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Examining Liverpool’s Tactical Flexibility for the coming Premier League Season

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In just over a week’s time, the prayers of every football fan will be answered as the Premier League launches out of the starting blocks once again. There has been quite an upheaval over the summer at Liverpool and, under Brendan Rodgers’ guidance, a squad has been assembled that should be in a fit state to challenge with greater sincerity at the top of the table once again. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of both Liverpool’s boss and the current group of players is the vast flexibility available in terms of tactics and formation. Just what are the key features behind this trait and how can each be exploited to the maximum in the coming months?

The current squad at Anfield is now almost littered with players well capable of performing to an extremely high level in a variety of positions; dubbed ‘utility men’. James Milner adds to the already present Jordan Henderson and Emre Can as the prime examples of this concept and in my opinion, this trio are the keys to Liverpool’s available variation.

The former Manchester City midfielder whom Liverpool acquired on a free transfer this summer has become famous over the last few years for his vast levels of versatility. It has to be said that one of the defining factors behind his move to Merseyside was Brendan Rodgers’ intention to play him regularly in a central midfield role, bossing the engine room of the team. However, Milner is undoubtedly very capable of playing on either flank; either with a primarily offensive or defensive mind-set, and has been known to play at right-back and even as a nominal number nine in the past. Adding numerous strings to his bow has been a direct consequence of this rather inconsistent playing position and it is quite possible that Liverpool will now receive the greatest benefits of this wide knowledge of the skills required all over the pitch.

Emre Can really came into his own as a vital member of Liverpool’s squad in the latter half of the last campaign. He excelled as a young player in the new and intense environment of Premier League football, performing at the slightly alien role of the right-sided centre half of a back three. Here he was able to demonstrate an impressive level of tactical awareness, rarely being shown up defensively and excelling most in his composure in possession, being capable of bringing the ball out from the back to initiate an attack. It is more likely that his long term future on Merseyside will see him in a central midfield role not too dissimilar to his position for the German U-21 side in this summer’s European Championships. Liverpool will certainly look to take advantage of both his fantastic physical attributes and surprising level of subtlety shown at times last season in the final third of the pitch.

Confirmed as the new Liverpool captain to replace Los Angeles-bound club legend Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years and is now more than capable of applying himself all over the field. His stamina and physical prowess allow the midfielder to work at full pace between both penalty boxes for 90 minutes and so one often sees Henderson putting in vital contributions at both ends of the pitch. Strong in the tackle, rapidly improving in possession of the ball, and developing an increasingly sharp eye for goal, Liverpool’s number 14 is cemented as a key man wherever Rodgers chooses to deploy him. One interesting point to note is Roy Hodgson’s recent decision to shift the ex-Sunderland man to right-back in an England game rather than bringing Nathaniel Clyne into the fray. The Three Lions needed additional attacking impetus and Henderson certainly did not let anyone down on the right side of defence, however I would expect Rodgers to only consider this option in the direst of circumstances.

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Henderson and Can’s terrific energy can now be combined with Milner’s tenacity all over the pitch to form a fearsome midfield axis.

The incessant willingness to experiment that has been shown by the Northern Irish manager is a useful aspect to explore further and take advantage of as the season progresses. Liverpool’s long unbeaten run in the middle part of last year coincided with Rodgers converting his side to a 3-4-3 formation. There is no doubt that a back three of Can, Skrtel and Sakho added solidity, whilst the efforts of the wing-backs allowed Coutinho the freedom to express himself and create at will. It must be said however that The Reds possibly arrived at this formation more by luck than judgement, as a flurry of injuries left Rodgers with few options other than transforming his system. Nevertheless, he retained the style much further down the line, clearly appreciative of the assistance it brought to his side at the time. From the additions he has made to the playing staff this summer and the setups employed in pre-season to date, I see him preferring a formation with four at the back but with the knowledge that the 3-4-3 can be reverted to if need be.

During the season where Rodgers’ Liverpool fell tragically at the final hurdle in their quest for Premier League glory, it was commonplace to see his teams switch between a 4-3-3 and 4-1-2-1-2 at regular intervals throughout matches. Depending on the opposition they came up against and how the early portion of the game had transpired would determine the tactics for the minutes to come. This approach keeps the opposition guessing and means that they could well arrive unprepared.

However, it does have the drawback of potentially trying to be too clever for your own good and being overwhelmed in specific areas of the pitch. For example, Manchester United following Van Gaal’s philosophy were able to dominate one side of the pitch to the other as players such as Young on the left and Mata on the right capitalised on the space being opened up. This approach by Rodgers will become increasingly refined with experience and as long as the players are drilled to a sufficient standard, it has the potential to remain a very powerful tactic.

Liverpool almost have an embarrassment of riches in the area of the pitch between the lines of midfield and attack. Several stars with terrific awareness and matching technical ability are on their books and all love to operate in pockets of space behind a main striker. Amongst the contingent, there is a fine balance between very similar players and also those who offer something in other categories.

This variation allows for a flexibility in style, approach, and application depending on the opposition. For example, Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana are blessed with outstanding close control, dribbling ability and acceleration off the mark but are not widely renowned as particularly pacey over longer distances. On the other hand, Markovic and Ibe are scintillatingly fast and attack their opposite number with a direct style when on top of their game. The most appropriate combination of these abilities can be chosen in order to provide the greatest threat to the opposition, whether they defend with a high line or pack the defence to attempt to eliminate the space.

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Coutinho and Lallana are just 2 of the players in the Liverpool squad with great natural ability. Where will they be deployed?

Last season, Liverpool seriously lacked a consistent and reliable threat through the middle of their attack. With Suarez’s departure to Barcelona coinciding with Sturridge’s injury-plagued campaign and other strikers at the club showing varying states of ineptitude, they struggled to maintain a threat to the opposition centre halves.

With the numerous additions to their ranks in this area; namely Benteke, Ings and the long-awaited arrival of Origi, The Reds again have options in attack that can be relied upon to both score goals and wreak havoc in the opponent’s penalty box. I believe that in addition to continuing the previous trend of playing one sole striker; as all four are capable of this job, there are pairings amongst Liverpool’s current quartet which could work like a dream. There is the potential of Benteke and Origi filling the same role as a target man, then combining with either Sturridge or Ings in a more withdrawn position that takes advantage of their intelligence and close control. Either way, there is the argument that opposition centre halves will have significantly more to be concerned about when marking a man each, hopefully maintaining The Reds position on the front foot.


 

Liverpool - Football tactics and formations

 

In this somewhat generic looking 4-3-3, I think the main feature to note is the midfield trio. In terms of an engine room, this has to be one of the most powerful examples that one could wish to combine whilst also not suffering in the technical aspect of proceedings. All three of Can, Henderson and Milner can defend, tackle, pass, run, and shoot, and when grouped together would be the driving force behind the effectiveness of this Liverpool side.

 

Liverpool - Football tactics and formations

 

When playing in a 4-1-2-1-2, it has the advantage of being able to accommodate two forwards to lead the line and occupy the opposition defence to the greatest extent. However, with the players Liverpool have to choose from, width would be a problem and so Clyne and Moreno would have to work exceptionally hard down the flanks to both quash attacks from the opposition and maintain a threat for their own side. This system could work best against a team with most of their power in the middle of the park as it allows for a rapid transition between dogged defending in compact space and springing a strong counter-attack at the heart of the opposition.

 

Liverpool - Football tactics and formations

 

If Rodgers chooses to employ a 3-4-3 formation again this season, then I believe he could mostly stick to what has been tried and tested in the past. The effect of Can taking the ball out from the back and starting attacks with purpose would be massive for the side as a whole. Furthermore, the wing-backs would again have to get through a great workload. Any midfield pairing of the players that Liverpool have at their disposal should be combative and tenacious enough to compete with almost any Premier League side in this area, thus leaving the creative aspect of the game to their Brazilian wizards and a potentially resurgent Lallana.


 

Of the many talented members of Liverpool’s current squad, who do you think would make the best eleven that carries the greatest threat to the opposition. Does The Reds’ strength lie in their intricate play in the space behind a main striker or should they look to adapt their philosophy to a more direct style with the intention of taking advantage of Benteke’s main attributes? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .

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I am currently at university studying Mechanical Engineering, but in my spare time I'm into all things football. I'm an avid Liverpool fan but always try to remain impartial. My other interests include gaming and Formula One.

FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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