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Learning To Play Without The Ball

Date: 21st January 2013 at 5:30 pm
Written by: | Comments (13)

Henderson celebrates for Liverpool FC FC have not drawn a blank in their last 12 outings in all competitions. The Reds have scored 26 goals in that time and with Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini back, finally the profligacy that has blighted Liverpool for 18 months now seems to be in decline.

Unfortunately, while Liverpool’s attacking play has improved recently, there is another more pressing issue right now. Liverpool aren’t very good without the ball.

Throughout the season, the Reds have been far too open to counter attacks, they have often been too slow to close down their opponents and physically they have been over matched, especially in recent games against West Ham (until Diame left the pitch), Stoke and . The major deficiencies that are holding Liverpool back are apparent when ’ team don’t have the ball.

When you are trying to implement a passing style as Rodgers is, it isn’t just about retaining possession. The regaining of the ball and the ability to hinder opponents when they have it is equally important. Pressing high and intelligently is imperative if you wish to play a possession based game, but Liverpool are not close to mastering this yet.

Liverpool’s weakness in this area was cruelly exposed in Manchester last Sunday. The midfield three of Gerrard, Lucas and Allen that Rodgers selected is theoretically fine when Liverpool have the ball (although this wasn’t the case last week as Allen and Lucas were badly under-par when they had the ball at their feet) but United dominated the first half of the game because, when they were in possession, it was so easy for them to play around their rivals. Liverpool didn’t get close enough to them, they didn’t press them well and they barely offered a tackle for 45 minutes.

It was men against boys in a one sided first-half. Liverpool’s lack of mobility and physical presence in the middle of the park was all too obvious as United passed the ball around them with consummate ease. You need only look back at Robin van Persie’s goal to see that the move that led to the Dutchman’s finish should have been interrupted several times before he swept home to open the scoring. Joe Allen and Stewart Downing both chose not to attempt interceptions that were available and a couple of seconds later United had the lead.

Skilful players who win you matches with flashes of brilliance or play amazing cross-field passes that take the breath away are always in demand and highlighted, but pragmatism is needed at times and Liverpool have too often lacked in this area this season. The Reds played against United last Sunday as they have against too many opponents this season, they played naivety. The game plan was seemingly weighted heavily on what they could do with the ball rather than what would happen when they were without it.


It is a risky strategy to implement and when your players are having an off day as they did at Old Trafford in the first half, the game can become tortuous. Liverpool could barely get over the halfway line in the opening 45 minutes as collectively, their passing was off and also because United were closing them down relentlessly. That can happen in games, but what cannot continue is the opposite problem that has been evident too often this season already: opposing sides have it far too easy when they are in possession, especially in midfield.

may not be everyone’s cup of tea but can anyone suggest that he shouldn’t be on the team sheet these days given his form and the attributes that he has in comparison to an out of sorts Joe Allen or a clearly unfit Lucas Leiva? While Lucas, Allen and Gerrard stood and watched United pass around them as if they were training cones on Sunday, Henderson sat on the bench probably wondering why he wasn’t on the pitch closing the spaces that United were finding and exploiting so easily. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard on the ball, but he has a key component that any functional midfield, especially Liverpool’s, requires in regards to his athleticism.

Joe Allen may keep the ball better than him, Lucas may be more adept at playing from deep than him and Steven Gerrard may have more footballing ability in his big toe than him, but Henderson can help Liverpool to develop their new approach by offering what those three players can’t at this stage: Dynamism. His omission against United was hard to fathom as it left Liverpool’s midfield devoid of any running power on that large Old Trafford pitch and ultimately, the Reds paid the price. Henderson is not the sexy choice in midfield for Rodgers, but the team must come first and the talents that he does posses make him the pragmatist’s choice right now.

It isn’t that long since Liverpool were criticised for focussing on their opponents too much using too many pragmatic players over those with more ability, of course. Under , Liverpool supporters often bemoaned a lack of flair in their side, particularly in wide areas. However, for four straight seasons, no matter what his form was like, was selected time and again by the Spaniard. He offered no little threat when the Reds had the ball in terms of goals and assists (though people at the time were often crying out for a more creative and exciting winger to replace him) but crucially, he offered even more when Liverpool didn’t have the ball. He chased, harassed, and ground down plenty of opposing sides from the front with his intelligent and ceaseless pressing. He won the ball back high up the pitch for Benitez’s side and even if he wasn’t always reliable with the ball at his feet, Benitez kept him in the team because he knew how fundamental Kuyt was when Liverpool weren’t in possession.

Benitez’s most celebrated signings were technical wizards like Alonso, Luis Garcia and Fernando Torres but after one season of Premier League football, the Spaniard recognised that Liverpool required more steel to their game. They were a soft touch too often, not unlike their present day incarnation. was a perfect example of how Benitez solved this problem. He didn’t posses high levels of skill and sometimes his touch was almost comical, but until an eye injury derailed his career somewhat, he, like Kuyt, was a huge part in Liverpool’s resurgence under Benitez. He had boundless stamina, real physical presence and recycled the ball exceptionally well from midfield. His role was simple: seek the ball, win it and give it to someone like or Steven Gerrard to affect the game in an attacking sense.

For every Luis Garcia, Xabi Alonso or Fernando Torres that Benitez brought to Liverpool, he also signed a Momo Sissoko, Javier Mascherano or Dirk Kuyt. Benitez knew the importance of combining talented individuals with players who could push the opposition back and be effective without the ball. Rodgers’ Liverpool are yet to find that same equilibrium.


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13 thoughts on “Learning To Play Without The Ball

  • simon
    1 year ago

    The main problem the whole season has been Allen . Even when Henderson wasnt playing well he was still better than Allen . A premier team has to be strong in midfield physically , Allen is not .

    Henderson might be out of the team again though ,just when he is starting to come good, if Coutinho signs

    Reply
    • massive
      1 year ago

      yes , allen is a little boy , he mus never play for pool again

      Reply
  • Dave Martinez
    1 year ago

    Agreed, with Allen in there the balance isn’t perfect. Not necessarily his fault but a three of him, Lucas and Stevie isn’t physical enough.

    Reply
  • patrick
    1 year ago

    I stopped reading after the first few lines. Liverpool have been good lately without the ball.The start of the year was always going to be tough with the players learning the system but big improvements have been made.

    Reply
  • Darren Adams
    1 year ago

    This article is just what’s been on everyone’s mind for months. Saturday was the best I’d seen us press since the Man city game. Henderson is coming on leaps and bounds and his confidence is growing.

    Reply
  • Dave Martinez
    1 year ago

    Shame you decided not to read the rest Patrick but the piece was written before Saturday when we were excellent (with Henderson in the side, as the article advocates). It was a response to how poor we were without the ball against Stoke, United and to a lesser extent West Ham before Diame went off and how a balance needs to be struck. Happily, on Saturday Henderson started and we looked far better. Long may it continue.

    Reply
  • Harry86
    1 year ago

    Rodgers doesnt make sense with the midfield all season
    First , Allen is rubbish and lightweight ,shouldnt be playing
    Second , Why play Gerrard and Henderson in wrong positions ? Gerrard is probably the best attacking midfielder ive ever seen , and Rodgers has him as a sitting midfielder . Henderson is never going to score loads , and has looked extremely accomplished playing as a sitting midfielder for the u21s , obviously his natural position
    Makes no sense at all

    Reply
    • Parker
      1 year ago

      allen should be sold immediately , maybe get 3m back off someone for him

      Reply
    • TaintlessRed
      1 year ago

      Gerrard’s been in fantastic form playing in the position he is at the moment. His range of passing from deep is unrivalled and with Lucas next to him he both sees more if the ball and is able to join the attack better. When he’s played further forward (like where he did behind Torres) he hasn’t been as effective – partly because we don’t have an Alonso to find him.
      I agree with your point about Henderson. He would do well in the holding midfield role. He certainly should have been tried there when Lucas was injured, rather than playing Joe Allen. However with Lucas fit he could only be a backup for that position. He played very well from the left side midfield role against Norwich, but he was helped massively by Johnson hugging the touchline and providing all the width on that side. In games where Johnson has a winger occupying him and keeping him from advancing Henderson will be shown up as he won’t be out wise when we need a passing option there. In such cases we are better off playing Raheem or even Borini there.

      Reply
  • oliver
    1 year ago

    I agree this is an area of football so often overlooked. It’s so easy to watch the highlights of a game and get a really cock eyed view of a match.

    I remember a lot of the stars of the teams of the 70′s and 80′s, would often talk about the mindset of when you lose the ball, The attitude was that all of you went hell for leather to get the ball back and you found the team always worked harder when they didn’t have the ball than when they did.

    I think that approach these day’s would probably see you get picked off, as even middling teams have very capable technical players.

    I heard BR talking about football intelligence. He was talking about being streetwise on the pitch and being able to assess how far you could push the referees, so you could press and press without giving free kicks away. It got me thinking about the curious decision and reasoning for playing Carra ahead of Skrtel at the weekend, my immediate thought was that in the previous game MS gave away a number of silly free kicks making needless challenges, perhaps showing a lack of “football intelligence”.

    What’s most interesting about playing without the ball is actually how certain players have cvery quickly learnt what’s required of them. Sterling, Downing and Suarez are regularly seen chasing around to restrict opponents, they perhaps have little idea how much this is appreciated by supporters watching a game, I suspect BR has a pretty good idea though.

    YNWA

    Reply
  • RoytheRed
    1 year ago

    Downing has mastered playing without the ball, unfortunately he gets a touch now and then.

    Reply
    • oliver
      1 year ago

      Yes, he does, like the perfect volleyed cross for Sturridge’s goal on Saturday.

      Reply
  • red
    1 year ago

    Please do your homework before mentioning Sissoko. Sissoko inclusion in Benitez squad and subsequently there was purchaser for Sissoko IS one of magical events in LFC history just like Istanbul final. It’s just UNBELIEVABLE !!!!

    Watch again previous LFC matches and look how soft/weak/fragile Sissoko was. Steel ??? Did you mean hard tackling without receiving card ???

    Reply

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