there against United, the weaknesses at the back that have marked Rodgers' time at the club were there, too. Against Bournemouth they were as well. It's just that with the players engaged in a far more patient approach, checking back rather than trying for the killer pass and waiting for gaps to form, there were few chances to exploit it.

A more clinical opponent, though, would have had a few goals. Bournemouth had at least their one. They also struck the post in the second half and had at least one chance on either side of the break that today they will feel they very much should have buried. Liverpool's patient game benefitted them at both ends, but it didn't eliminate their defensive issues.

In particular, Bournemouth had success countering down their right, where Lazar Markovic was filling in at wing back. Markovic offered an important outlet for Liverpool's patient build-up play, and his instincts got him into a central position to score the second goal, yet despite that there were some very clear downsides to including him at that position.

"You saw young Markovic tonight, he gave an outstanding performance," insisted Rodgers, clearly feeling that the positives Markovic brought to the match as a makeshift wing back outweighed any negatives. "I'm looking to find solutions to make us more creative, because we haven't been that at all this season and I want that to be the mark of the team."

When everything said and done it's difficult to argue with the result. And it wouldn't be surprising to see Rodgers approach the next few matches at least with more creative players—more midfielders and wingers—sent out as his nominal wing backs while three central defenders and a holding midfielder get tasked with the bulk of any defensive duties.

Yet in the end, it's likely the key wont be the creativity those sorts of players offer when played in place of a fullback. The key will be whether Liverpool can fully embrace the patient passing and possession game they showed for much of the night. Because last night there were two Liverpool sides clearly on display: the one with the ball, and the one without it.

When they had the ball they often looked very, very good. When they didn't have the ball, despite that they weren't made to pay for it as often as they might have been, all the concerns of a difficult season returned. The takeaway should be obvious: keep hold of possession. At any cost. Even if it means occasionally passing up a scoring opportunity.

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