This is a guest post by frequent TSG contributor John Nyen
Why is Roy Hodgson struggling at Liverpool?
There are many things that people can say about Liverpool right now. Struggles with ownership, finances, management have all taken their toll and eroded the foundation of the club.
However, no matter what you can say about the product off the pitch, the team on it is currently in the relegation zone, 18th place, with 6 points from 7 games. Yes the start was difficult, but the start is over now and with a few games in the bag the analysis can begin.
Roy Hodgson is not a gambling man on the pitch. He has a specific style that he wants to play and specific players to effect this style. Christian Poulsen, Raul Miereles, Paul Konchesky arrived during the transfer window. These players replaced players who could be considered “risky” or attacking players. Roy wants defensive stability and players who will stay in their position.
Hodgson abandoned the former regimes method of pressuring up high with the midfield and forwards. Switching this to a retreat and absorb method.
His formations drift between a static 4 – 4 – 2 and a 4 – 2 – 3 – 1, with some other permutations depending upon the situation.
There are four main characteristics of the current Hodgson formula.
#1 Have a strong defensive shape between the midfield and the back four.
#2 Invite pressure and sit deep to absorb.
#3 Counter attack off pressure.
#4 Attack with hold up play.
Breaking down #1
On defense, he has the back four sit deep around and in the box, waiting for the offense to come forward. In the 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 he has Christian Poulsen and Steven Gerrard playing the 2 midfielders in front of the back four, they generally sit about 5 yards to 10 yards in front of the back four which puts them just outside the box. The other midfielders retreat to typically create a five man defensive midfield.
In order for this to work you must have extraordinarily disciplined defenders. You have to have a rigid shape, and it helps to have people (like Maicon) who are better than 99% of the attackers coming at them.
Even THEN the strategy doesn’t always work because the stress of defending in your own half is quite high. I appreciate defensive battles, and I appreciate the skill level that it takes to pull this off…
However, you only stay alive with this technique. You frustrate teams, hoping that mental lapses of the opposition pouring forward will allow great counter attacking chances to materialize.
Rangers didn’t go into Manchester United and expect to put 9 men behind the ball and dominate, just like Hodgson’s Fulham were eventually exposed by a talented player (Forlan) at the Europa League final.
The best recent example of this kind of football working is Mourinho’s Inter v Barcelona. Then again, I think most people would pick that defense at that time against almost any team and they didn’t let Barcelona come into their end without harassment.
Inviting offense into your own end allows talented players to ply their craft and basically says to the opposing team that you hope, due to the difficulty of the sport, that they won’t be able to create magic. Basically you are betting that the average player isn’t going to break you down.
This is typically what promoted sides do to attempt to stay up. Create defensive shape, avoid exposing yourself in the midfield and attempt to nick goals.
Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, we look at issue #4 “Attacking via hold up play.”
Liverpool isn’t set up to do this, lacking a full target man ala Zamora, Heskey and their ilk. Hodgson has asked the slight Fernando Torres to attempt to become this character even though this isn’t his style. Torres is a player who thrives off service, clever play and slashing through the defense. This isn’t a player who is going to exercise his full talent by receiving the ball around the half way line and attempting to go forward from there.
Another part of the problem is that Liverpool FC has decided to look short term in order to try getting Roy a squad that he likes.
Emiliano Insúa, a 21-year-old attacking left back, was sold to Galatasary.
In his place Liverpool brought over Paul Konchesky, a 29-year-old left back from Fulham. Regarded as being a decent defender, Konchesky seemingly fits Hodgson’s method more than Insua.
Unfortunately less risky isn’t risk-free and the problems started to add up. Konchesky was given a 4 year contract higher than the wages for Insua. Konchesky made his league debut and was subbed out at the 77th minute as he picked up an injury.
His performances have been spotty and he is currently out with another nagging hamstring injury. Liverpool FC also re-signed Fabio Aurelio for the LB/utility position, except that Aurelio had already been let go by Liverpool during the summer due to his inability to remain healthy. Aurelio currently has played one game for Liverpool this year, in the Europa League. He has remained injured and unavailable for selection.
Due to this, currently Liverpool do not have a healthy left back on the first team. Not one.
Jaime Carragher played left back during the Blackpool loss. Jaime Carragher. Not to mention that the former stopgap at left back, Daniel Agger, is…
Secondly: actually a centre back in waiting for the clearly un-droppable Carragher’s departure.
Even more startling is the fact that part of the Konchesky deal was a swap for two youth players, Lauri Dalla Valle and Alex Kačaniklić. Now, nothing is guaranteed in youth players, and these two are no exception.
However, the idea of swapping two 19-year-old offensive players for a 29-year-old left back when Liverpool already had a 21-year-old left back on less wages is puzzling. It does make a bit of sense when viewed solely within the confines of the homegrown rule. However, it makes complete sense when viewed within the confines of Hodgson’s system. People will say (rightly so) that Insua’s performances last year were hit or miss, and Konchesky would be thought to stabilize the left. This hasn’t happened though, and Konchesky (when playing) has not appeared to be a major upgrade on the left. Now Liverpool sit with no left back for the long term future (or even present), less prospects and less of a squad. This has just become another example of the mis-management and lack of foresight with regards to players.
This doesn’t even begin to describe the car-crash transfer that has been Christian Poulsen who (in the words of other Liverpool fans) makes Lucas look like Pele. His substitution on Sunday was cheered at Anfield with the idea that finally the fans were going to see 11 versus 11 in that game.
This confusion extends, as well, to the mid-fielders in Hodgson’s team. They are currently coached (especially in the 4-2-3-1) to play exceptionally narrow. In Hodgson’s own words, “We don’t play with wingers. The way he (Raul Meireles) plays and the way Joe Cole plays, we think (playing wide midfield) is more than suited to their qualities.”
To be fair, this is probably correct. Hodgson DOESN’T play with wingers. As a matter of fact, the formation and lineup that Hodgson played at points against Blackpool was bereft of anyone but center midfielders, as in a 4 – 4 – 2 (with Dirk Kuyt playing up top/floating in support of Torres) The 4 midfielders were Steven Gerrard (CM – although this always is a discussion as well), Christian Poulsen (CM), Raul Meireles (CM) and Joe Cole (CM).
The inability of Liverpool to gain any width means that their attacks are snuffed out by a lack of space, easily. In watching the games, one notices that the player who stretches the field and plays out wide on the right is Glen Johnson. On the left…well…at Blackpool, that was Jaime Carragher.
Yes, he of fleet feet and vigor. During the Blackpool event, Gerrard completed one pass to Joe Cole. One. The game was completely beyond Liverpool at any time until the second half.
This is a team that won’t be challenging for the title, let me make this very clear. I don’t believe that sacking Roy Hodgson will somehow allow Liverpool to challenge teams like Chelsea and Arsenal this year.
However, this team also finished 7th last year. Torres (just like this year) was unavailable for most of the season, and injuries (just like this year) took their toll on the team. The biggest problem is that this season the team simply have not looked competitive or prepared. Dull, listless and devoid of any forward momentum Liverpool have settled into this defensive shell game. Even during the second half of the Blackpool game when the team rallied for a better performance (after shifts and substitutions), they eventually ran out of steam and at times looked to have given up.
Having said all this above, what is the main issue?
From #1 to #4 this isn’t being executed.
At All. Not One Bit.
If you look at screen grabs and video of the team the back line is completely scattered, the defensive shape is in shambles, the midfielders are nonexistent or stacked upon themselves. Players are too far forward or too far back, we conceded a goal this year because Paul Konchesky wandered off the post and was BEHIND the keeper.
I really mean that. Look at the goals from the Manchester United game. Not only was Konchesky behind Reina but he almost pulled a Suarez and tried to hit the ball with his hand! For a team that is trying to be molded into a defensive counter attacking team, their shape is at times nonexistent. Meireles is being played out of position, Poulsen is just not good (at least in this system), Gerrard has to cover Poulsen and is unbelievably far back at times, Cole just seems frustrated and disappears.
With the current ownership and situation at the club one should not expect Hodgson to perform miracles. However, one should expect that, at the very least, he could have the team show some semblance of cohesion. Perhaps he will, but quite simply, the tactics and execution of Hodgson are not working with this group of players. It is still early and one win could put Liverpool as high as 10th, but those watching the games both in the Premier League and abroad would have doubts that this will happen. While getting results in Europe these have not been well played games, and they have not been against top competition.
All the above being said, don’t expect Hodgson to change from what he is doing. This will continue for better or worse.
In Hodgson’s own words, (post game interview from Blackpool):
“Unbelievable,” said the Liverpool manager, when asked whether his approach could be applied on Merseyside as effectively as it was in west London. “How many clubs have I had in 35 years? What do you mean, do my methods translate? They translated from Halmstads to Malmo to Orebro to Neuchâtel Xamax to the Swiss national team.
“The question is quite frankly insulting, I suppose. That question is suggesting something. To suggest that suddenly because you move from one club to another, the methods that have stood you in good stead for 35 years and made you one of the most respected coaches in the Europe suddenly do not work. I find it very, very hard to believe that someone has even asked me that question.”
Welcome to the drama that is Liverpool Football Club 2010.