When opposition sides sit down to figure out a game plan to beat Liverpool the Double Pivot is invariably a part of that discussion. Teams must figure how to move the ball through Liverpool’s midfield and challenge their defensively vulnerable areas. Trolling through the social media pages of American Scouser I discovered Paul Bickler, our guru of dryer than ice humor, making the same points and decided to expand on it.
A single pivot is coaching speak for what we generally call a defensive midfielder or holding midfielder. Teams commit a player at the base of the midfield to take on the primary defensive role of shielding the center-backs as well as protecting the half-space, the area between the wings, and the central fifth or so of the pitch.
Opponents in a more defensive set-up employ a second player next to the pivot (creating a double-pivot), however, because it’s a tactical adjustment they frequently don’t change personnel to accomplish this, rather they pull players back from more advanced positions which gives them the ability to transition to a more attacking structure if they regain possession.
The Dark Arts of “The Bus”
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea often thwarted opponents with a variation of this. His famous “bus” pulled his wingers deep to guard the flanks while a 3-man midfield posse hunted for the ball as a pack in a similar way to that employed by Liverpool’s forward line against opposition defenses. When they won the ball back they were immediately positioned to strike quickly both by location on the field and by the personnel in those locations.
Liverpool has struggled with teams employing something similar against them! Wide men drop into midfield to protect the flanks and to try either stop Liverpool’s full-backs from attacking the flanks or punish them on counters for being overcommitted. Meanwhile the #10 role (second striker) stays within passing distance of the two pivoted midfielders to form a classic passing triangle. On regaining possession one of the pivots pushes up to create new passing lanes in an attempt to thread the needle through Liverpool’s midfield.
Liverpool plays an attacking brand of football that is designed to win a high percentage of games. It sounds obvious enough but attacking play leaves vulnerabilities. Klopp’s Liverpool is built to win the Premier League where winning 4 out of every 5 is pretty much required leaving little room for conservatism. The downside is that even defenders and goalkeepers are picked with scoring goals in mind leaving opponents time and space to exploit defensive weaknesses.
Brendan Rodgers’s side developed many of the same ideas and with some of the same starkly apparent defensive weaknesses (albeit with a much shallower squad). This is in contrast to Rafa’s Liverpool who was designed to beat everyone by 1 goal over 2 matches meaning they were feared in Europe but always fell a dollar short in challenging for the League Title.
It’s a Counter Attack!
The Achilles heel of Klopp’s Liverpool is a counter-attack. When the Reds can “set” their defense they can stop pretty much anything. But in transition, a quick passing scheme, such as that initiated by a double pivot, can drive a tractor through parts of the midfield. The most favored routes are straight-up Liverpool’s right-flank or through the half-space on the other side before switching direction. The idea is to avoid Fabinho, Henderson, Robertson, and Van Dijk. This produces either a defensive mismatch with a shooting opportunity or a corner.
Corners are not as horrendous for Liverpool but they can be problematic. The Reds don’t have a lot of sizes to combat them and as West Ham and Brentford in particular demonstrated; their weak points can be brutally exploited. Alexander-Arnold reads horizontal play about as well as Mignolet while almost none of Liverpool’s collection of forwards has any meaningful ability to contribute in the early seconds of a set-piece.
Solutions: Strategy #1 has always been for the midfield to block passing channels, intercept loose balls, and recycle possession; and there is probably nobody better in the game than Jordan Henderson at combining those three qualities. But with Fabinho standardly in a single pivot himself, Henderson is sometimes caught too high as a ‘box-to-box” mid and opponents can override this first line of breaking up potential counters.
Klopp himself may want to look at employing his own double-pivot where Henderson plays as more of a safety, closer to Fabinho and importantly to his right, which subsequently allows Alexander-Arnold to push up higher and more often. Henderson is then in a position to push ahead of Fabinho in order to join the dots and re-establish the sides passing dominance as the occasion demands.
Klopp’s heavy metal approach reminds me of some of the best players in Jeopardy! If you’re not familiar with the game show the most successful players are masters of a broad range of trivia while possessing a strong sense of metrics-based gambling. The best two ever in my opinion – Ken Jennings (no relation) and James Holzhauer frequently won by lopsided margins because of their willingness (particularly Holzhauer) to gamble big early in the game.
Likewise, Klopp has many blowouts but also a number of hair-raising finishes because, unlike on Jeopardy, most teams Liverpool plays are almost as good as they are. If the percentage of close calls is to change into a more assured percentage of victories, then this Liverpool side probably needs to gamble just a little less in order to play from a position of strength a lot more.