Little needs to be said about this fixture last season; the final match of the season where Stoke tore Liverpool to pieces, beating them 6-1. 11 weeks later, however, the match had a much different feel to it and obviously significantly less goals.
Mark Hughes has made some good moves in the market this summer, bringing in Ibrahim Afellay on a free transfer from Barcelona, as well as former Red Glen Johnson on a free. Marco van Ginkel has been brought in on loan from Chelsea while Hughes has bought Joselu and Wollscheid from Bundesliga pair Hannover and Bayer Leverkusen, respectively. Hughes set Stoke out in a 4-2-3-1.
Brendan Rodgers has again significantly invested in his squad bringing in Roberto Firmino, Christian Benteke, Nathaniel Clyne, Joe Gomez, James Milner (on a free), and Danny Ings (on a free). Of those those six new players, four started and Firmino was brought on late in the match. Rodgers, too, set his side out in a 4-2-3-1ish shape.
Stoke’s Pressing, Liverpool’s Midfield Pressing
Neither team really had much control of the match early on as possession was given away frequently through Liverpool looking long (interestingly, on the kickoff, Liverpool looked long straight away) and Stoke’s lack of movement. Liverpool certainly had more possession at the back, but Stoke were more than willing to commit numbers to pressing Liverpool, which forced the away side to look long quickly. Stoke’s pressing was not necessarily structured, as they simply shifted with the ball and chased the ball as it moved, but they forced Liverpool long. Below is a screen capture from early on in the match as Stoke committed numbers forward, forced Liverpool to play back to Mignolet, who was then forced to play long with short options covered well by the Stoke players.
Stoke’s pressing continued for much of the game, but there was a change from committing as many numbers; once the initial press was bypassed, Hughes had his side drop into a mid to low block of a 4-4-1-1 with Charlie Adam in support of Diouf.
For Liverpool, one of the questions coming into the new season was whether or not a high pressing game would be part of their play. Against Stoke, the pressing was not high up the pitch nor did it start with Benteke, but when Liverpool defended in a mid block, there was a good structure and triggers that allowed Milner, in particular, to step forward. When defending in a mid block, Liverpool looked much more like a 4-1-4-1 than they did a 4-2-3-1, as Milner would step forward in his channel, shifting Coutinho to the left, and allowing Liverpool to cut off the passing lanes through the middle into Diouf and Adam.
Lallana and Ibe would also play fairly narrow, forcing Stoke to play into the wide areas, which meant some long recovery runs for the two if Stoke managed a good diagonal or quick switch of play. When Stoke were able to play a ball through the middle of the pitch, bypassing Liverpool’s second line of pressure, Henderson did extremely well in reading the play and winning the ball back well for Liverpool and was tidy in possession going forward.
Overall, Liverpool’s pressing allowed them to have more control over the match. Stoke committed too many players forward in their press, which allowed too much space in behind their midfield, space that was later exploited.
Does Benteke Fit?
There were many question marks surrounding Liverpool’s acquisition of Christian Benteke. In terms of pressing, he did not contribute much to Liverpool’s efforts. Perhaps more concerning for Liverpool supporters was whether or not the Belgian would fit in Liverpool’s attack. Rodgers says he likes to play free-flowing, possession based football, but Benteke’s displays at Aston Villa did not display an ability to do so. One official match into his Liverpool career, the question marks remain.
There was certainly a lack of understanding between Benteke and his new teammates and while there were some signs that a connection can be made, Benteke did not really get involved in Liverpool’s play all too much. The Belgian was incredibly static during most of the match, staying central, dropping off here and there, never running in behind, and never really connecting with his teammates going forward. When the ball was played into Benteke’s feet, he rarely looked to turn with it or go forward with the ball, but instead he would play the ball back two lines to Henderson, Clyne, Gomez, or sometimes back to Skrtel and Lovren.
Benteke thrived when Liverpool used him the way Aston Villa did under Lambert and Sherwood; long balls up to him. Benteke was fairly good in the air, winning the majority of his aerial duels, but they were mostly wasted as Ibe, Lallana, and Coutinho were not close enough to pick up the knock downs and play off the Belgian.
Can’s Introduction, Coutinho’s Turn
Rodgers made his first change in the 63rd minute, bringing off Lallana for Emre Can and, with that, Liverpool’s shape changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 with Henderson and Milner playing as a two in front of Can, who was now the holding midfielder rather than Henderson, and Coutinho was now on the left, drifting inside. This was the most important change of the match and one that allowed Liverpool to put more pressure on Stoke with Henderson and Milner’s running pushing Stoke back. Can worked as the holding midfielder, while still being able to get forward, because Gomez and Clyne were more defensive in their positioning.
With Milner and Henderson pushing forward, Liverpool created more chances, including an excellent chance where Milner lifted the ball over the Stoke back line into Henderson’s path, only for the Liverpool captain to play the ball across goal rather than have a shot. As mentioned above, the two Englishmen pushed the Stoke back line back with their direct running. Coutinho had been able to find space between the lines throughout the match, receiving the ball and turning into space numerous times, but he was closed down quickly as Benteke was too static and did not draw away defenders. With Milner and Henderson further forward, running at the back line as Coutinho picked up the ball, he was afforded more space and used that space to score the winning goal.
Can’s introduction was important, not only because it changed Liverpool to a 4-3-3 or that Henderson was moved forward, but because Can demanded that his Liverpool teammates turn the tempo up of the match. You could physically see him motioning to his teammates to play quicker.
There were certainly problems with Liverpool when they played with a double pivot, especially when it was two of their more dynamic players in the two holding midfield positions. Coutinho was lively, but there was no movement from Benteke in front of him to allow for the Brazilian to flourish. Once Can was brought on and Rodgers changed his side to a 4-3-3, Liverpool took control of the match and put the pressure on.
Mark Hughes will be pleased with how his side played overall. While their pressing was a bit disjointed, the back line was relatively untested by Liverpool and that was without their first choice centre backs in that position for much of the match. Hughes and Stoke will do well this year, especially if they are able to sport a front three of Afellay, Bojan, and Shaqiri for much of the season.
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