Missing The X-Factor?: Why a lack of tactical evolution has cost Liverpool

By on April 27, 2010

xabi-alonso

By Phil Dickinson.

As a Liverpool fan, it absolutely pains me to occasionally have to give Alex Ferguson credit. The sight of his blotchy, weather beaten face, as he furiously gnaws a whole packet of Wrigleys Extra and taps his watch suggestively at the referee, usually has me reaching for the nearest item of furniture to hurl at the TV. The man’s arrogance, mind games and, at times, sheer good fortune have driven rival fans to despair for over a decade. But one thing’s for sure; after all these years in the job, Alex Ferguson knows what he’s doing.

When Manchester United lost goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid last summer, the rest of the top four rubbed their hands with glee. Not only had this kid grabbed 68 goals in two seasons, but he had built such a reputation in his 6 years in Manchester that his much travelled, World Cup golden boot winning, Brazilian name sake was now uniformly being referred to as “The Fat Ronaldo”. Even with 80 million in the bank, how would United ever replace such an established superstar of Ronaldo’s quality?

Meanwhile, over at Anfield, Rafa Benitez had a similar dilemma. So the story goes, Benitez’s attempts to flog Xabi Alonso during the previous close season to fund a deal for Villa captain, Gareth Barry, slightly upset the Spanish midfielder. When Real Madrid came knocking 12 months later Alonso’s mind was made up. He felt it was time for pastures new. The same questions that were asked about Ronaldo’s departure from United were posed about Alonso and Liverpool. How would Liverpool cope with such a loss?

The ways in which both managers went about managing their respective losses to me says everything about the two men in question. It also partly explains the differing fortunes of the two clubs this campaign.

Towards the end of his United career, Ronaldo had been used much more often, and to great effect, in more central areas, while teammate Wayne Ronney was forced out onto the left flank. Although, Ferguson has never been afraid of changing his system to suit the opposition, he had come to favour a 3 pronged attack that exploited Ronaldo’s speed and direct style of play.

Ferguson knew as soon as he lost Ronaldo that he had to change the tactical system that the Portuguese star had been the centre of. As a result he moved Rooney back into a central position as the main attacking threat and brought in Valencia, not as a direct replacement for Ronaldo, but as a way of reintroducing width to the Manchester United side. It was a series of moves that showed an appreciation for the uniqueness of Ronaldo as a talent and the impossibility of bringing in a like-for-like replacement.

Benitez on the other hand was in no mood for change. It is true that Gerrard and Torres had built up a great understanding over the course of the 2008-2009 season and one can certainly see why Benitez would want his two best players as high up the pitch as possible. For a long time it has been argued that it is a system that plays to the strengths of captain, Steven Gerrard, like Ferguson’s system played to the strengths of Ronaldo.

But it was Xabi Alonso behind Gerrard and Torres who made that system run. With Mascherano buzzing around, winning the ball back at every opportunity, it was Alonso who dictated the pace of play, allowed Liverpool to keep possession and, when the counter-attack was on, spring Gerrard and Torres into the flanks with sweeping 40-yard balls. It was a negative system, a cautious system, arguably not even the best system for the players at Benitez’s disposal, but Alonso gave it the best possible chance of succeeding. And finishing 2nd in the Premier League, it almost did.

With Alonso gone, instead of changing the system, Benitez just attempted to replace the player. Aquilani came in for 20 million, but with the Italian sat on the treatment table, young Lucas Leiva came in alongside Mascherano.

Much has been said about Lucas Leiva. He is surely one of Liverpool’s most consistently criticised players. Unfortunately, much of the criticism he has faced this year has not been about what he does, but what he can’t do. The reality is, he is not an Alonso. But the encouraging fact for Lucas is, there is only one Xabi Alonso.

Alonso was, and still is, a unique player. Nobody quite plays in the same way Xabi does. The tempo, the grace, the precision, the composure. Alonso’s pinpoint passing, which is probably second only to Barcelona’s Xavi in world football, as well as his positional sense, make him the perfect fulcrum for a predominantly counter-attacking team. If Benitez’s 4-4-1-1 system (or 4-2-3-1, if you prefer) played to anyone’s strengths it was to those of the man from the Basque Country and not to the strengths of the man Benitez thought he was playing, Steven Gerrard.

Torres and Gerrard are obviously good enough to play in Benitez’s system, but if the men behind them cannot replicate the passing and counter-attacking precision of Alonso then that fact matters little. Even Gerrard in the middle of the park plays in a different way to Alonso. Gerrard plays with more dynamism and is more box-to-box. But with Alonso gone, Gerrard is the player most capable of doing the important things Mascherano and Lucas struggle with.

With Lucas playing in Alonso’s role, Liverpool look one-dimensional and lacking fluidity, the passing robotic and predicable. Counter-attacks are often that little bit more clumsy and laboured. And when Lucas and Mascherano fail to dictate the pace of play with any real conviction, you can see the frustration building up in Gerrard as he and Torres stand isolated and helpless in their more advanced roles.

I have been a constant critic of Benitez’s defensive style of play in domestic games, both during and after the Alonso era. I have never truly believed, even when we were on United’s tail at the end of last season, that it would yield a Premier League title. But, for me, the departure of Alonso was the clearest and most obvious juncture at which Benitez should have considered change.

Benitez surely had to consider moving Gerrard back alongside Mascherano and either play with an extra striker or, like Ferguson did, invest in some orthodox wingers to play with more width. Unlike Ferguson, Benitez did not truly acknowledge the loss of a key asset. I think the thought that probably crossed Rafa’s mind was, “Oh, we’ll be alright”. Things most definitely haven’t been.

Now, it has to be said that a lack of tactical evolution has not been Liverpool’s only problem this season. A bad start to the season, injuries and player unrest have all played their part too.

In addition, people will be quick to point out that Manchester United have themselves struggled at times and are yet to reclaim their title. Some would argue that Fergie hasn’t fully coped with the loss of Ronaldo.

But the fact is, by making whatever changes were necessary, by bringing Rooney to the centre of his attack, Ferguson has kept his side challenging. Manchester United still reached the quarter finals of the Champions League, they already have a League Cup in the trophy cabinet and, even if they don’t win the title, they will have pushed Chelsea every inch of the way. The loss of Ronaldo’s goals could have been so much more disastrous for United.

Liverpool by contrast exited the Champions League at the group stage and, despite the distant hope of fourth that remains, could still finish as low as eighth in the Premier League. Regardless of the remaining potential for success in the Europa League, if any season Liverpool don’t win the title is judged in terms of how much progress has been made towards winning it in the future, then this season has be regarded as a disaster.

If Rafa Benitez stays into next season, which is likely considering the uncertain broad room situation, the chances of Liverpool bouncing back and putting this campaign completely behind them surely rests on the manager’s desire and ability to bring about some tactical evolution. It is no good making wholesale changes in personnel if we are going to persist with tactics that don’t necessarily suit all the players we have.

But, Liverpool’s financial position means they cannot make wholesale changes in personnel. More to the point, even if Rafa had 100 million to spend, there isn’t another ready-made Alonso out there to be snapped up. If Benitez wants to avoid footballing déjà vu then the changes will have to come in other areas.

Benitez needs to start getting creative. Or maybe, like Jose Mourinho, he could do with sharing notes with Alex Ferguson over a glass of wine.

So how badly do Liverpool fans think The Reds have missed Alonso? Is it time for a change of tactics? Please leave your comments below….

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17 Comments

  1. Joe

    April 26, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    It’s interesting that this piece should begin with praise for Ferguson when Fergie himself doesn’t agree that Liverpool miss Alonso.

  2. m kop

    April 26, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    I dont think this season would be saved, even if Xabi stayed.
    I do agree with most of this written here, but the sale of one player, even as importan as him is not the main reason for this.

    Liverpool trashed United awey withaut him, remmember?
    Or is his presence on the stands had some mistical effect?

    Liverpool was in need of a good striker and qulity winger and is in need of a good striker and qulity winger, and now a left back to.
    Also, players need to think; is Europa League glory what they want to be fighting for year after a year.

  3. Kash Singh

    April 26, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Totally agree. Alonsos’ departure meant the need to adjust to a different system. He should have retained Arbeloa or gone for a defensively solid left back. Instead he signed Johnson who has great offensive qualities but cant defend to save his life. Having got a solid right back he could have invested in a proper winger ie Arjen Robben whom could have been snapped up for the same fee paid for GJ. He could switched a 442 but did not have the tactical flexibility or courage to do it. We have lost much ground this season and should we fail to qualify for the CL it could result in Man City and Spurs displacing us in the top 4. And much of the fault lies with Benitez.

  4. me

    April 26, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    a really obvious article, no point int writing it really.

  5. Phil Dickinson

    April 26, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    As for Fergie saying that Liverpool do not miss Alonso, I was not aware that he had ever said such a thing, but if he did I would put that down to him being (uncharacteristically) kind to Benitez or just a case of plain old Ferguson mind games. I’d certainly take it with a pinch of salt.

  6. ridwan_7

    April 26, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    @joe:
    mind games maybe?

  7. Joe

    April 26, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    It would be convenient to take it with a pinch of salt.

    I can’t find the exact quote but it was in the pre-match press conference before one of the Liverpool-Man U games and as I remember, it was put to Ferguson that Liverpool miss Alonso to which he replied “I don’t know about that. Obviously I think he’s a good player.”

  8. Phil Dickinson

    April 26, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    I’m sure he was just being kind to Benitez. Particularly since as you say it was before a Man United-Liverpool game, he was probably just trying to avoid publicly talking down Liverpool’s chances before a big match.

    But even so, I’ve mentioned Ferguson in this merely in comparing the way in which Fergie and Benitez have responded (or not) to losing key players. In other words, I’m just giving him credit for recognising that a Man United team without Ronaldo would have to play differently.

    Fergie’s own opinion of Alonso is, as you say, interesting, but not necessarily the issue I’m discussing.

  9. red2death

    April 26, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Alonso’s departure is just one of many reasons why we’re not doing as well this season. With the lack of desire that many players have been playing with, bad results were painfully inevitable. As a fan, I can accept it if Liverpool are simply outplayed by better opposition, but it’s especially hard to swallow if they are outfought.

    What I do agree with is the disappointment in Rafa’s defensive tactics. Time and again this team proven that if the shackles are taken off, they will slice through many an opposing team. In a league where it’s 3 points for a win and just 1 for a draw, it doesn’t take a genius to know that titles are based on ruthless wins alone. Clean sheets don’t win the Premiership – goals do. Only a few teams have succeeded by ensuring a rock solid defence. More often than not, it’s simple adoption of a “we will score more than we concede” strategy that wins the day. I hope Rafa decides to let the animal loose. He’s trained up a tiger and now he’s keeping it on a leash.

  10. ste

    April 26, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    So playing Alonso/Mascherano behind Gerrard and Torres was a “negative, cautious system” was it? Liverpol finished last season with a better goal difference than ManU and having scored 9 more goals than them. Why does talk about Benitez’s tactics always inspire the almost pavlovian response of “cautious, negative”. What a lame article.

    • Phil Dickinson

      April 27, 2010 at 12:15 am

      Maybe negative is the wrong word.

      But Benitez’s system last year was more or less the same one that has played this year… and that, for the most part, is a counter-attacking system.

      Gerrard doesn’t play as an out-and-out striker, we have a player out on the right who is there mainly because of his work rate (in Kuyt) and the central midfielders remain fairly deep… that, to me, is cautious. It’s the Benitez way.

      And one of the main reasons that system scored more goals and almost won the title last year is that Xabi Alonso played in it.

      Ever since he arrived at the club, Benitez has always talked about “controlling games”… at any stage of a game, nobody helps sides “control a game” like Xabi Alonso. And just because you are “controlling game” doesn’t mean you are being particularly offensive.

  11. Joe

    April 26, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    The spontaneity of Ferguson’s response suggested that it was an honest answer to be taken at face value.

    My own view is that too much is made of Alonso’s absence in the Liverpool midfield. It stands to reason that they would miss him and it’s obvious that they do. But they’ve lost Alonso for long spells through injury previously without experiencing anything close to the slump they have this season.

    Liverpool have enough good players to absorb the loss of any one of them although on this season’s form, you could be forgiven for believing otherwise.

    As for how Benitez responded to Alonso’s loss, I think it was most noticeable in the early stages of the season. Where previously, most of the play was channelled through Xabi, now the creativity was directed down the wings. Liverpool started the season playing much more directly and infact, scored a higher rate of goals than they ever did with Alonso dictating.

    Unfortunately, injury to Johnson and the poor form/quality of players like Kuyt, Insua and Babel took their toll so the assists dried up. That’s when Alonso’s absence really became noticeable because by comparison, there was no longer anybody in the centre doing the job he used to and a paper-thin squad mean’t there was no viable alternative.

  12. Lefty

    April 26, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    We also lost Arbeloa… it’s not ONLY Alonso… enough about this anyways, we will learn from this.

  13. magnumopus

    April 27, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Perhaps the season has been a loss because of the injuries to FT and Stevie, simple as. Why? Because we need more quality players than the two mentioned. We have won when a few players are injured…FT,Stevie and Alonso but not won consistently! The early part of the season saw some very poor defending by us and losses at the end of matches which the year before we won in the same way. Oh and GJ is an upgrade over Arbeloa any day of the week!

    • Lefty

      April 27, 2010 at 2:49 pm

      Arebola and Alonso are Spanish mate, there is a cultural and fotballing connection… Alvaro Arbeloa is the player that says little and does what he has to, it was with him in the squad, that we finished 2nd.

      Very seldom injured, Alvaro is now the 1st choice of European Champions Spain… Johnson is a good player, but we can only speculate how he would have worked in a team that included Alonso…

      Remember Carra having a go at Arbeloa?… it was Alonso, who came between them. Liverpool Football club lost.

      What I know is this, there is a difference, and it’s not just down to one player…

      Reina, to Arbeloa out wide on the right, to Alonso, who sees Gerrard’s run into space, oh it’s Torres!!!! What a goal!!!…

      YNWA

  14. Cal

    April 27, 2010 at 11:45 am

    You say that Alonso suited the counter-attacking style best, but to me he looks an even better player in a Spain shirt. Spain who play a passing/posession game similar to that of Barcelona.
    Torres looks half the player in a Spain shirt, he doesn’t really work well with a conventional strike partner. Gerrard in also an instinctual player who uses his bursts of pace or a speedy one-touch pass to put other players (or himself) through. I can see why Benitez didn’t want to change the way those two played and where they played on the pitch. For me the emphasis of change should have been on the the wide players. Those were the ones that were carried by Alonso’s game. I agree with you that if Rafa would have brought in Di Maria or Robben or another geniune quality player out wide, I think we would have suffered a lot less.

    • Phil Dickinson

      April 27, 2010 at 12:41 pm

      I actually agree with you to a large extent there, Cal.

      Even in the article I wasn’t necessarily trying to say that Benitez’s system was the best one for Alonso per se, but rather that because of the qualities Alonso has and his unique style, it gave that tactical system the best chance of success possible. Xabi is an intelligent possession player, so when he pulls on a Spain shirt and he has all those gifted technicians buzzing around him, he is in his element. So, in other words, Alonso can (and does) flourish in a number of midfield systems, such is his quality, but if you’re going to insist on playing a counter-attacking system, Xabi is the man to have.

      And I also agree that Torres and Gerrard do often work well together in those more advanced roles. But, as I say in the article, when the rest of the team doesn’t function properly they do get isolated and frustrated. Gerrard has become known over the years for dragging us up by the bootlaces from the centre of the park, but now, when things aren’t going well, in that more advanced role, he struggles to influence the game to the same extent. Sometimes he is forced very deep to receive the ball and we therefore lose a man in attacking areas.

      As you say, the solution was probably in those wide areas. People forget that Riera did very well for us the previous year and he has hardly played this year because of injury, form and outbursts against the manager. Benayoun, Babel and Kuyt are all players I like (on their day) but none of them are strictly wide men. Maxi has been excellent since he came in, but has been a case of too little, too late. With Insua playing at left back, our left hand side has been very very weak this season.

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