Liverpool’s defense sucks, so what if they just don’t try to defend?
Trying to defend deep against Arsenal is usually a decent strategy, unless you’re Liverpool. They should do the exact opposite.
Sunday’s match against Arsenal is the biggest of their season to date for Liverpool, something we’re going to have to say a few times until they’re completely out of the top four race. They lost their last league match 3-0 to Manchester United and sit 11th, seven points off fourth, with a goal differential of minus-3. Their 22 goals allowed are more than any team in the top six or eighth-placed Swansea City.
But Liverpool won in the League Cup on Wednesday, easing the pressure on manager Brendan Rodgers. And in the process, Rodgers asked a key question: If you can’t play defense, is it beneficial to focus your efforts elsewhere and not even try?
Liverpool have bad defenders, worse goalkeepers, and they choose to make their problem worse by playing career attacking midfielder Steven Gerrard at defensive midfield. Rodgers apparently doesn’t care that he lacks the base-level skills necessary to play the role, such as the ability to read attacks before they develop or position himself properly.
You’re aware of the famous ending to last season by now, but we’re going to watch it again, because for non-Liverpool fans, it’s probably the funniest thing in the history of the Premier League.
One game later, a 3-0 lead over Crystal Palace turned into a 3-3 draw, and Liverpool finished second in the league. They had the league’s best attack in recent memory, and it wasn’t enough to make up for their truly comical defense.
Rodgers’ tactics against Chelsea on that day were asinine, as his tactics have been for most of this season. Liverpool don’t want to abandon their pretty passing football against Chelsea-like teams, but are aware of the fact that they’re quite decent and able to pick apart bad defenses. So Liverpool sit back a bit more without really changing the way they play or introducing better defensive personnel, and it results in things like the slip or the United loss.
Going into the League Cup quarterfinal against Bournemouth, Rodgers was faced with two harsh facts.
1. He’s really short on fit fullbacks.
2. His team sucks at defending even when his fullbacks are fit.
These facts present a very difficult conundrum, and he came up with a brilliant solution — just don’t even try to play defense. Rodgers deployed an ultra-aggressive 3-4-3 with Gerrard in a two-man center and attacking winger/sometimes striker* Lazar Markovic at left wingback. Everyone laughed at it because it’s an utterly insane setup, but Liverpool had a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark and ended up winning 3-1.
*That injury issues have forced Rodgers into even considering playing Markovic at left wingback and center forward illustrates how unlucky Liverpool have been on that front. As horrible as their transfer dealings and tactics have been, it would be disingenuous to disregard this entirely when discussing their overall form.
The Markovic selection and his use, in particular, was fantastic. He was less of a wingback than he was an inside forward, and he scored from a central position completely during the run of play. He just drifted to a spot just outside the box from his left wingback spot for no discernible reason.
This is not where left wingbacks are supposed to go, and who cares? You don’t play a setup like this unless you’re totally OK with your players doing some crazy freelancing, the result of which can be overwhelming the opposition and creating great scoring chances when you have attacking players as talented as Liverpool’s.
Liverpool needed this, because they’ve struggled to create chances all year with Daniel Sturridge out. It took a while for Adam Lallana to settle in, Philippe Coutinho has been average and Raheem Sterling had a period of looking very fatigued. Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli have been downright awful thus far, and the aforementioned Markovic hasn’t quite found his footing yet either. When your normal plans of attack aren’t working, “throw tons of bodies forward” isn’t a terrible Plan E or F.
Of course, doing this and outscoring Arsenal is going to be a lot harder than doing it against Bournemouth, and Rodgers probably won’t even try. He’ll go to something he considers to be more sensible given the opponent, but it’ll still feature a bunch of crap players in the back and Gerrard in a role with defensive responsibilities, so Liverpool will look terrible and Arsenal will generate lots of very high-quality chances. This is bad and everyone knows it’s bad, so what if he tries something else?
Rodgers can’t teach Gerrard (or Alberto Moreno, or Javi Manquillo, or Dejan Lovren) to defend in a week, nor can he make Brad Jones or Simon Mignolet into respectable goalkeepers. And this week, it’s irrelevant whose fault it is that Liverpool have horrible defensive players. He just has to figure out how to get a result against Arsenal, and in this case, an overwhelming attack might be his best defense.
It sounds insane to throw everyone forward and go all-out attack against a quality team like Arsenal when you have bad central defenders and goalkeepers, but what’s keeping men behind the ball going to do for Liverpool? They’re still going to concede chances, they’re just going to have a hard time generating any. Even if he swaps Lovren for Mamadou Sakho and bins Gerrard in favor of a midfield with some defensive capabilities, Arsenal’s attackers are still much, much better players than Liverpool’s defenders. A defensive 4-3-3 or diamond midfield setup is just going to result in Liverpool losing 1-0 instead of 3-2 (or worse).
Rodgers can’t beat Arsenal in a defend and counter game or in a game where he tries to control possession. But in a track meet? A wild, chaotic game where where both teams are rushing the box and getting forward as often as possible? His team might be able to win a game like that, partially because they have the right personnel to do it and partially because Arsene Wenger wouldn’t know what hit him.
“Every defeat is a scar in your heart forever,” said Wenger when he was asked about the 5-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool last season. He was clearly trying to deflect the question a bit, but it’s clear that loss hurt more than others, and how could it not? It was a truly savage beating that the score doesn’t explain. The first four goals came in just 20 minutes, and Liverpool could have had 10 by that point. It was so clear that Arsenal weren’t real opposition on that day that Liverpool stopped playing. The game couldn’t have been more over after 20 minutes.
Arsenal are a team that have a recent history of crumbling mentally when they’re overwhelmed early and concede a couple of goals. Liverpool can do that again. They just have to figure out how to do it before the Gunners unlock their abysmal defense.
So if you’re Liverpool, screw defending. Don’t even worry about defending. You can’t do it to save your lives, so why even try? Turn to an extremely aggressive attack and see what happens. If the Bournemouth game is any indication, it’s a better strategy than anything else Liverpool have tried this season.