Liverpool Tactics under Brendan Rodgers: The Attacking Midfielders’ Roles

So Kenny Dalglish is out, Brendan Rodgers is in.

With that decision comes, for Liverpool Football Club, very much the end of one era and what Fenway Sports Group are hoping is the beginning of another: year zero.

Pass and Move, It’s the Liverpool Groove is about to make a comeback, and in a big way. Not in the music charts, thankfully.

While Rodgers’ approach to football and how he likes his club to be operated on the pitch has been magnificently covered previously, perhaps it is time to take a more detailed look at exactly what we might be expecting to see, and therefore where we might need to change personnel, in some key areas of the pitch.

Liverpool’s squad is in fair-to-good shape in most areas to fit in with Rodgers’ plans, but the area of the pitch between the defensive midfielder and the striker is in definite need of some close analysis.

Numbers, Liverpool have. The right kind of quality? We’ll see.

The typical midfield line-up of Swansea last season saw three central midfielders; one with a predominantly holding role, charged with recycling possession, picking up second balls in deep areas and closing out the space in front of the defence.

Ahead of this player were the other two players: the ball-player and the attacking midfielder.

Whether in a (1-)4-3-3 or a (1-)4-2-3-1, the essential jobs of these two players remained the same.

If we leave Lucas Leiva out as the defensive midfielder, Liverpool can count Steven Gerrard, Charlie Adam, Jay Spearing, Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey as their other midfielders, with Alberto Aquilani and Joe Cole still at the club too.

Our main focus will be on the attacking midfielder, but the second player of those three central men still needs looking at too.

 

The ball-playing midfielder: required qualities

Similar to the defensive midfielder, the second central player must be highly proficient on the ball and be adept at quickly receiving and simply giving possession in the middle of the park. As well as technical ability, the high-tempo pressing nature means that high stamina levels are as important as tactical awareness, as this midfielder must aid and back-up those ahead of him pressing the opposition while not allowing space in behind himself for them to exploit with a slightly longer pass.

Though mobility into the final third is not a key component of this role when utilising the 4-2-3-1 system, it is still an excellent method of surprising the opposition and outnumbering them in the final third with a well-timed burst forward.

Thus, pace and awareness of opportunity become important assets of the player too.

The naturally fluid nature of this brand of football means that this role will, over time once the squad are used to the demands of the manager, be able to move seamlessly into wider areas, letting others fill his space temporarily in the centre of the pitch and helping to break down the opposition because of the unpredictable nature of switching positions. Again, tactical awareness and an ability to read the game are vital attributes.

In a pure 4-3-3, it will become even more important for this player to be able to move forward into the final third to avoid the team becoming overly reliant or predictable with just one central midfielder constantly making runs forward from deep.

Defensively, though there is not as much expectancy on this player to be winning second balls and drop downs from the defenders/attackers, they will still be expected to cover large amounts of ground in front of the defence in a 4-2-3-1 and be able to make interceptions in midfield.

The ball-playing midfielder: candidates

Spearing, Henderson, Gerrard and Aquilani are all possibilities to play in this role. For the purposes of this article, Aquilani will be discounted as an option as Liverpool have had—or have released—no word as to the possibility he will be a Reds player again next season.

The role is pretty much the one that Spearing is born to play; without the last-man defensive responsibilities of the more withdrawn holding role, but without the attacking, creative necessities of the third midfielder.

Spearing is solid, can pass the ball well enough if he maintains concentration and can be relied on to put the boot in when necessary. These skills mean he will probably be kept on for another year; he could be a player to flourish under Rodgers.

Unfortunately he may be born to play the role at another club; at present, he is not at the required level to play in a Champions League side and so needs to improve quite significantly in this manner to have a long term future at the club, but is certainly one worth retaining this season.

On the other hand, if Liverpool either recall Aquilani or bring in another midfielder, Spearing could be one to leave this summer.

Gerrard will almost certainly end up playing this role himself in a year or two. As his game-time reduces with the aim of managing him through as many appearances as possible, though this role is both physically and mentally demanding his experience and will to play on for Liverpool make him an outstanding candidate, with a top-level defensive midfielder alongside/behind him.

Henderson is Liverpool’s long-term future in this role, along with possibly Jonjo Shelvey, though I see him developing into a more attack-minded talent over the next four to five seasons. Henderson has good ball retention over short distances and, the more he is encouraged to get on the ball in the centre of the park, has every chance of growing into the player Liverpool hoped he would become.

In the absence of major signings, Henderson can be expected to feature regularly in this role next term.

The odd one out here is Charlie Adam. His propensity for longer range passes—15% of all his league passes in 2011-12 were hit long, giving the ball away 71 times in 28 games via long balls—and lower stamina than his team-mates, as well as a comparatively low success rate in completing passes in opponents’ half (63%) and, most importantly of all, in the final third (67%) mean he is almost certainly a candidate to be last choice in this role—or at least, he will without some of his new manager’s “education” being passed on to him pretty sharpish.

Minutes Played Total Passes % Complete Long Passes % Complete % Passes Hit Long
Charlie Adam

2,175

1,372

80%

207

66%

15%

Steven Gerrard

1,212

895

83%

112

73%

13%

Jordan Henderson

2,663

1,492

84%

137

70%

9%

Jay Spearing

1,301

828

86%

104

79%

13%

Joe Allen (Swansea)

2,891

2,177

91%

235

83%

11%

Leaving Joe Allen in as a “control” as he played that role last season for Swansea City, Brendan Rodgers’ former club, the statistics show Charlie Adam in a light not entirely suited for this tempo-setting, team mate-supporting, constantly-passing role.

Not only does he complete less of his passes overall than his direct rivals for the position, he also tends to hit his passes long on a more frequent basis—and loses possession more often than everybody else whilst doing so.

In terms of choosing which player should get the nod, Henderson’s impressive ball retention in attack again gives him the nod to be a key player for Liverpool next season. He completed three-quarters of all his passes in attack for Liverpool (75% opposition half, 74% final third).

This kind of accuracy, consistency and attention to detail will be key under the new regime; what might have last season been seen as a “too-safe” option or unwilling to take too many risks will now instead be the very cornerstone of Liverpool’s attacking emphasis, until the time is exactly right to strike.

As can be judged by Allen’s high number of long passes, the switching of play is certainly an option for Liverpool—but this will be more as an outlet to open play up again, right to left or vice versa, rather than in the manner of a quick pass forward from deep for an attacker to chase down the flanks.

The obvious exception to this will be Martin Skrtel, who may feel free to ping as many 60-yard passes forward as he likes if they match the quality and accuracy of his ball to Craig Bellamy in the build-up for Maxi Rodriguez’s goal against Blackburn Rovers.

All jokes aside, Skrtel actually attempted the most long balls out of any outfield Liverpool player last season (213), completing a Charlie Adam-esque 66% of them.

 

The attacking midfielder: required qualities

This is where it starts to get tricky. The attributes that an attacking midfielder will need for Liverpool next season will vary, from game to game and even from half to half.

Brendan Rodgers has already spoken about the “Zola zone”, the area of the pitch behind the centre-forward in which the creative magician of the team needs to operate to find space and open up stubborn defences, aiding the creation of goalscoring chances.

At present, Liverpool do not possess such a player—at least, at first team level.

In a 4-2-3-1 there will be more emphasis on this player to both create and score goals than there arguably would be in a 4-3-3, whereby the duties of entering the final quarter of the pitch would be shared by the aforementioned “ball-player”.

Regardless, the position requires well-above-average technical skills including a killer first touch, preferably the use of both feet and certainly the vision and anticipation to read both defenders and fellow attackers.

Another overlooked attribute this key attacking player must have in this system, with this manager, is a top-notch mentality and physical well-being.

Closing down and harassing defenders starts from the front, and the attacking midfielder will often be the first one who has to do the job. Any time the defence cuts out the ball before it reaches the striker in the centre of the penalty area or attacking third, it will be the attacking midfielder who is required to close down first while the wider attackers tuck in and the forward regains his defensive position.

Being able to actually make the tackles or interceptions isn’t actually such a key requisite as doing the work itself; often Premier League defenders will simply hit it wide and high up the pitch to clear their lines after sustained pressure; whereby Liverpool would get the ball back quickly, or else the ball goes back to the keeper and the striker can then press.

The statistics don’t show that as an interception or tackle, but the teamwork that goes into it is every bit as important as one.

A comfortable player on the ball in this role will ideally be able to drift wide without issue, pick the ball up deep or even get beyond the striker into the box—the element of surprise is what ultimately makes a player a success in this position and that does not always mean being able to dribble past two or three defenders, far from it; often the line between making the right call and the wrong one in the attacking midfield position can be simply standing still.

Let the defenders move around you, while you remain in space. Receive ball, make decision—and execute.

It can be as simple, and as incredibly difficult, as that.

Depending on the player in question and the specific role being played there are other considerations—an ability to shoot from range, good enough technique and confidence to dribble past players in tight spaces and being able to pick a pass through a crowded penalty box with a first-time ball are all excellent and ideal attributes.

The attacking midfielder: candidates

Generally speaking, the Reds have two options with this role.

They either travel the spend-money route, looking in the transfer market for the player who can make a difference in that small space with a quick touch, sly pass or clever dummy—or they go with the more pace-and-power approach in Steven Gerrard.

Joe Cole, Jonjo Shelvey and Alberto Aquilani can also all play this role, but as with the other midfield area we will discount the loaned out players, who’s wages and inability to have made an impact on the club previously will both count against the likelihood of them remaining.

Shelvey remains a good prospect who will get more game time this coming season, perhaps in both midfield roles, but he is nowhere near ready to be a starter week in, week out if Liverpool have aspirations of getting back in the top four immediately.

It must be recognised at this point that this is neither an impossibility nor a probability; Liverpool have so much to work through over the coming weeks and months that it would be folly to presume that the arrival of a new manager (and, presumably, new players) will give a guarantee either way.

Once Rodgers gets the team playing more or less the style he wants, with the starting XI he wants, then fans will see how far off the top four Liverpool really are.

Arguably Steven Gerrard’s best seasons for Liverpool have come with him playing an advanced midfield role, and while it has also yet to be decided who will play the centre forward role next season it is fair to say that Gerrard is capable of linking with any quality player.

His work rate and enthusiasm from the front will be an example to those behind and beside him, while his moments of must-win-the-ball-now wouldn’t cost Liverpool too much in terms of tactical shape with the security of having two more midfielders behind him.

For sure, Gerrard has the flexibility to pull wide, the clinical edge to be a real threat on goal again and the versatility to change positions and systems if the match dictated it necessary. He will also try the unexpected one-two, quick pass or outrageous athletic manoeuvre to get himself past a defender, all excellent traits in an attacking midfielder and a reason why he excelled in the role previously.

Liverpool do have another option, one who might fit in with the vision and creative type: Luis Suarez. He’s a menace to defences, pure and simple, but Suarez’s skill sets make him a more than viable candidate to be a massive threat from the flank for Liverpool—not in a wing position, far from it, but as an inside forward with plenty of licence to roam infield.

In addition, this would give him ample chance to link up with Gerrard in the final third.

 

Summary

It’s always a fool’s game to try and outguess an incoming manager, in terms of what his plans are going to be in the transfer market and what players he already has preconceived ideas of at the club.

Liverpool need numbers and they need quality, so some players are bound to come in and others will leave. Whether Adam, despite his seemingly ill-fitting game approach is jettisoned after a single season at Anfield remains yet to be seen.

Rodgers could bring in somebody, initially as a squad player, who just fits at the club and goes on to have a massive impact on the first team.

But in terms of what Liverpool have right now, without needing to venture into the unstable land of transfer speculation, Steven Gerrard represents arguably the best to be the attacking midfielder for the club.

Over a period of two years, perhaps three—the full term of Rodgers’ initial contract—we may see the club develop into one seamless organism; players swapping positions and making a mockery of opponents’ efforts to track them. Liverpool may be back in the Champions League inside 12 months, able to spend bigger and attract a better calibre of player.

As and when that is the case, it could very well be that the ideal type of creative attacking midfielder is available and is brought into the club, moving Gerrard back into the ball-playing midfield role as he has less regular impact on the first team.

Suso, Dani Pacheco, Krisztian Adorjan—all have the ability to play in the attacking role just off a forward, whether that is at Liverpool or elsewhere, but what it shows is that the club does already have a structure in place which will make it easier for Liverpool as a whole to embrace the formation and system of playing that Rodgers will attempt to implement.

There are other areas of the team, too, which need improvements and upgrading.

But Brendan Rodgers can at least be sure that there are numbers enough—and quality too, yes—to put his initial plans into action and see some tangible rewards from them sooner rather than later.

 


About Karl Matchett

Karl Matchett is the co-creator, author and editor of The Liverpool Word. A full-time independent football writer, he's a World Football Staff Writer for Bleacher Report and is a statistical contributor to Squawka Sports. A keen follower of youth internationals games and the English, Spanish, German and Russian domestic leagues. You can follow Karl on Twitter: @karlmatchett
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  • Matt Dalton

    Interesting read there Karl. You have got me thinking about that attacking midfield role now and how it impacts on other players in the squad. I am not convinced Gerrard is the right player to play that role and would have initially liked Suarez on the right.

    After reading that, I think I prefer the other way round now – Suarez in the hole and Gerrard on the right. The problem with Gerrard in the hole is that he is too passionate. Yes, you read that right. Because of this, he can often show a lack of tactical nouse, which you have highlighted as being important for this role.

    As an inside forward, Gerrard could be devastating and I think that position really lends itself to someone direct and Gerrard has drive that very few others do. Whether his decreasing pace would render him unsuitable for that in Rodgers’ eyes is another debate.

    I think Suarez would offer more than any other player in the hole but I guess the question is also whether the sum of parts would be more or less with Suarez there and Gerrard on the right. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rodgers try it as both Suarez and Gerrard would be capable of interchanging seamlessly anyway.

    • Karl Matchett

      thanks Matt. I am sure Gerrard will play both central and further forward this season. He’s certainly capable of switching with Suarez too, illustrating the point of the interchanging in positions over the next couple of years.

      if he’s playing further forward i don’t think his closing down is an issue with the right players behind him.

      remember, most of the defenders in the league are not as technically-minded or willing to play around and into the space as swansea are/were; him pressing so quickly will likely make them clear it quick or knock it back the keeper.

      i dont think gerrard consistently has the pace to be 90-minutes effective from that flank like Suarez and (presumably) a new signing could. wandering out there from time to time, sure, but not all game long.

  • iceman

    Nice article there. I’m not sure about Suarez playing out wide though, because even if he manages to create the chances, there isn’t really anyone to finish them off.
    I think Suarez should play the CAM role, and let Sterling or Downing play out wide. Gerrard is in the final stages of his career and i’m scared if he gets injured running around too much, he will never play again. If anything, Gerrard could slot in next to Lucas.

    • Karl Matchett

      thanks Iceman. I certainly wouldn’t want suarez as a winger per say, but he can certainly do an awful lot of damage working those channels, which he does naturally anyway.

      gerrard will arguably need to do less running about at AM than in CM, especially while we are adapting to the new system and getting it wrong on a few occasions!

  • Sam Wanjere

    A good read and I’ve enjoyed going through it.

    I’d prefer we dropped Gerrard to CM but allow him as much roving action as the team can afford. Condition(s) is he doesn’t jeopardize LFCs playing shape or positioning of a colleague. That said, is Gerrard disciplined enough to keep his position in BRs tactics?

    I’d also prefer Suarez playing in the hole but with freedom to rove too. Many positions here can be filled by youth products like Suso or even Morgan dropping deep and not playing static as a traditional nine, or signings to supplement. Dempsey would prove astute playing wide or making late runs into the box ala Lampard. This system can work if players like Adam and Spearing learn to keep it simple as Shankly would have wanted. No overelaboration, no Hollywood-esque passing or [aimless] long balls.

    Rodgers plays very Barca-like, right? How about we try a strikerless system, with Andy playing short and moving positions more? For this system to work there needs to be lots of movement from our runners, which Andy can join in. I’ve seen him do such. It allows him to participate in passing, occupying the defender, holding the ball and that nuisance factor of playing on the opposing DFs shoulder. Just a thought.

    On paper this is very exciting to this fan indeed.

    • Karl Matchett

      heya Sam, glad you enjoyed it thanks. i think gerrard will play there in a year or two. once we’ve got the system in place and everyone knows what they’re doing, positions will be more easily interchangeable. you’d conceivably have gerrard playing cm but still popping up on the right in place of (suarez or) whoever.

      initially, i think we’ll need him further forward to provide those extra bursts of pace, the unexpected link play at speed and the goal threat. mustn’t forget what a good finisher he is.

      i don’t think we’re anywhere near playing a false nine. that takes years to build into, we couldn’t suddenly start doing it from the beginning.

      we struggle getting players into the box last season as it was—don’t think it would help at all not having a “fijo” forward who we can count on to be a presence in the middle.

      it’s all exciting speculating about though!

  • andylynn132

    Brenden Rogers may even change his entire stratergy now he is not playing with a budget squad. As i have said many times there is no news coming out of Anfield at all so everything right now is just speculation.

    We could still bring in 2 world class players, and shock the prem and the fans.

    YNWA

    • Karl Matchett

      cheers andy. don’t think he’ll change his strategy; that’s what he’s been brought in to work towards.

      we could certainly bring in anybody for big money, but i think we’ll need 4 or 5 this summer. can’t see a 60m spend.

    • andylynn132

      I am just not enthralled at prospect of playing like Swansie mate. If the owners wanna convince the fans that they are sincere about taking LFC back to the top this is not the way to do it. I thought Rogers was brought in because of his experiences in being part of successful club structures around Europe. Not because he can keep a team in the prem on a low budget.

      We must only bring in quality players as the top clubs are. I am not suggesting we go and splash millions upon millions but we are so far off the pace already can we really afford to fall further behind

    • Dave Hendrick

      You’re not enthralled about playing some of the best football in the league? ok.

      Add better player to Swansea’s style and you’ve got a team challenging for top 4. He didn’t just keep them in the Prem, they flourished in the Prem, played us off the park both times we played them. We’ll buy players to suit the system and the with the quality of Suarez, Gerrard and whoever he brings in to play upfront and wide left, we’ll flourish. So far off the pace already?? Bizarre statement.

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