Brendan Rodgers Needs 5 Players To Bring Tiki-Taka To Liverpool
Anyone who watched Swansea last season knows: Brendan Rodgers likes his team to play football. Not just any football, tika-taka football. Modelled on those (previously) all-conquering beasts in Barcelona, his Swansea side proved that the seductive style of play made famous in Catalonia isn’t reserved exclusively for Europe’s elite.
In guiding a side, who many predicted to come rock bottom, to a respectable 11th place, he exceeded all expectations (except maybe his own) and gained the respect of plenty of people within the game of football. It wasn’t just their league position that caught the eye however - after all, Paul Lambert achieved similar feats at Norwich this season – it was the way they went about it. Possession based football is in Rodgers DNA, it’s what has brought him success so far, and you can bet it’s what he’s banking on bringing him success at Liverpool. Which begs the question; can tika-taka football be implemented with success at Anfield?
The obvious answer is yes. If Rodgers was able to achieve 11th place with Swansea using this strategy, then a Liverpool side who are technically superior in every area of the pitch should be able to do the business. However, Liverpool aren’t looking to finish 11th, or 10th, or 9th, and certainly not in the 8th spot that they finished under King Kenny. For Liverpool next season the minimum requirement must be a spot in the top 6, with the goal of Champion’s League football within the next two seasons. I’m in no doubt Brendan Rodgers is the man to do it, but if he is to do so in his very specific style, there’s a few squad issues he’ll need to sort out first:
His Swansea side proved that the seductive style of play made famous in Catalonia isn’t reserved exclusively for Europe’s elite.
The back four
Required: one fast, attacking left back and one technically gifted centre back
Swansea’s play last season was heavily reliant on keeping possession at the back. You’ve all seen Barca do it; the two centre backs spread wide, ready to receive the ball from the goalkeeper, and everything builds from there. This is not natural for most defenders; if they were that comfortable on the ball they’d probably be playing in a more advanced position to begin with. It’s likely Martin Skrtel will struggle to play the ball out from the back consistently to the level Rodgers will demand. Agger, though more technically gifted than Skrtel, may also find the going tough in the new system. Teams playing possession based football are prone to counter attacks (as Real Madrid and Chelsea demonstrated beautifully this season) and in these situations his lack of pace could be exposed.
The two full backs will play in slightly advanced positions, helping to provide the width which compensates for a narrow midfield three. In order to do this effectively at the top level they need to possess pace (think Dani Alves and Eric Abidal). Glen Johnson should thrive in this system, his eagerness to burst forward will be encouraged, and he’ll offer a significant attacking threat in the final third. Jose Enrique however does not possess the same physical attributes or level of ability as the man on the opposite flank. A lack of acceleration means Enrique is prone to being exposed in one on one situations. This average speed will more pressingly result in a struggle to both support attacks effectively on the overlap, and get back into position when an attack breaks down.
It may seem as if I’m putting a ridiculously high premium on pace – I am, but justifiably so. At the top level, which is where Liverpool aspire to be, speed is a huge factor. Almost all modern day attackers who play in the Champion’s League have it, therefore any defender who lacks pace and is not exceptional in their positioning for ninety minutes will be exposed.
Required: One, if not two, creative midfield players
In order to keep possession to Rodger’s wishes, his formation requires three central midfielders all doing that most simple of things – passing and moving. They also need to press fast when out of possession, so mobility is a huge factor when looking at who will fit into Liverpool’s new style of play. Lucas will suit the system well; his ability to intercept and break up play will help his side recycle possession quickly. The other two midfield slots are anyone’s guess. Steven Gerrard is the obvious name that comes to mind, but for all his qualities the tactical discipline, movement and high level of pressing required in Rodger’s system mean it’s hard to see him being a smooth fit.
One possible alternative for Stevie, and don’t think Rodgers won’t consider this, is moving him to centre back. The precedent has already been set at Athletic Bilbao where Marcelo Bielsa, in need of a player confident enough to bring the ball out from defence when converting the side to possession based football, moved the defensive midfield anchor Javi Martinez into the role. If by some miracle you didn’t catch them on TV, this move yielded excellent results for both the team and individual.
One possible alternative for Stevie, and don’t think Rodgers won’t consider this, is moving him to centre back.
The rest of Liverpool’s midfield options simply don’t look like they’ll fit the bill. Jordan Henderson is the most likely starter of those remaining, but still has a long way to go in his development as a player. His movement and energy levels, two vital attributes to being part of Rodger’s midfield engine, are very good, but it’s in the final third where he needs to improve most. Decisive passing in key areas, something required of the advanced midfielders in this system, is not yet part of Henderson’s repertoire. Shelvey and Spearing fall into the category of young midfield players who will need to progress significantly if they wish to be part of Liverpool’s tika-taka future. As for Charlie Adam, a man who signed for the club a mere twelve months ago, he might want to have serious talks with the new manager. It’s hard to see a player whose main asset is long diagonal balls, and who offers little in the way of movement, thriving in Rodger’s system.
The front three
Required: goal scoring striker with good mobility and link up play
The words movement and mobility have crept up a lot in this article, and rightly so, because they are key components to tika-taka football. Remember Carrick being put on the ‘Barcelona carousel’ back in Rome? Players constantly passing and moving, passing and moving, all around him – he didn’t stand a chance. Movement allows players to quickly make space to receive a pass, drag the opponents out of position, and most importantly it means all eleven men are able to swiftly and effectively put pressure on the ball when out of possession.
Good mobility is a quality Andy Carroll does not possess. For this reason alone he will not fit Rodger’s plans. Balls in the air, crosses and aerial battles are clearly what he thrives on, and there won’t be many of those under the new regime. As for pressing from the front, Carroll’s lack of pace means Liverpool won’t be able to do this effectively if he plays, and so won’t be able to recycle possession as quickly as Rodgers demands. The obvious alternative is to play Suarez in attack as he possesses many of the qualities needed for this system. However, and it’s a big however, Suarez probably isn’t quite clinical enough in front of goal to be the main goal scoring threat. A more appealing prospect would be for him and Downing (yes, Downing) to play as inverted wingers, and for Liverpool to sign a striker to fill the void. Quite how the owners would feel about spending big bucks on another striker after the £35 million they trumped up for Andy Carroll is another matter.
So to summarise, Rodgers could ideally do with a cultured centre back, a fast attacking left back, a creative midfielder (or two) and a goal scoring centre forward. That’s not too much to ask for, right?
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