If the sight of high-speed synchronized teamwork floats your boat, you’ll have enjoyed watching Liverpool’s rise up the Premier League table in recent weeks. I know I have.
At a time when most clubs have embraced the trend of dropping off, conceding possession and hitting opponents on the counter (often successfully) Brendan Rodgers has gone the other way with his newly-and-nicely shaped Reds. They’re excitedly hunting in packs, pressing with precision, and rival teams don’t appear to like it. Manchester City certainly didn’t last Sunday.
As a footballer I always enjoyed being coached to get in the face of the opposition. It’s an invigorating way to play the game. You get to set the tempo, and adrenalin quickly flows.
The idea is for a front man to set things off by closing down a defender, with everyone else in behind following suit in a chain reaction. When executed properly, all space is shrunk by a concertina effect and the other team will often need to go backwards, or lose the ball. A good press can be overcome of course, but sharp play is required.
George Graham used to drill us on this relentlessly. In fact every coach at Arsenal did; Stewart Houston, George Armstrong, Pat Rice, Bruce Rioch, and by the time we kicked off on a Saturday, everyone knew exactly where they needed to be positioned, according to where the ball was. To be honest these sessions were monotonous, but for it to work properly the groundwork had to be put in.
There are downsides to the tactic of course. If two or three players close down but someone behind them decides to stand still, you’re stuffed. Huge gaping holes can appear for opponents to collect a pass, and turn. Cohesion is vital.
Defenders also need to be bright and switched on at all times. It’s fine asking them get tight and squeeze up, but if the man on the ball isn’t being pressured they have to see that very early, and adjust their position accordingly. A back four must drop off and stay goal side of runners if there’s no pressure applied to the person in possession.
Once a good player has time to look up and pick a pass, they’ll clip the ball over your head and hurt you.
We saw this happen once or twice on Sunday, most noticeably when Sergio Aguero ran in behind the Reds’ rear guard before striking the post. Teams that press like Liverpool will always be vulnerable to this simple, direct type of attack if their defence isn’t alive to what’s happening in front of them. That’s a challenge they’ll continually face.
Unbeaten domestically so far in 2015, Liverpool’s switch to 3-4-2-1 is a very good fit. It provides cover for them in key areas where they’re not as strong defensively, while putting their best forward talents in areas of the pitch they feel most comfortable in. Without the ball each individual is also willing to press with energy too.
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You can see that Brendan Rodgers trusts his players at the moment, and he needs to because you can’t carry passengers adopting this tactic. If there’s one weak link (also known as a lazy so and so) they’ll be found out, and the whole game plan will crash and burn. Maybe this is why Mario Balotelli has barely had a look in of late?
Playing against sides that get in your face isn’t fun. Unless you’re bright and strong, it’s easy to be pushed onto your back foot and Liverpool are doing a good job of imposing themselves on teams at the moment, rather than the other way round. Burnley felt this force at Anfield again last night.
No team has enough energy to press with verve for 90 minutes. Breathers are needed, where you have to sit off collectively and wait for a breakaway chance to appear. Liverpool are managing to strike the right balance in this area too. They’re not burning themselves out.
In football there is always more than one way to skin a cat, and no single tactic is ever infallible, but I’m hugely impressed by the strides Liverpool have made since Christmas.
Rodgers and his men have found a formula that works for them. It’s bold and building momentum.
Stopping the Reds claiming a top four place won’t be easy.
Read more from ex-Arsenal midfielder Adrian Clarke