By Jonny Mullins
We cannot get carried away by our performances in the final few months of the season. Since Kenny Dalglish took over the helm from Roy Hodgson, results and performances have hugely improved. More wins, more clean sheets, more goals, and far better performances on the whole. The pass and move style Dalglish favours has been a breath of fresh air, with the movement and quick incisive passing a delight at points. But we are still a lot of hard work away from a genuine title challenge.
In reality, the performances towards the end of the season did show that we don’t have as bad a squad as the media had portrayed us to under Hodgson. There was some exciting play and the whole tactical feel was more flexible and fresh. With Hodgson there was always a feeling of trying not to lose rather than to go for the win. Under Rafa Benitez, there was a more controlled feel and the football was very intense. Both Benitez and Dalglish’ methods can be equally successful if done correctly. But it has been a breath of fresh air to see such lovely attacking football with beautiful interchanging of movement combined with quick incisive passing.
There is less time taken to get forward. According to Opta under Hodgson the team had on average more possession than under Dalglish (53.2% under Hodgson – 50.6% under Dalglish) which seems bizarre at first but not as bizarre as you’d think; the team was more defensive and sat deeper, meaning and there was more passes between the defenders at the back, whereas now, the ball is usually played forward quickly, trying to create on a more regular basis rather than keep the ball and wait for gaps. However there is more attention on keeping the ball along the floor. Even Jamie Carragher, noted ‘hoofer’, has taken to a more simple passing game. The team has regained the higher defensive line that it had under Benitez and the flexibility of positions has been brilliant, most notably in the 5-2 win over Fulham. There has been a variety of different formations used; 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, even a variation on 3-5-2 and 3-6-1 have been used since Dalglish took over.
However, as said, there is still a long way to go. The hardest scenario at the moment is how to get the best out of Andy Carroll. Since his £35 million move in January, the team has been at its best when he’s not been in the side. While Kuyt and Suarez have thrived together with this new approach, Carroll’s directness hasn’t yet fitted in. There’s been a feeling of being unsure of what to do when he’s in the team. Against Braga, the team made far too many long balls to him and the football was poor and certainly not incisive. In theory, he should fit in just as well as Kuyt. He’s strong, surprisingly good with the ball at his feet, and even has an underrated amount of pace on him. He just hasn’t fitted in for some reason, other than in the 3-0 win at home to Manchester City.
Of course it doesn’t help that his biggest strength is in the air and there are no proper wingers in the squad. This is something the team has lacked for years and is something that many fans are crying out for. This does bring its own problems. With a straight winger in the team they have more of a responsibility to stay out wide. The team therefore has more settled positions and less opportunity to interchange positions and the play becomes more predictable. Unfortunately the quick passing becomes harder to pull off because the positions become more rigid. The performance against Fulham was all about swapping and changing and it came so naturally meaning that the play could be quick. If positions are more rigid then the play has to become more patient.
It is therefore very hard to get the best out of pass and move and also Carroll. One way you could possibly get the best out of both is to push the full backs high up the pitch, Barcelona style, and get them to get the crosses into the box, unBarcelona style whilst still having the movement form Kuyt, Suarez and Gerrard etc without a winger. It’s clear a left back is needed; Aurelio is the best we have but is extremely injury prone and a new quality left back is needed, with Jose Enrique the favourite at the moment. On the right, Glen Johnson is obviously there and his attacking assets could be more important than it has been at any other point since he has come here.
Meanwhile in midfield a central playmaker may be what’s needed. Jordan Henderson is seemingly on his way already but it remains to be seen what type of role he will fill. If wingers are bought in, then someone who can spread the play with Lucas could be key in performances next season. It may seem stupid but looking at the model Manchester United have would be helpful – their central midfielders keep the ball ticking around from deep positions. They don’t have a genuine attacking midfielder who plays between the midfield and front line because their wingers are such a key part of their play – Nani topped the assists chart in the league this season with 18 and Valencia and Park are big players for them.
Luis Suarez has been a brilliant buy not only for his ability but also his versatility. When we bought him people seemed to think that he would be in a deeper role, maybe out wide a bit more with Carrol up front. In fact when he and Carroll have played together, Suarez has been the one in the role higher up the pitch on the shoulder of the centre backs. This has been fairly clever tactically – defenders sit deeper because of his pace and skill and then Carroll can get into positions higher up the pitch to cause more damage in the air. When he wins the ball in the air further away from the goal then there is less danger for defenders because knock downs are in areas where it is easier to deal with and the play is still far away from the goal. When there are knock downs around the penalty area, the ball can go anywhere and if it lands in the right spots, chances and goals are created.
Yet having Suarez in a higher role leads to a possible outnumbering in the centre of the field where most of our attacking play takes place. If one or two out and out wingers came in, then the middle of the pitch becomes more vulnerable.
In fact the key to getting the best out of Carroll may lie in two teams of the early 2000s. The first of which being Rafa Benitez’s Valencia and in particular the 2-0 win over us in the first game of the 2002-03 Champions League Group stage campaign. Any who watched the match will remember how dominant Valencia were. Their passing was slick, the movement was quick and they pretty much tore us apart, especially in the first half. The thing most people remember from that night was their midfield of Baraja, Albelda and Aimar, similar to the lovely balance we had a couple of seasons ago with Mascherano, Alonso and Gerrard. The Spanish duo and the Argentine completely dominated play that night, most notably in the first goal with the trio combining in a lovely one touch move.
However the pivot in attack for them that night was John Carew who gave them an out ball and allowed them to play it long for him to hold onto before their midfield pushed up and played their passing game again. For the second goal off the game, a long ball was played forward by Mauricio Pellegrino and Carew took it down with ease, held off a defender and laid it off to Ruben Baraja who burst forward and drove it into the corner. This was a great example of versatility that they showed and with players like Vicente and Rufete out wide they had a host of options. Yet Carew was the man in the centre who enabled their midfield to dominate.
The exciting thing is that Carroll at just 22, looks a far better player than Carew and has a far better eye for goal whereas Carew was simply there to hold the ball up and lay it off for Valencia’s midfield to dominate proceedings rather than as a goalscorer where he is poor. Carroll could do both and is surprisingly good with his feet as well.
The other model could lie with a less successful Bologna team at a similar time. zonalmarking.net put this team in their 20 teams of the decade and purely for a tactical reason. In attack they had the big front man Julio Cruz, who scored just 10 goals in the 2001/02 season and just 27 goals in his three seasons at Bologna. However, Cruz was key in Bologna’s 7th placed finish in the 2001/02 season. He was a handful for defenders and created space for other players to run into. His basic job with the ball at his feet was to lay it off to players who were breaking from midfield. The main one of these was the impressive Giuseppi Signori, an attacking player who was capped 28 times for Italy and was the main goalscorer for Bologna, scoring 66 goals in 142 games for them. He played a slightly deeper role than Cruz and often ran into the space created by Cruz as did the deeper lying midfielders.
Even looking at this video from the 2001/01 season in a 2-1 win over Verona, you can see glimpses of this system in full flight, with Cruz the target man and midfielders running from deep.
In fact, one clever way space was created for the deeper Bologna players to run into, was Cruz holding the ball and moving deep, dragging a defender or a midfielder with him. Thus players like Signori ran into the space and created big problems for defences.
If you swap Cruz for Carroll and Signori for Suarez, there is a benefit in a system like that just like there is in Valencia’s. Valencia’s was far better to watch and more successful (they won a league title with John Carew as their front man!) but Bologna’s with less talented players was very impressive, especially considering that they only just missed out on fourth place at the end of the 2001/02 season by 3 points.
Bologna’s system especially, helped set the mood for lone striker systems that have become prominent in the last decade with players who can hold the ball up and help teams keep possession. Rafa Benitez used this after poor away displays in his first season here and bought Peter Crouch, who could hold the ball up well.
Thus, maybe using Carroll as a pivot for the team isn’t such a bad idea. Carroll is such a rounded player that he brings more to the table than Cruz and Carew did to their respective teams. He wouldn’t just be a battering ram up front. He’s a very talented striker and on top of it all, brings goals. If we get him working to his maximum then the team will be a big force next season. Until then we need to find a system to get the team working together and having him in a pivot role, with midfielders coming from deep and full backs creating overlaps could work really well.