Liverpool youngster Raheem Sterling is closing in on a move to Manchester City, if reports are to be believed. Sterling, who has turned out to be a key member of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side over the last two seasons, is fundamental in the way the Reds approach their games. His departure could be a watershed moment for Rodgers’ Reds, given his influence in their attacking phase of play as well as their off-the-ball phases.
With former captain Steven Gerrard moving to LA Galaxy after playing his last for Liverpool in 2014/15, the Reds’ quality of personnel will drop significantly next season. Gerrard, who was Liverpool’s top scorer last season, also leads in their all-time European scoring charts. With Sterling too inching towards Manchester, the Anfield club will not expect to be among the top dogs in England given the impending departure of two of their star men.
This piece is a retro analysis of Liverpool last season; an attempt to break down their pattern of play with Sterling in the side and without Sterling. The Champions League double header against Real Madrid is a good pointer to how the Reds will be playing next season, as they’ll mostly be the unfancied side against the bigger clubs because of their relative lack of quality across the pitch.
Liverpool lost both the games, a 3-0 reverse at home and a 1-0 defeat at the Bernabeu. However, the interesting bit is the variation of approaches from the Reds in both the games. Sterling started in the Anfield game, while he was benched for the reverse fixture, although he came on late in a bid to alter the proceedings of the tie. A marked change in Liverpool’s approach with and without Sterling is evident; this is a analysis of how Sterling’s move could usher in a tactical reshuffle from Rodgers.
Liverpool without Sterling
Sterling wasn’t in the Reds’ starting XI for the game in Madrid, as Rodgers adopted a conservative approach to stifle the superior attacking threat of Real Madrid, who had Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez in their line-up. The basic setup was a 4-5-1 with a flat back four. While Lucas sat slightly deeper than the other four midfielders. Joe Allen was the initiator of the high press along with forward Fabio Borini. Liverpool left space in between the back four and the midfield, with Lucas occasionally covering the Zone 14.
In the diagram above, we can see all ten Liverpool players inside their own half. The interesting thing is Liverpool aren’t forming a blanket. Toni Kroos has the ball near the centre circle, and the Reds shape into cutting the German’s passing lanes into the central areas. Lucas is slightly deeper as mentioned above, while Allen is slightly higher to activate the press (because of his strong tackling and energetic approach). Liverpool leave space between the back four and the midfield; two Real Madrid forwards (Ronaldo and Benzema here) are seen tucking into that space, but the Reds are more concerned about stopping the passes to that space which is important given the quality of individuals like Ronaldo in the hole.
The above diagram explains why Rodgers went for a zonal approach and only had Lucas in holding midfield. The zonal approach meant that Liverpool were more intent on cutting off supply to Ronaldo and Benzema through the centre. On the above scenario, the Reds were played around which sees the alternating positions of Allen and Lucas. Benzema in the red space is free which forces Kolo Toure to close him down, which he does at the expense of covering the attacker in front of him, James. Benzema’s pass sets James free who has a shot.
Sterling, obviously, has little part to play in Liverpool’s defensive phases. Importantly though, he is used as a counter-attacking trigger whenever the Reds defend deeper, which renders the defensive analysis irrelevant at first glance but Liverpool’s overall approach has more to do with the positions their players take up, both in attacking as well as defensive phases of play.
Real Madrid enjoyed 60% possession in the Madrid leg, and with a Sterling-less Liverpool, their defence had little to bother about given the static nature of Liverpool’s attack. Fabio Borini had zero (0) touches in the opposition box and Liverpool’s supposed attacking tools of Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and an advanced Joe Allen had little to no touches in Real Madrid’s penalty area until Sterling came on in the 69th minute. Not that the status quo changed greatly after the youngster came on, but his arrival ensured that Real Madrid were stretched which provided more space in the central areas.
Real Madrid were comfortable in reorganising in defensive transitions; this owed much to the recovery speeds of their centre-backs Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos as well as the absence of Sterling’s pace. In the above diagram, Lallana is in space behind Real’s midfield line as Toni Kroos and Luka Modric aren’t best-known for their destroying influence. Liverpool, on this occasion, have completely bypassed Real’s second line of defence but Los Blancos are quick to morph into a flat four-man defensive wall. Liverpool advanced tediously, which involved moving the ball with short passes as the channel runs of Sterling were missed. Real Madrid had no cover in the space in front of their back four and Sterling’s presence could’ve offered different dynamism on this instance (instead of Lallana attempting a through ball for Borini which was easily intercepted by Varane).
With the help of some Squawka stats, the action areas and touches of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have been analysed in game two. The gradual movement of the Real midfielders into deeper positions is evident. Selecting a comparable frame of time (45-69 and 69-90 time periods have been chosen here), we can see the midfielders’ influence into Liverpool’s wide right, the area where Sterling slotted into upon his introduction.
In a way, Sterling’s presence on the pitch influences the pattern of how Liverpool’s opponents play. This further validates claims of his importance to Rodgers’ Liverpool.
Liverpool with Sterling
Sterling is a strong dribbler (had the fourth most successful dribbles among Premier League regulars in 2014/15) and is a direct runner into wide channels. His statistics (seven goals, seven assists in the Premier League last season) do not reflect his overall influence in the final third.
In the game at the Bernabeu, Liverpool’s attacking dynamics changed when Sterling was introduced in Markovic’s place. He tucked into the wide right channel, and found space aplenty behind Real Madrid’s attack-minded full-back Marcelo. Markovic is a runner, and was contained easily as Real continually sought Marcelo high on their left which meant the Serbian was mostly on back-tracking duties.
The following infographic shows Sterling’s instant impact on Liverpool’s pattern of play after coming on in the 69th minute at the Bernabeu.
In the Anfield leg, although they ended up losing, Liverpool had Real right on the ropes until Ronaldo gave the Spanish side the lead in the 23rd minute. Sterling started the game, and played off front man Mario Balotelli (Sterling often was the farthest Liverpool attacker at times). He was a threat with his direct runs, exploiting Arbeloa’s high positioning. Another infographic from the 3-0 loss at Anfield shows how the young Englishman is pivotal to the Reds’ energetic, direct approach.
(NOTE: The infographics are self-explanatory; click on the images to view their better quality versions)
For someone who is only 20, Raheem Sterling’s importance to Liverpool’s style of play is immense. Ready-made replacements of his ilk will be hard to come by, but whether Rodgers accepts the eventuality and changes the way the Reds approach oppositions is a question without an answer for now. Without Sterling, Liverpool will be a weaker counter-attacking outfit, although his end-product won’t be greatly missed.
– Diagrams created via Tactics Creator
– Heatmaps via Squawka
– Infographics created by the author with the help of footage from FootballOrgin