By Mihail Vladimirov.
Here’s the latest in our monthly series where Mihail answers some of the tactical questions he is sent. These are some questions Bob prepared in order to address what seemed the most interesting things, tactically speaking, during December.
What adjustments will Rodgers need to make to accommodate the return of either Gerrard or Sturridge……. or both?
This depends on whether he will want to integrate them into what is the current system of play (at the time either or both are fit again) or whether he will want to get back to the approach he was previously using when they were fit.
It’s interesting to note that in the last two games (Hull and Oldham), Rodgers largely kept the 4-1-2-3 formation he has been using since the Gerrard injury in the West Ham game. Against Hull, when Gerrard made his comeback, the shape changed from the starting 4-2-1-3 to 4-1-2-3 at the point he joined the game. Gerrard played in front of Lucas and alongside Henderson. Then against Oldham, when the team started with 4-1-2-3, it was Gerrard as the base with Henderson and Alberto ahead. At half-time in that game Rodgers made two changes, introducing Lucas and Coutinho and went back to the same set up as against Hull (Lucas as the ‘1’, Gerrard and Henderson as the ‘2’ in midfield, Coutinho and Sterling on the flanks).
Theoretically Gerrard lacks the dynamism, energy and mobility to function in the midfield duo of a 1-2 triangle. This type of triangle is all about constant movement without the ball in order to open up the required passing lanes and to consistently push forward to support the attacking play. The emphasis on the central duo to support the lone striker in attack is even bigger if the team is not playing with two natural inside forwards on the flanks. To me, Gerrard simply no longer has the physical resources to do this as effectively throughout the game, and on a game by game basis. Therefore I believe that sooner or later Rodgers will revert to the 4-2-3-1 system of play, especially once Sturridge is also ready to return.
However, it’s interesting to see how Rodgers adapted the 4-1-2-3, to a degree, to accommodate Gerrard in it. Obviously it’s a small sample so far, but it’s worth looking at this. With Lucas the deepest and the on-ball controller, the midfield duo had split duties, which is typical for all 1-2 triangles. Gerrard (against both Hull and then Oldham) played more of a passing role, with almost every passing and attacking move going through him. This made use of his vision and creative passing and his ability to quickly change the passing tempo, and switch from short and recycling-oriented passes to the clearly much quicker and more penetrative. Meanwhile Henderson’s role was predominantly all about movement off the ball, timing his runs to head in and around the box to add another attacking body. As such the shape had balance. On the left channel, with Coutinho dropping deeper and narrow to pull the strings, Henderson pushed forward. On the right, Gerrard staying that bit deeper dictating the play on the ball and less concerned about supporting the attacks in terms of movement, with Sterling making diagonal darting runs (especially once the full-back behind him overlapped).
Given the lack of other options I expect Rodgers to continue with that structure at least for the Stoke game. Once Sturridge is fit again though I believe he will come back to the 4-2-3-1 system. On paper there is a way to incorporate both Gerrard and Sturridge in this 4-1-2-3. With his current all-round form, there is no way Suarez would be moved out of the centre. This means Sturridge will have to play on the right flank, replacing Sterling. The midfield trio could continue to function in the same way as now. Then with Coutinho moving infield, Sturridge’s job would be simply to always look for ways to head in and around the box and offer penetrative off-ball runs.
All of this is in essence how Chelsea played under Villas-Boas when he used Sturridge on the right (and from where he scored around 10 goals if I remember correctly). At that time Chelsea had Mikel or Romeu, or occasionally Meireles, spearheading the recycling process as the deepest midfielder (Lucas) while Lampard concerned himself with further dictating the play from ahead and occassionaly pushing nearer to the box (Gerrard). Meanwhile Ramires’s job was to press heavily without the ball and always be present as another attacking option in the final third, constantly making surging runs from deep (Henderson). In addition Mata was always keen to drift infield from his left-wing positions to pull the strings from between the lines (Coutinho). This left Sturridge to focus on providing the additional off-ball penetration. The only notable difference is that Suarez supports the play in a different way to Drogba. Both players were equally willing to drop deep and pull wide to create space, while also working the channels to latch onto balls to fire in shots. But Drogba relied heavily on his physical presence and holding up the ball, while Suarez operates in a much more cultured way.
Anyway, I have my doubts about how keen Rodgers is to use Sturridge down the flank. He has shown up to now that he prefers to use both Suarez and Sturridge through the middle. So when the he is back fit, the 4-2-3-1 system would be the natural way to have both Gerrard in midfield and the two forwards through the middle. This might again force Henderson to be used down the right flank and look to play in a narrow role to help the less mobile duo of Lucas and Gerrard both in and out of possession.
The alternative is to go back and use any of the 3-5-2 variants, but for me this is less probable and if used at all, would be only as a one-off specific strategy in very particular games rather than as the long-term system of play.
With the problems experienced with the left-back role, with a number of players used there to cover Enrique’s absence, why do you think Johnson has not been used there, given that a) he played there for a sustained spell previously, b) there are other natural right backs available?
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