Liverpool’s Tactical Woes, 2011/12 – Part Two

Liverpool’s Tactical Woes, 2011/12 – Part Two
July 20, 2012 Mihail Vladimirov

By Mihail Vladimirov.


There are two main ways to approach the selection process. The first is to pick each player by “type” and select men who will complement each other on the pitch, producing a balanced and cohesive team. The manager simply gives these players a general framework to play in and lets them play. This method is not very detailed; the trick is in signing the right archetypes. We can broadly call this the “macro” method. The second approach is much more sophisticated and requires a much deeper understanding of tactics and the ability to translate these ideas into instructions the players can absorb and understand. They will need to know precisely what they are expected to do in any given situation. Player types become less important as specific instructions can govern behaviour – but the balance and detail of the manager’s plan has to be spot-on. This, then, is the “micro” method.

Both options are perfectly serviceable. If done well, neither is inherently better at producing tactical balance. It’s up to the manager which approach he chooses to take. While there is no “right” way to go about things, however, there is certainly a “wrong” way – or rather, certain things that any successful manager ought to avoid.

If the manager goes for the macro method, he should not pick players whose styles overlap. They will simply get in each other’s way and cancel out their own tactical worth. For example, picking a player at full back who naturally wants to overlap his winger is pointless if said winger always bombs forward too. Similarly, there is little point in having two poachers on the field at once, since both will play on the last shoulder of the defender and nobody will drop behind to play balls into them or drag defenders out of position. Furthermore, the manager shouldn’t pick the same type of player across the lines of play – for example, playing four recycling playmakers in the midfield of a 4-4-2. This will be brilliant at holding onto the ball, but will rob the team of any width or any penetration. Or, as another example, playing four physical stoppers in defence will not help the team bring the ball out from the back and build up quality attacks. Other combinations do not tend to work well either – such as a false nine with two natural wingers. As the striker drops someone needs to run into the central space around the penalty area. Without inverted wingers, there will simply be a hole up front and it will be incredibly difficult to score. So – very briefly – the manager should not select more than two players of any one type; nor should he select players whose styles tactically conflict.

With the micro method, the players need to be given in-depth instructions about what to do and when to do it. One could field six playmakers in such a system and still play penetrative football with the required width – Spain managed it against France and Italy in the Euro 2012 quarter-final and final respectively – but this is only possible if the players have an explicit idea of the overall tactical plan. Without these instructions, the players may revert to type and any balance or cohesion will be lost. Spain also proved this point against Croatia, Portugal and Italy in the group stages.

Unfortunately, Dalglish fell into the “bad” side of the macro approach – sometimes selecting players who were not compatible by type and failing to give them adequate detailed instructions to compensate. We know that he is a macro-manager, so it was only logical that he would avoid in-depth planning for all but the biggest games. But the macro approach had served him so well in the final six months of the 2010/11 season. We can debate how much of this was his own skill and how much was circumstance thrust upon him (see the previous article), but regardless of to whom we give credit, Liverpool played well. For much of last season, his team selection alone was not enough to cover for the lack of tactical detail. In order to fully explore this issue, let’s look at his matches in charge in terms of the formations and the types of player selected.

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