Since the start of the season, there has been a very obvious way to attack Liverpool. The short passing build up at the back with the centre backs opening up and the full backs moving into the midfield line has been exposed even since the pre-season game against Roma. In that game, Jay Spearing was shown to be vulnerable in the role as the pivot in front of the centre backs. Roma’s high press caused numerous problems in that area and the space between the backline was then exploited quickly.
Since then opposition teams have gone into games realising that winning the ball in midfield can be a key defensive and attacking weapon against Liverpool. If you press high: a) Liverpool don’t have the quality on the ball to consistently retain possession under high pressure. And b) there is a large amount of space between the back four if you do win it.
Tony Pulis came out with two main plans off the ball. The first was the high collective pressing of Liverpool’s build up from the back.
Here, Jones and Walters have forced the ball back to Reina in the Liverpool goal. As he plays it short to Agger, Stoke continue their press.
Liverpool continue their short passing game from the back, allowing Stoke to confine the area and make the pitch small. Each player in the passing line is marked by a Stoke player, restricting Liverpool's build up.
Shelvey comes too deep to receive possession from Agger and is immediately faced with a difficult situation. Stoke are marking each player available to Shelvey, whose options are limited because he has been forced to face his own goal. Under pressure from two Stoke players, one from behind and one from in front, he loses the ball. That regain for Stoke led to two minutes of pressuring Liverpool in their own half which resulted in them taking the lead.
Here you can see Stoke have withdrawn to a fairly low compact block in their own half, a complete contrast to the way they pressed Liverpool high up the pitch. Here Lucas has plenty of time and space in midfield. Not a single Stoke player is trying to close him down. Instead they are trying to retain a good solid shape behind the ball and mark the players within the passing line for Lucas. In short, they are prioritising the possible players to receive the ball rather than the man on the ball.
Lucas plays a square pass to Enrique on the left. This acts as a trigger for Stoke to pressure again. Suarez comes short but is marked by a defender, as is Shelvey behind him. Enrique begins to be put under light pressure while Walters moves across to mark Lucas.
As it's played back to Lucas, he is now under pressure from Walters. Meanwhile, Stoke again are marking the players in the passing line - Enrique, Shelvey and Suarez coming short are tracked.
Another example is shown here
Lucas (circled) has the ball under no pressure in midfield. The four players ahead of him are all individually marked. Again Stoke are prioritising the players in the passing line rather than the player on the ball.
Lucas switches it short to Gerrard, also under no pressure from the Stoke midfield. He plays it across to the left to Enrique.
As Enrique receives it, he plays it short to Suarez who is being marked by the centre back. The ball is returned to Enrique yet the centre back stays with Suarez. Notice how deep the other centre back and left back are for Stoke, despite the space left behind Suarez's marker. As Enrique receives the ball, Gerrard begins to make a run beyond Suarez.
As Gerrard makes the run past Suarez towards the open space, Suarez's marker backs off him to deal with Gerrard's run and Enrique is forced to play it back to Lucas who is now being closed down.
Lucas recieves it under pressure and ends up playing a loose pass out of play for a Stoke throw in.
There were a few ways for Liverpool to deal with this system. One of them was by direct running at players. If a player granted space in the middle could make a run forward under no pressure, then he could break Stoke's organisation.
Agger picks up possession at the back. Again, instead of being closed down, Stoke are concentrating on marking the possible players he could pass to. Consequently, Agger has plenty of space to run into without being put under any pressure at all from a Stoke player.
As he goes over the halfway line, this strategy is even more clearly shown. In the first shot, Walters is the natural player to go and close Agger down. Yet instead, he retreats in the middle. Suso and Suarez (circled) are being tracked individually by their markers. Not a single player is going to close the man on the ball down. Instead Stoke are prioritising the front players who could receive the ball by marking them individually. Only as Agger gets a full twenty yards into the Stoke half, does he get put under any pressure.
This concentration on individual marking has consequences. In an interview in August, Luis Suarez made an interesting point about the exploitation of space. Asked to expand on a remark he had made about teams in England being tactically poor he said:
"If I am playing centre forward here and I drop off the front into this area, both centre backs might come with me in England. And then a team-mate can go into the space and be one on one with the goalkeeper."
The chief innovator of how teams mark in open play, Arrigo Sacchi, has said on many occasions that the main focus for a defender has to be the space rather than the man. Following the man has consequences.
Lucas has the ball in the midfield. Again he is under no pressure. Stoke are concentrating on closing down the area for the forward pass to go.
Suso makes a movement towards the left, opening up space for the pass to Suarez coming between the lines.
Here is a great example of precisely the sort of move Suarez talked about in the quote earlier. As the ball is played into him coming short, he is double marked by two Stoke defenders. This leaves open space behind him to be exploited.
As Suarez returns the pass to Lucas, Shelvey makes a run behind into the space that has been created. Lucas goes for the ball over the top which Shelvey can't quite get under control. This was arguably Liverpool's best move of the half and showed the sort of movements they had to make in order to penetrate Stoke.
However this did not happen often enough and Liverpool were too sloppy, with and without the ball. The right thing for them to do was to starve Stoke of the ball, stretch them horizontally by switching the play and take advantage of the space between the lines. Instead, Liverpool gave possession away too easily, allowing Stoke to put the centre backs under pressure with long balls. There were other tactical problems as well. Shelvey sometimes came too deep to recieve the pass, which isolated Suarez. They didn't make the best of the space created on the outside by the wingers moving inside. Nor did they use the space behind the full backs on the counter attack. In short, although Stoke were very good, Liverpool didn't exploit their weaknesses.
Brendan Rodgers brought Sterling on at half time in order to try and stretch Stoke in the wide areas. It was the right substitute to bring on (albeit possibly the wrong player to bring off in Suso) and it almost paid off immediately when he stretched Stoke within two minutes of the restart crossed it to Suarez who could have scored. Apart from that, Liverpool didn't particularly use Sterling very well. On a number of occasions he pulled wide and deep for the switch of play so he could get 1v1 with the full back. However, this pass was often neglected and he then had to move inside in order to create space for Enrique moving forward on the outside.
Could Rodgers have done more other than that? In hindsight he might have started with three centre backs in order to provide cover against Walters and Jones. However, he couldn't have foreseen Agger's poor performance nor Liverpool's general lack of intelligence. Instead this match will have proved to Brendan Rodgers that Liverpool have to have reinforcements in order to perform more consistently. Without that, they'll stay a mid-table side.