Liverpool travelled to the Potteries in a bid to put the ghosts of last season’s 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Stoke City behind them, and with the help of a late Philippe Coutinho howitzer, the Reds just about managed to do so albeit with some glaring problems in the set-up which incorporated four of the club’s seven summer signings.
STOKE CITY 0-1 LIVERPOOL
Stoke City (4-2-3-1): 1. Butland // 8. Johnson, 20. Cameron, 5. Muniesa, 3. Pieters // 15. Van Ginkel, 6. Whelan // 19. Walters, 16. Adam, 14. Afellay // 18. Diouf
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): 22. Mignolet // 2. Clyne, 37. Skrtel, 6. Lovren, 12. Gomez // 7. Milner, 14. Henderson // 33. Ibe, 10. Coutinho, 20. Lallana // 9. Benteke
The pre-match tactical formations pointed to 4-2-3-1 for Liverpool, while Stoke had a similar 4-2-3-1 with the difference being the positions of the support cast for the centre forwards. Seven new summer signings were on the pitch at kick-off, with Glen Johnson making his full debut for his new club against the club he left in the summer.
Charlie Adam was the most advanced in Stoke’s 2-1 central midfield, although in off-the-ball phases they set-up in a five man midfield while in possession, Ibrahim Afellay on the left was slightly deeper than his team-mate on the opposite flank, Jonathan Walters. Marco van Ginkel and Glenn Whelan formed a midfield axis with Adam; Whelan often the deepest lying with Van Ginkel and Adam taking turns to advance through the middle to support lone striker Mame Biram Diuof.
Club captain Ryan Shawcross was absent through injury, which made way for a makeshift back four with Geoff Cameron slotting in at the centre alongside Marc Muniesa while Johnson took his place on the right.
Liverpool played with captain Jordan Henderson and James Milner as their central midfield pair, and Coutinho was in a free role between Stoke’s two lines. Henderson tucked into a slightly deeper position than Milner, who played the role of press initiator from midfield. Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez formed the left half of Liverpool’s back four while Martin Skrtel and Nathaniel Clyne formed the other half.
New signing Christian Benteke was the lone man up front for the Reds, with Adam Lallana and Jordon Ibe playing contrasting roles on Benteke’s sides. Ibe hugged the touchline as an outside right, while Lallana drifted infield and operated from the half-spaces although he failed to link up well with Coutinho.
Stoke Attack Through Their Right
One obvious weakness for Liverpool was their 18-year-old left-back Joe Gomez, who was making his Premier League debut. Stoke tried to use it to their advantage with Walters’ physicality and tenacity, while Lallana’s propensity to not shadow his opposing full-back Johnson led to most of the chances being created via the Liverpool left.
Stoke’s best chance came through their right, and involved Walters heavily. The Irishman kept Gomez busy all day, and the following scenario shows an instance of Henderson struggling to catch up with play, which is uncharacteristic of a deep midfielder.
As Walters leaves Gomez for dead on the right, Lovren comes across to cover for the left-back, which should have been done by Lallana or Henderson. Henderson leaves a huge hole gaping in front of the box, and Van Ginkel unattended as the Dutchman goes on a run into the box.
Lallana had an off day, as he failed to link up with Coutinho, who played slightly left of centre, and Benteke, who was starved of service all day long. Stoke deployed situational man coverage, which concentrated in the areas through which Liverpool tried to build up. Liverpool had no great passer from the deep areas, neither at the back nor in the midfield, which left them with the flanks as their only avenue to build from the back.
In the above screengrab, Lallana drifts inside which opens up space for Johnson to create a 2v1 situation with Walters on the right.
Liverpool’s Lack Of Defensive Cover
Henderson is not a holding midfielder who sits all day shadowing opposition midfielders and anticipating passes, he is a box-to-box player who likes to run into forward spaces at every opportunity. Liverpool failed with the Henderson experiment in the base of midfield at the Britannia Stadium, his roving nature affording Stoke plenty of space between the lines and even left the Liverpool hole understaffed on occasions.
The above screengrab shows Henderson caught upfield in a Stoke attack which leaves the hole area without cover. This allowed Diouf on that occasion to have a pop at goal.
On Liverpool’s left flank, Walters kept Gomez occupied while Lallana’s lack of cover for the youngster allowed space aplenty for Johnson. This, coupled with Henderson’s unnatural deep shift allowed Stoke to trouble the Reds on more than one occasion. Another scenario below shows Johnson bypassing both Henderson and Lallana en route another Stoke attack.
The Reds were predictable in their patterns, and Stoke did well to negate their attacking moves, which were primarily through their right flank and through Coutinho, who operated slightly left of centre. The lack of good passers meant they failed to pass through Stoke’s midfield, which morphed into a flat four off the ball to cut off central passing lanes.
The following scenario is from the 49th minute, when Cameron follows Lallana into midfield which opens up a huge gap behind the American. Liverpool’s predictable play and lack of lateral movements from their forwards meant they failed to take advantage of a Stoke defensive mistake.
The Potters created overloads around Ibe, which allowed them to isolate Liverpool’s outlet from the right. This prevented the Reds from building any meaningful attack from that side, and took Ibe into blind alleys more often than not.
Off the ball, Stoke employed a zone oriented man coverage system which put Liverpool under pressure in close spaces, which led to a lot of misplaced forward passes from the Reds. In the passive zones too, Stoke players shadowed their Liverpool counterparts, evident from the markers on Coutinho and Lallana.
In the following scenario, Ibe is closed down by four Stoke players as Liverpool are counterpressed. The Potters took advantage of Ibe’s limited passing range as he failed to find Coutinho in space on his left and instead tried to dribble past four players.
This was part of Stoke’s advanced man coverage in the wide areas which forced the Reds to resort to long balls given their lack of needle players to escape the markers. On the other hand, Stoke easily played out from the back due to Liverpool’s medium block press. This coupled with Henderson’s difficulties in shielding the back line allowed plenty space between the lines for Van Ginkel and Adam.
Huge gaps appeared between Liverpool’s lines, and the lack of another midfield body added to Lallana’s poor showing meant the Reds were reliant on too many long balls forward.
Uncharacteristically, Liverpool tried too hard to make use of Benteke’s aerial prowess by punting high, hopeful balls. Benteke, being the aerial monster he is, won 63% of aerial duels he was involved in. Lallana was wasteful trying to find the Belgian with early balls, so was Henderson.
The above screenshot shows the overloads in wide areas from Stoke and Liverpool’s propensity to try and find Benteke with early crosses, a tactic which was ill-advised given the Reds’ lack of Gerrard-esque passers.
Liverpool brought in Emre Can in place of the ineffective Lallana, which allowed the Reds to tweak their formation. Henderson pushed further upfield, and with Can behind him, the Liverpool captain was involved in some of the best passages of play in the game.
Can as the number 6 allowed Liverpool to morph into a 1-2 midfield, and pushed Coutinho wider into the left flank, although the Brazilian kept receiving balls and starting attacks from the left half-space.
For Stoke, Peter Odemwingie replaced Afellay and stationed himself as an outside forward. This was a move to contain Liverpool on that flank, given the frequent activity from Clyne (72 touches, third highest in the game) and Ibe.
Liverpool’s Defensive Improvements
A clean sheet away from home is generally considered a good defensive shift, but given Liverpool’s inadequacies at the back last season, the performance of their new-look back four was commendable. Lovren and Skrtel created a numerical advantage at all times over Diouf, although Gomez’s tough baptism against the wily Walters gave a few hiccups to Lovren.
Keeping in mind Henderson’s less-than-impressive stint for an hour at the base of midfield and the spaces it opened up for Stoke, Brendan Rodgers will be more than satisfied with the defensive solidity against the physically imposing Potters.
His decision to start with the more physical Gomez ahead of Alberto Moreno against Walters was vindicated, as the youngster was largely able to deal with the tireless Irishman.
In a game of few chances, Liverpool were cautious from the off, and only put their foot on the gas pedal once Can came on. The German added defensive steel into a system which seemed to lack bodies in the central areas exposing the rear guard more than once. The Reds’ circumspect approach was evident from their medium block pressing scheme, which allowed Stoke to build from the back.
Stoke saw an opportunity to put the inexperienced Gomez under pressure but missed it, which is testament to the work put in by the Liverpool rear guard after last season’s shambles.
Written by Abhijit Bharali
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