As regular AA members know, my usual responsibilities around these parts are to supply some half-baked tactical analysis every Tuesday, lace the game threads with predictions for substitutes not in the 18, and lob completely gratuitous pot shots at Stewart Downing. It's a simple existence really, one that's served me well. And, with essentially no editorial pressure, I'm never asked to produce click-hoarding, headline-centric babble dominated by bombastic statements, EXCESSIVE USE OF CAPS LOCK, and endless exclamation points!!!!!
The point of this rambling entrance? To assuage my own insecurity of manufacturing a question that could have been cooked up for Skip Bayless himself, had that dancing monkey ever wised up to the merits of footy. "Does this Liverpool team have an identity?" is so obscenely broad and perfectly subjective that 100 people would have 100 different answers, because the question can be interpreted 100 different ways. But since I woke up today with that stabbing my brain, an urge to write, and four cups of coffee taboot, it's coming down the pipeline.
I typically like to operate with passing charts and statistics and will once again rely on hard data here as much as possible. But perception is reality, and this idea rings truest when crafting an "identity" of anything. So, in some ways, this post is less about delivering any hard and fast answers than it is positing a loaded, two-part question to our remarkably informed peanut gallery. How do you define a club's identity, and what is the identity of this Liverpool squad?
Creating "The System"
Plato espoused the virtue of "philosopher kings" and now, almost 2400 years later, directors across the continent have become obsessed with hiring not just a manager, but a prophet of a particular brand of play. Indeed, Brendan Rodgers arrived spewing monstrous sound bites explaining "death by football" and demanded the Scouse accent confront the pronunciation of "tiki-taka."
But the reality is that the Reds abandoned this style of play sometime last winter, when the arrivals of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho meant Rodgers had more than Luis Suarez and complimentary Lego figures in attack. Some of Liverpool's best play last campaign, almost entirely seen in the spring, came when the Reds effectively countered into space. Now counter attacks and pass and move football are in no way incompatible, but it was interesting to see Liverpool's back-line drop further back and frantic pressing become a lot less frantic. Many, including yours truly, figured that a successful summer transfer window would allow Rodgers to shape the squad to his liking and see an ensuing return to "death by football."
Through eight matches however, it seems Rodgers is continuing to shape a counter-attacking outfit. The squad's possession rate of 53% is 9th in the division, its pass completion rate of 83% is 8th. Directionally, the squad is sending 36% of its passes forward, 15% backward, and 48% laterally (indulge me on the rough 99% summation).
Liverpool is conceding 14.6 shots per game, fifth most in the EPL behind Fulham, Cardiff, Norwich, and Hull... these are not the kind folks with whom we want to party. On the flip side of the table, City, Spurs, Chelsea, and overachieving Southampton are the four lowest rates.
The silver lining here is that while Liverpool is conceding a lot of shots, they're usually coming in from distance. Six percent of opposition shots come from inside the six yard box (tied 11th fewest), 36% inside the 18 yard box (lowest in the division), and 58% outside the 18 (second highest in the division behind Arsenal).
In short: lots of shots, most of them from range, and, if I had better numbers, I bet we'd see those six yard cracks are mainly from Liverpool's horrid set-piece defending.
Offensively, the Reds are taking 14.3 shots per game (tied for sixth) - yes, the Reds are being outshot. However, nine percent of these are from inside six yards (tied for third best), 48% from inside the 18 (8th highest), and 43% from Charlie Adam territory (13th highest).
The item I find confusing here is that Liverpool is creating both chances and clear-cut chances at demonstrably lower rates than last year, every 9 minutes from 6.5 and every 63 minutes from 47, respectively. An effective counter-attacking emphasis should, ostensibly, be boosting the clear-cut rate but that's not the case.
The declining chance creation numbers joined by passing and defensive stats consistent with those of last year seems, to confirm my suspicion that Liverpool's style falls into a gray void between the worlds of counter and possession.
Constituting "The Core"
Heavily related to a club's style of play is the collection of "core" players around which the manager builds the entire system.
The best example that comes to mind is actually Barcelona's enormously expensive mistake in signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As soon as Pep Guardiola realized Ibra was not compatible with his core of Messi-Iniesta-Xavi-Busquets, he sidelined the Swede and shipped his ass out of town first chance he got. Ibra took it personally, as many stars do when they suddenly themselves on the wrong side of the velvet rope. The ego naturally bruises when you find yourself needing an invite to the VIP table.
The pertinence here is that I find Rodgers changing his style of play to be inextricably linked to his shifting valuation of what constitutes his "core." The 4-3-3, with which he began, was centered around Suarez, Gerrard, Lucas (injured for much of the early run), and also Joe Allen, who played come hell or high water last fall.
In the winter, Philippe Coutinho entered this group and replaced Allen within a matter of weeks - a transition cemented with the Welshman's season-ending injury.
It is worth remembering though, that Sturridge took much longer to enter this realm. He split time between a central striker role, the right flank, and even the bench before Suarez's suspension gave him sole occupation of the striker position. Obviously, he took the opportunity and ran with it beyond anyone's wildest dreams, and the prospect of shunting the goal-fiend out wide is preposterous.
So that takes us to the present, with Rodgers working nights and weekends in some kind of Keebler elf tactics factory to design a system that brings out the best of Suarez, Sturridge, and Coutinho.
Ahh yes, I did it. I cut Gerrard and Lucas out of that core and it wasn't a pleasant thing to do. But, painful though it may be to admit, El Capitan has clearly moved past the stage of his career where he consistently controls games week in, week out. A few of our beloved commentators have gotten trigger happy and demanded his shipment to the glue factory. We're not there yet - not close in fact - but to occasionally rotate Allen in for Gerrard would benefit the squad.
Regarding Lucas, the truth is he hasn't fully returned to the incredibly thin air he occupied before his wings were cruelly snipped. He may get back there, we'll know better come spring, but Henderson sliding into the holding role recently was far from disastrous and a healthy Allen was quite effective there in the late summer of 2012.
In both cases, the fact that these discussions can even be had indicates that neither Lucas nor Gerrard are the core around which the entire system is created. This doesn't mean they're poor players, hell they're still locked-in starters. But the simple fact is that when Rodgers is cooking up his tactics, he's thinking first and foremost about how he can get the most out of the Sturridge-Suarez-Coutinho trio, and his willingness to change formations and style of play is proof of purchase.
The question I feel necessary to ask at this juncture is whether it is wise to make such drastic alterations for this core, to build a system around this collection of players. Well, no reason to beat around the bush any longer - is it wise to build a unique system to incorporate Luis Suarez, aka "El Pistolero," aka "The Gremlin?"
Reconciling The Core and the System
With this post dragging on and on, there's no need to waste words on the benefits of a Sturridge-Suarez partnership in the immediate term. Three EPL games together this year, a combined six goals and three assists. The Dude abides.
My concern however, is about engraining a system and style of play to reap the benefits of a partnership that could have a shelf life as limited as 10 weeks. I hold no special affection for The Gremlin and consider his current relationship with the club to be a strictly professional affair born out of mutual self-interest.
Despite hanging onto him over the summer, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Florentino Perez and Carlo Ancelotti decide they cannot wait until next for The Gremlin's unique services. Karim Benzema currently engenders less goodwill in than Bernabeu than Ed Snowden's name around Pentagon water coolers. A loss in this week's Clasico and the Blancos will be drifting away from both their Catalan rivals, and, even more frighteningly, their bitter blue-collar neighbors across town. And, in case you were unawares, Suarez is eligible to play in the Champions League for any club this season.
The finer details of a potential January sale to Madrid is deserving of its own post down the line, but it's not a far-fetched nightmare even at this early hour. At least for me, it raises serious doubts as to whether we should continue pursuing the occasionally clumsy 3-4-1-2 counter attacking system Rodgers currently favors.
So, we've reached the end of the line, last stop for this snowballing monstrosity of a post. Liverpool sits third place through eight games, and I'm groveling over this esoteric nonsense of a supposed lack of identity.
Maybe Rodgers saw the executioner's axe fall on fellow disciples Luis Enrique and Zdenek Zeman in Rome and decided martyrdom wasn't his bag. Maybe he's finally unleashing some of Jose Mourinho's imparted wisdom from his time at Chelsea. Maybe, and this could be the hit, he's just piecing together what he feels to be his best lineup from the squad currently available.
Regardless, I suppose the reason for these musings is that looking back to Rodgers's hire, identity was really the only thing promised - a clear playing philosophy to be implemented over time. Judging strictly by results, Rodgers is working wonders at helm of the big Red ship. Judging by performances, I'm not sure he's succeeded in crafting any kind of clear identity at the club.
Perhaps more importantly, I'm starting to wonder if it ever mattered in the first place.