Positives and Negatives – American Scouser Podcast
A passes to B and immediately sprints between the other two players B & C. Player B receives the ball and passes to player C with no more than 2 touches. Player B now sprints between the new space created by players A & C. The pattern continues as player C receives the ball and passes to A. Now the triangle will begin to move up the field. – Saiguhan Elancheran
Math aficionados can obsess on the difference between an equilateral and an isosceles triangle while the rest of us can feel the brain lobes cramping. Conversely, football is a simple game but understanding that passing works best in triangles goes a long way toward understanding where a team’s attacking strategies are either succeeding or breaking down.
A lot of stick has come Sadio Mane’s way this season as the Liverpool fanbase grapples with its team’s shortcomings. But one of Liverpool’s successes in recent times has been the Mane – Robertson combination and it’s something defenses have keyed on.
Most of Liverpool’s opponents now tuck in their right-sided defenders and midfielders to close down their right side defensively. Defending 101 acknowledges that it’s hard to stop brilliance but says you can limit it to one essential option, making it much easier to contain. Packing in on that side costs you attacking options further up-field but opponents have rationalized that it’s more productive to attack Liverpool on the other side. Robertson is the better flank defender and Mane offers decent shielding as opposed to their counterparts, usually Alexander-Arnold and Salah, who frequently recovering from playing high up-field.
Unlocking well-organized packed-in defending requires clinical passing and good movement, in short, a motion triangle. The failure of Liverpool’s midfield to execute has been starkly obvious. The club has three players who are adept at this – Fabinho, Henderson, and Milner. Liverpool thrives with these guys in midfield because they know how to get everyone else involved through simple quick passing and motion. And it’s further accentuated when Matip and/or Van Dijk are in the heart of the defense.
The absences of Fabinho, Henderson, and Milner in the midfield along with the missing defenders has been no more obvious than in goal output. While supporters grumble about Mane’s 13 goals it should be noted that the combined forward line has 55 in 42 Premier League / Champions League games following the Leeds United match. You like to see a three-forward line scoring at 1.33 / game and they are right there at 1.31, while coaches want to see three mids adding half that much again. However, instead of the desired 25, Liverpool’s midfield has delivered 5 in the same 42 matches. Of that Fabinho, Keita, Milner, Ox & Thiago have combined for 110 appearances and exactly no goals – although in Fabinho’s case much of his time was in central defense.
The performances suggest that Keita, Ox and Thiago; along with Jones and Wijnaldum; are almost unusable in combination for Liverpool! This is because Klopp’s side employs a 3-man midfield often against a 4-man defensive wall. Ball control becomes imperative (which gets Gini back in the side) as is the ability to recover defensively. Even 10 more goals from the midfield this season would have put Liverpool right alongside Manchester United both offensively and defensively.
Strong passing and control from the central defenders would go a long way to alleviating some of these woes. As promising as Kabak has looked in his short time, and as valiantly as Phillips has performed they are not in the class of passing, possession and vision that Matip, Van Dijk, and even Gomez possess. Visionary central defenders can participate in motion triangles! They can be a part of moving the ball up-field in a series of passes that safeguard possession. In Liverpool’s most recent outing at Leeds, possession was almost a non-event.
All of Klopp’s central defenders have passing attributes as do his goalkeepers. It’s why the Manager initially looked to Rhys Williams in the position this season. It’s such an infatuation in fact that he seems to sometimes forget that they have to be able to defend as well. Players lacking in this area have short careers under Klopp (adios Martin Skrtel and Simon Mignolet) and it’s why Nat Phillips will probably be playing elsewhere next year.
The passing conundrum also explains another Klopp mystery of recent times. With Liverpool clearly playing better with Fabinho in midfield the Boss has taken to removing Kabak and dropping Fab into the back towards the game’s end.
I get it! He’s trying to build passing from slightly deeper, given that his opponent is sitting in and has largely abandoned trying to score. But it requires Trent to roam into the midfield (a good thing) but leaves Phillips precariously alone on the right side of the defense. Then he tries to put Shaq in Trent’s creative high right spot but that leaves a player with the defensive IQ of a barn door (aagh!) shielding the slowest player on the field (aagh!) playing out on the wing (aagh!).
There are no easy solutions right now. Liverpool should stick to what works best which is Fabinho and Milner with someone else in the midfield. With only one midweek game remaining Ribena man should be able to play most of the minutes. The quest for the right midfielders will be a project for the summer.
Against Leeds, Fabinho was pulled into central defense to replace an injured Phillips and Liverpool’s attack was reduced to rampaging runs. Mane’s goal though was a result of slick pass and move work by Jota and Alexander-Arnold. The latter looked particularly devastating playing almost as the 4th forward. Perhaps Klopp should have tried to keep him there (and should in the future) by allowing a more defensive player tuck-in behind him on the right-side.