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Roy Hodgson has been in charge for seven official Liverpool games to date, and it would be fair to suggest that, barring the home leg against Rabotnicki early last month and transient spells of neat interplay during certain matches, the team’s performances have been generally underwhelming.
The deployment of (what some consider to be) an archaic 4-4-2 against Manchester City’s anticipated 4-3-3 was particularly disheartening, although the ‘Mascherano maelstrom’ preceding the game might well have forced Roy’s hand. Nevertheless, that match served to emphasise some of the team’s predicaments so far: the inability to keep possession for sustained periods; and the mystifying propensity to continually play ‘long’, mostly ineffectual, balls to the forward(s).
As a caveat, it must be noted that, as with any new manager, Roy will certainly require more time in order to comprehensively convey his methods to the squad; and it will take time for them, in turn, to imbibe his ideas and execute them appropriately in a match situation.
Nevertheless, there are certain tactical nuances worth examining, because it gives us an idea about Roy’s philosophy and his ideas; this might also indicate why the team may have struggled to impose itself on most opponents so far.
Part 1: Off-the-ball
Many on this website have recognised that the fundamental tactical difference between Rafa’s Liverpool and Roy’s Liverpool is the way the team defend off the ball. It is axiomatic in football that, for a team to defend effectively, it is has to minimise the playing area for the opposition. As the recent FIFA Technical Report on the World Cup noted, there are two main ways for a team to do this.
A manager might instruct his team to aggressively closing the opponent down, reducing the time they have on the ball, in order to induce a misplaced pass, or tackle the man in possession and obtain the ball in dangerous areas closer to the opponent’s goal.
Conversely, a team might choose to maintain a compact, narrow shape off-the-ball, in order to restrict space for the opposition and prevent them from passing ‘through’ the team, particularly in the defensive third of the pitch.
At its apogee (arguably March-April 2009 in terms of results), Rafa’s Reds employed an asphyxiating pressing strategy when the opposition had the ball. Players appeared to “hunt in packs” – particularly the attackers and midfielders – forcing the opposition to relinquish the ball higher up the pitch.
In contrast, Roy’s Fulham side was not one characterised by high pressing – he preferred for them to drop back into position, sit deep and maintain the structural and territorial integrity of the formation. Hence the emphasis, as Jonathan Wilson wrote in his article on Fulham last season, of “team shape” in his training sessions.
On the evidence of this season’s games thus far, that appears to be the prevailing strategy for Roy’s Liverpool as well. Indeed, as Glen Johnson revealed a few weeks ago, “ [Roy] concentrates on the organisation and how we defend”; so there is no doubt whatsoever about what Roy’s tactical priorities are, at least for the present.
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