Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stark contrast between first and second half approach for Liverpool this season

Brendan Rodgers' possession philosophy is well known throughout English football. In 2010-2011, Rodgers guided Swansea to a Championship playoff victory, securing the Welsh side's first season in the top tier since 1983. The following Premier League season Swansea surprised many with their brand of fluid, possession-based football. Incredibly, they ended a successful 2011-12 campaign (they would finish 11th) third in the Premier League in average possession behind Arsenal and title winners Manchester City.

Rodgers went on to accept the managerial position at Liverpool in the spring of 2012 following the sacking of Kenny Dalglish. He worked quickly to implement his possession-focused style despite taking over a side more suited to getting the ball wide and hitting in crosses. Liverpool would jump from 7th in the league in average possession in Dalglish's final season to third in 2012-2013 under Rodgers.

It comes as a bit of a surprise then that after four games this season, Liverpool are averaging just 48% possession, good for 9th in the league. What is most startling about that statistic is the stark contrast in possession totals between the first and second halves of Liverpool's opening four games. In the opening stages of games Liverpool are playing as you would expect a Rodgers side to play- they're keeping possession and when they lose it they're pressing quickly high up the pitch to win it back. As a result, Liverpool have had at least 50% possession in the first half in all four games and are averaging 56% first half possession overall. They've by and large been battering their opponents in the opening 45 minutes. All 5 of Liverpool's goals this season have come in the first half and they've had the lead at halftime in all four games.

By contrast, Rodgers has taken a markedly different approach in the second half of games. They've focused less on retaining the ball and more on maintaining defensive shape, dropping much deeper and defending in banks of four in their own half. Whereas Liverpool have had at least 50% possession in the first half of every game, only once have they had over 50% in the second half- the opening win home to Stoke. They're averaging just 41% possession in the second halves of games.

*Stats via FourFourTwo Stats Zone iPhone app

The graphic below shows a comparison of Liverpool's tackles in the first and second half against Swansea and illustrates the change in their shape. In the first half the focus is on keeping the ball and pressing high up the pitch. Notice 4 of their 7 successful first half tackles occur in the attacking half of the field. In the second half they defend deep and all 9 of their successful tackles occur in their defensive half.

The stark contrast between first half and second half possession totals could be explained by the fact Liverpool have had the lead going into the second half in every game. It's natural for many managers to be more reactive and play more defensively when they have a second half lead to protect. However, in the past Rodgers has publicly spoken out against such an approach.

In the interview below from April 2012 (at 7:13), shortly before he took the Liverpool job, Rodgers spoke of the importance of protecting leads by keeping possession. He brings up an example early in Swansea's season of a game against leads. Swansea had a 2-0 lead going into the final five minutes. They began to hit the ball long and concede possession, thereby "inviting pressure" in the words of Rodgers. Wolves would go on to draw the game 2-2.

Rodgers goes on to explain how during the following week of training his side focused on relieving pressure by keeping hold of the ball. In the next game Swansea were faced with a similar situation leading Bolton 2-1 late on. He explains how this time his side was able to see out the win by keeping possession, stressing that "for ten minutes Bolton never got a kick of the ball."

Liverpool's second half possession figures suggest they are not looking to see out games by retaining possession. So does this indicate a change in footballing philosophy from Rodgers? That's a difficult question to answer after only four games but there are certainly a number of possible explanations as to why he's adopted a more pragmatic approach early on.

For starters, it's quite difficult to maintain the energy levels required to play a style based on possession and pressing for 90 minutes. Inevitably players tire in the second half making pressing more difficult. Defending deeper mitigates the risk of being caught on the break when players become too fatigued to press quickly.

Secondly, the attacking four players in Rodgers 4-2-3-1 formation are all quite young. He has used Coutinho, Victor Moses, Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge in those four positions. Aside from Aspas, all of those players are 24 years old or younger and Aspas (26) is still adjusting to his first season in the Premier League. Perhaps Rodgers feels the relative lack of battle tested pros in attacking positions may result in possession given away cheaply too often and leave Liverpool exposed defensively.

Regardless of the reasoning, it'll be interesting to see if Rodgers sticks with this strategy of pressing and attacking relentlessly early on, then dropping deep once his side have gone ahead. It worked in their opening three fixtures- all 1-0 wins- but wasn't always terribly convincing. Too often goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was forced to bale them out with big saves. In the most recent 2-2 draw at Swansea, Liverpool had just 30% possession in the second half. This time they were unable to deal with the continuous pressure and conceded a second half equalizer.

Given that maintaining possession has been the central part of Rodgers' footballing philosophy, my guess is that as he'll want his side to control the second half of games better. However, the pressures of managing at a club as big as Liverpool in all likelihood have made Rodgers more flexible in his tactical approach.

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