That was interesting. When you play a team like Stoke and it looks like things aren't really going your way that day, it usually stays that way, you draw 0-0 or lose 1-0, and write a three thousand word article that sums up, more or less, as "that's football." In a game dictated by a goal or less, sometimes you end up on the "less" side of things, even when you dominate from start to finish.
Domination succinctly summarizes Liverpool's control of that match. From the very beginning, it was obvious that Stoke came to Anfield to get a draw. They played ten behind the midfield line, with Carew and his distinct lack of pace up front. When Liverpool had the ball, they let them in past the midfield line and then attempted to close them down as fast as possible (with one significant exception). They tackled pretty well, but in typical Stoke fashion they couldn't resist kicking the shit out of the occasional Liverpool player, and I was pretty sure we'd see a red before the half. Thankfully, they had very few set pieces to trouble Liverpool with, so their offense was basically nonexistent. They really saw almost none of the ball, and had no real chances of merit in either half.
In a bit of a master stroke from Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool trotted out in a loose 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. I think he predicted what Stoke was going to do, and trusted that a back line of Agger, Kyrgiakos, and Skrtel could deal with Carew. Though he lacks pace, Kyrgiakos is the perfect foil for Carew, and is able to contribute on attacking set pieces. There were times when it was only really Skrtel and Agger at the back, and although they had help from an assortment of players, Johnson and Aurelio were most reliable in tracking back and making tackles on the wings.
Beyond the defense, the formation is rather tricky to pin down. Although it falls most neatly into a 3-4-3, there were rarely 3 attackers or 4 midfielders. Indeed, the positions of all the players were fairly ill-defined. There were times when the only clear midfielders were Lucas and Aurelio, but others when the only clear attacker was Kuyt. There was a great deal of fluidity in the formation in defense as well as attack, and Aurelio in particular would be seen performing multiple roles, from central holding midfielder to winger to wing back. The most free player of all would have to be Gerrard, to whom Stoke gave ample space. This is somewhat puzzling, because they had no fear of tackling and closing other players, but they gave Gerrard crucial space to get up to speed. Indeed, Liverpool were having some problems because individual players were holding on to the ball for far too long, allowing their opposite number to close and trap them on the ball. Gerrard, however, got time, allowing him to advance the ball into the final third and start what proved to be Liverpool's most promising chances.
Liverpool's best chances sprang from quick passes in tight space. Although they didn't always seem to be on the same wavelength, the players really started moving the ball quickly towards the tail end of the first half, prompting an impossible save from the Stoke keeper on Glen Johnson's shot on the end of an excellent move. The second clear cut chance came from a Kuyt shot from the top of the box. Although he lacks pace, Kuyt showed in this match that he still retains a great deal of skill in the striker position. His touch and passing were fantastic from the central position, and he still possesses a cannon of a right foot- his blocked shot was about as hard hit a shot I've seen in a while, and looked on target.
Despite excellent and patient play all around the pitch, the goals (although deserved) could be seen as a bit lucky. The first was due to a Gerrard free-kick which he put on target. He got a deflection which fell to Kyrgiakos and then Kyrgiakos let it fall to Meireles who drove an excellent shot into the back of the net. Meireles really deserved a goal that match- he did a lot of unsung work and that shot on the goal was far more difficult than it looked. After the first goal the game changed a bit, although Stoke didn't seem comfortable changing their game plan- the players proved inflexible and refused to support Carew or Pennant. Even though most of the responsibility of our clean sheet lay at the feet of the defense, they didn't have that much work to do. I have to say that what little work they had to do, they did well, however. The game did stretch out, and Liverpool was finding more space on the pitch, particularly when Suarez came on for Aurelio. Suarez guaranteed that there were two up top, and his goal started from an excellent through ball, which, when he rounded the keeper, turned into a rather scuffed shot that the defender misplayed. The defender managed to deflect it off the post with enough backspin to end up in the back of the net, about as hard luck as is possible in the circumstances.
After the second goal, Liverpool continued to put pressure on the Stoke goal and were unlucky not to get a third. Shelvey had a good chance on the net and Gerrard almost scored on an impossible volley outside the box. However, the match ended 2-0, and Liverpool now sit two points out of sixth behind Sunderland.
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This was a pretty good match to watch, and intriguing because of how the formations played out, but I doubt that this is a permanent move. Against teams like Stoke I can see us playing a three man back line, and it allows us to incorporate the physicality of Kyrgiakos and Carragher without relying on them to be quick. It also lets us overwhelm teams in the midfield and create passing options against teams that park the bus. Indeed, the speed of Kelly, Aurelio, and Johnson nullified any chance Stoke had to counter despite the presence of Pennant on the wing. On a side note, I was surprised at how quick Kelly and Johnson were tracking back.
However, against teams that have speed and attacking intent I don't see it working as well. The problem is a formational one in some ways- in terms of pure numbers, I trust the three man back line to deal pretty well with one or two attackers. Against Chelsea or any other team that runs a 4-3-3 you're left one on one in the counter and too narrow to deal with the wide ball. Against Manchester United, who play with a lot of width in their modular 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, they keep your wing backs honest on the flanks, removing your numerical advantage in the midfield. It's easier to counter the width if you let Aurelio be one of your center backs and dropping your wing backs further back. One, it cancels out the advantage on the wings, and two, it allows Aurelio to be the first third link on your passing chain up the field. Of course, who plays where depends on the team we're playing and the personnel they deploy. I would attack Anderson and Carrick as much as possible, and make sure we had a surfeit of pace on the back line in the case against Manchester United. However, against all the top teams we stack up pretty well individually but the team performances often fell short. While I don't think this formation is appropriate for all situations, I think we'll see it a lot in matches we're favored in or against more defensive teams.
Will we see this formation against Chelsea? I don't think so. I'd say Chelsea is the team that this formation suits the least in the top three or four, actually. Against Arsenal I think we have an athleticism and strength advantage that would allow us to press them pretty hard. We have a lot of good tacklers on this team that know what they are about in the midfield. It would be a difficult, challenging match, but stylistically I think that Arsenal is actually a team that we're trying to resemble. Manchester City, a team that sits and waits for the game to come to them, might be the team this formation suits best. Manchester United's weakness, and they have them, is in the center of the pitch, particularly Anderson who I don't rate at all. Maybe the sheer numbers in midfield will throw them for a loop. Chelsea, however, play a fairly positive 4-3-3 with a lot of class and pace at the top. We'll probably see Torres and Drogba at the top, and I think, honestly, we're going to let this one come to us. It's an away match at an imposing venue, and a point would be adequate. We beat Chelsea last time on the counter, and they have trouble recovering at speed, something we are well equipped to exploit, particularly on the wings. Johnson, Meireles, and Gerrard are players that have no answer in Chelsea's squad, and I think that we might just steal some points this Sunday.
All in all, that was intriguing. While I don't think that a three man back line is the future, it certainly works with our personnel and against a lot of teams in the Premier League. I hope to see more of it in the future, and a lot more attacking displays like the one we saw yesterday. In many ways we were unlucky not to score four.