Last weekend Burnley set a new Premier League record by recording just 19.4% of possession during their 2-0 win over Liverpool, the lowest percentage for a winning side since Opta records began in 2003.
Sean Dyche’s side pounced early at Turf Moor, forcing their opponents into a passing error to reclaim the ball before taking the lead through Sam Vokes after just two minutes. Andre Gray doubled their advantage, applying the finishing touches to a swift counter attack to give the Clarets a comfortable half-time lead.
Despite their ball dominance, Liverpool were poor, passing slowly and inaccurately in a manner that yielded a grand total of zero clear-cut chances. Indeed, Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton was only called into action once from a shot from inside his penalty area.
Stats in football can be misleading – hugely dominating the ball for an entire game would suggest that Liverpool were unfortunate or that Burnley’s win was a typical smash-and-grab affair. The evidence before the eyes of fans and neutrals alike suggests otherwise. The newly promoted side followed a blueprint that yielded a Premier League title for Leicester City last season: work hard, be disciplined, attack every cross in the air, counter with pace. It’s not a particularly ground-breaking approach, but it’s perfectly legitimate and appears to be an increasingly lucrative tactic for managers. And why wouldn’t it be?
Purists may argue about the aesthetics of the game plan but, in a results-based business, opting for the most effective tactic is a no-brainer for the modern coach.
The 2016 European Championships was, by most accounts, the worst incarnation of the tournament since its inception in 1960. Winners Portugal lifted the Henri Delauney trophy having won just one of their seven games in 90 minutes. Fernando Santos usually deployed four central midfielders in his starting eleven in a manner not dissimilar to Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool side that won a treble in 2001. After beating Barcelona in the Uefa Cup semi final that year, Houllier was slammed by Johan Cruyff who accused the Frenchman of betraying the spirit of football. Fifteen years on, what would the late Cruyff have made of Santos’ European champions?
The underdog stories that dominated Euro 2016 were well received by neutral observers, with the exploits of Iceland and Wales capturing the hearts of fans across the continent. However, beyond that, the dearth of entertaining, memorable matches was in keeping with the anti-possession trend. Even in the tournament’s best game, Germany were beaten by France having had two thirds of possession with the ball.
Jurgen Klopp, famed for his pressing and counter-attacking style of play, is generally quite dismissive of the “heavy metal football” tag he once used to describe his Borussia Dortmund team.
“We are a ball possession team, but nobody realises it because my image is pressing and counter-pressing. When I was younger, I called it things like ‘heavy metal football’. I have no idea any more why I said that.”
Much of his focus during a long and arduous pre-season was about possession of the ball. Video footage captured at an open training session in the USA showed eleven Liverpool players playing unopposed on a full-sized pitch, circulating the ball in pre-designed patterns. Philippe Coutinho’s brilliant second goal against Arsenal last weekend could be seen as a direct result of this kind of training – the Reds produced numerous quick, consecutive passes, shifting the Arsenal back four from right to left before an opening appeared for Nathaniel Clyne to beat a man and fire a low cross across the face of Petr Cech’s goal.
Against Burnley, Klopp’s team failed to produce one such attack. There were obvious differences: when Clyne crossed for Coutinho at the Emirates, the home side had three outfield players in the box, compared to any given attack against Burnley where some combination of defenders Michael Keane, Ben Mee, Matt Lowton, Stephen Ward and midfielders Steven Defour and Dean Marney were always in place to intercept when Liverpool got the ball in wide areas.
Similarly, when full backs James Milner and Clyne found themselves in an advanced position, they were inevitably facing opposition wide men George Boyd and Scott Arfield respectively, allowing the Burnley back four to defend narrowly. As Clyne assisted Coutinho at Arsenal, left winger Alex Iwobi was not even in the TV picture. When faced by teams that are as well-drilled as Dyche’s Burnley, such luxuries are a rarity.
Klopp has faced this problem numerous times already during his Liverpool tenure. West Brom took a point from Anfield last December after a similar display when the home team had 70% of the ball. Eight months on, what has the German done to counter this approach, one that he will no doubt face multiple times this season? Pundits often state that Liverpool only “turn up” for big games, but the reality is that their shortcomings against sides uninterested in having possession has little to do with attitude.
Pep Guardiola’s reign at Manchester City has begun impressively, with three straight wins. Steaua Bucharest and Stoke were comprehensively beaten on the road, but their home victory over Sunderland was more indicative of some of the issues that the Spaniard will encounter this season.
On that occasion, City had 77% of the ball but also struggled to create guilt-edge scoring chances. Much was made on Match of the Day of Guardiola’s instruction for full backs Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy to play narrowly when the team was in possession, playing them as auxiliary midfielders to aid ball circulation. Watchers of his Bayern Munich side will be familiar with the manner in which David Alaba and Rafinha played this role in his maiden 2013-14 season, the term chronicled by Martí Perarnau in his book ‘Pep Confidential’.
In the book, Guardiola’s disdain for the term “tiki-taka” that was synonymous with his Barcelona team is made apparent in a coincidental parallel with Klopp’s dismissal of “heavy metal football”. Pep has been faced with the problem of teams ceding possession and territory to his sides since 2008, but has always had the help of players who can create panic with direct dribbling and pace: Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Arjen Robben, and Douglas Costa come to mind. With Sadio Mané absent through injury at the weekend, Liverpool were devoid of the ability to take players out of the game with a change of pace. The next best dribbler in the squad is starlet Sheyi Ojo, who is also out injured.
Without a player able to beat an opponent from a standing start, Liverpool needed the speed to come from their passing. Instead, they were ponderous, clumsy and slow, with centre backs Dejan Lovren and particularly new signing Ragnar Klavan frequently passing the ball behind the target, destroying momentum in attacks before they had even begun. At one point late in the game, Klavan berated himself for a square pass that required his partner to backtrack to reclaim the ball.
Ahead of them, Jordan Henderson was deployed as the deepest midfielder. With Emre Can late to join up with the squad in pre-season after the Euros, Henderson played as the solo pivot in some of Liverpool’s pre-season games. The captain has had the toughest twelve months of his career, suffering with heel and knee injuries at a time when he was expected to step up to fill the sizeable void left by Steven Gerrard’s departure in 2015. The ex-Sunderland man’s strengths have always been his whipped crosses from the right, his intelligent balls over the defence and his ability to break through the lines as a third man runner.
Playing as the “6”, his qualities are negated and his shortcomings are accentuated. At the weekend, he shifted the ball too slowly, took too many touches and played too many sideways passes. His discomfort in the deep position is evidenced by the manner by which he receives the ball from the centre backs or goalkeeper with his back to goal, where he never seems to have his body in the correct position and is often unable to turn and get the team up the pitch.
Guardiola is adamant that his team must not circulate the ball in what he calls the “U-formation”, whereby the ball goes from one wide player to the other via two, three or four players passing backwards and sideways. This was something that Liverpool were extremely guilty of at Turf Moor.
So what can be done? What can teams, and in particular Klopp’s Liverpool, do to break down teams like Burnley, whose manager has gone on record to say that possession is a myth?
Man City have the edge when facing these sides this season due to the quality of their squad – Raheem Sterling, Nolito and Leroy Sané may not be of the standard of some of the wide forwards Guardiola has managed in his previous two jobs, but they possess the pace and trickery that should prove to be too much for most of the defences in the Premier League. Think of the win over Sunderland – although City weren’t firing on all cylinders, the presence of their attacks yielded a penalty and an own goal to secure the two goals they needed to beat the Black Cats.
Mané’s return should help matters for Klopp. In the absence of the Senegalese, Daniel Sturridge played on the right flank with Roberto Firmino leading the line, a combination never seen before under Klopp and one that didn’t appear to work. Sturridge, though clearly still reticent to fully trust his fragile body, remains one of the best penalty box strikers in the league, able to engineer the spaces required to get shots away and score goals. Perhaps next time out, Klopp may opt to field two strikers, as he did last season at home to Stoke, or even three, as seen in the FA Cup tie against West Ham when the now-departed Christian Benteke was partnered with both Sturridge and Divock Origi for the second half.
Beyond tactics, Liverpool must simply pass the ball quicker and more accurately. The return of Can to play at the base of the midfield should improve the speed of the build-up play, with Henderson returning to a role that better suits his skillset. Turf Moor was a bad day – Coutinho, so impressive at Arsenal, was off-colour, frustratingly opting to shoot time after time again from the edge of the area after running out of options.
As the “Leicester approach” remains popular, Liverpool and many other Premier League sides will face these problems. Come May, it may prove that the side who best copes with anti-possession teams will be the ones the end up on top of the pile.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena
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