Match date: 17 August 2015
Bournemouth played well in their opening match of the Premier League, despite losing 1-0 to Aston Villa. Eddie Howe’s side looked very good in that match, playing a 4-4-2, a formation that Howe continued with against Liverpool. He made two changes, however, with O’Kane replacing Gosling in the centre of midfield and Gradel replacing Pugh on the left side of the midfield four.
Somewhat surprisingly, considering the improvements that the changes brought, Brendan Rodgers stuck with the same starting XI that he named against Stoke. They continued in a 4-2-3-1 with some differences in the positions of the three players behind Benteke.
As mentioned above, Rodgers named the same starting XI, but altered a bit of the midfield, with Coutinho starting on the right, Jordon Ibe on the left, and Adam Lallana in the middle of the lines of three behind Christian Benteke. This deployment had a number of consequences both in midfield and behind that midfield line of three. The first noticeable aspect was Coutinho’s movement into the middle from the right side. This movement was something that was always going to happen, Coutinho being the player that he is, but it was certainly designed to allow Clyne to get further forward and act as an outlet for Liverpool on the right side of the pitch. At times, James Milner moved into a wide right position as the Brazilian moved inside and this interchange was very fluid between Milner and Coutinho, especially as Milner played a lot in a wide right role during his time at Manchester City.
In the above screen capture, Clyne eventually burst through that space between Coutinho and Milner before Coutinho played a good ball in behind the Bournemouth line, only for Clyne’s cross to be cut out. Clyne’s importance grew as the match went on; he was solid defensively and was excellent going forward. There were times when Liverpool were building from the back patiently that Milner dropped to a more right back position while Clyne pushed further forward, particularly after Emre Can came on and Liverpool moved to a 4-3-3. In these instances, Lallana and Coutinho played in front of Can and Clyne played further forward on a the right.
On the left, Ibe provided the width, but failed to really have an influence in the attacking third. What he did do for Liverpool, was allow Joe Gomez to play more conservatively and stay in line with Skrtel and Lovren. Against Stoke, Gomez was caught out positionally at times, especially in the transitional phases of the match, so to have less responsibility to get forward, he was able to focus on his defensive positioning and aid Mignolet and Liverpool in gaining another clean sheet.
Perhaps the most confusing of the positions of the three behind Benteke was Lallana’s placement in the centre. He was a rarely on the ball against Stoke and the same could be said for his performance against Bournemouth. Being played in the middle of the pitch allowed him to get more touches on the ball, and he showed some good turns at times to get into space, but his decision making was lacking at times. Towards the end of the match, when Bournemouth pinned Liverpool back, he did a good job winning the ball back for his side in the tight spaces and then playing out, but Lallana is in the side (at least right now since there is no really intensity in Liverpool’s pressing) for his attacking play and there was far too little influence on Liverpool’s play when they had the ball.
Bournemouth’s Pressing and Slim Chances
Eddie Howe’s side ran away with the Championship last season and one of the aspects of their good play was their willingness to press the opposition high up the pitch. Against Aston Villa, the Championship winners showed that they would continue doing so in the Premier League and Liverpool experienced it first hand as Bournemouth caused the Merseyside club problems. Josh King and Callum Wilson led the pressing for Bournemouth, making Skrtel and Lovren uncomfortable on the ball and forcing them back to Mignolet. The goal of King and Wilson was to eliminate the ability of Liverpool’s centre backs to get the ball into midfield, with the idea of stopping the likes of Coutinho and Lallana from getting on the ball between the lines from Milner and Henderson. The pressing from the Bournemouth front two forced Henderson to drop back between the two Liverpool centre backs when the split in order to get on the ball. Below is a screen capture showing Wilson and King pressing the two Liverpool centre backs. Henderson checks into the space, however, and Mignolet is allowed to play him the ball, but the two Bournemouth players squeezed Henderson, forcing him back to Skrtel.
Being pressed was an issue for Liverpool last season and when the defenders were put under pressure, there was not a target up the field that they could hit that would be able to consistently hold up the ball. With the signing of Benteke, Liverpool now have that, and Rodgers acknowledged the Belgian’s good hold up play (we will address Benteke’s performance later). With Benteke, Liverpool have the option of playing longer and so when a team chooses to press them, as Bournemouth did, they have a target. This came into play a lot in this match. Bournemouth were good at winning the ball back quickly when they had decently sustain possession and thus numbers forward to crowd out Liverpool in tighter spaces, but at times the work of the front two in King and Wilson, and because of the space between them and their midfielders, was wasted as Liverpool were able to hit the ball up the field to Benteke. Again, the Belgian did well to win those aerial balls, but Liverpool players around him still seemed to lack an understanding of where the knock downs would come.
As mentioned, Bournemouth’s pressing was best when they had sustained pressure and back Liverpool up and this was also when they had their best chances, especially in the second half. Matt Ritchie had a number of good attempts, with one going off the outside of the post and another being a low driven shot that Mignolet gathered comfortably. Bournemouth lacked a final ball and quality in their finishing.
There is a lot that can be said about both of these players. Benteke got his first goal of his Liverpool career, but the worrisome sides about the ability of these two players to link up are going to grow as the season goes on. Coutinho is Liverpool’s best creator and, for now, Benteke is Rodgers’ choice as the centre forward, which means it is essential that they link up and that there is an understanding between the two. The issue is a disconnect in the styles of play. Coutinho wants to play a through ball into a player making a movement towards goal, especially when he receives the ball between the lines, as the Brazilian did countless times throughout the match. When it did happen, Benteke’s movement was not the type of movement that Coutinho would hope for; something like a run between the two centre backs or around the outside of one and then back in. Benteke did everything else besides that like checking to the ball, making a run to the back post in hopes of a floated cross, and most runs were less than dynamic. Perhaps the triggers will come. Benteke will see Coutinho in space behind the opposition’s midfield, anticipate a pass into the Brazilian, and make a fitting run or maybe Coutinho will have to adapt to Benteke’s movements. Below is a screen capture with Coutinho on the ball in the first half. Benteke continues a straight run (red) rather than trying to move centrally behind the centre backs (yellow), so Coutinho goes the other way.
With that being said, according to the stats, Benteke created four chances in the match, all for Coutinho, but none of them amounted to shots on target. Benteke got the match’s only goal (despite Coutinho being offside) and it came from a cross, which the Belgian thrives, but Liverpool haven’t started to cross the ball more compared to last year. They do, however, have a target for the crosses they play and a player they can use when they are pressed like Bournemouth did (another stat: Benteke won 11/16 aerial duals).
Bournemouth are unlucky to have lost, not only because their goal was probably wrongfully called off, but also because Liverpool’s goal should not have counted. Overall, Liverpool might have edged the better part of play, but the opening few minutes of the first half and much of the second half saw Bournemouth on the attack and Liverpool struggled to get out, though not really being tested too much.
Emre Can made another big difference for Liverpool. When he was brought on the switch to a 4-3-3 was immediate and Liverpool had a big, physical presence in the centre of the pitch and Can did well to winning the ball and bursting forward at times on counter attacks. It will be interesting to see just when Rodgers opts to start the German.
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