We’ve heard a lot of talk about Tiki-taka recently, most of which has been in relation to the system new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is trying to put in place at the club. After a poor start to the season, many people have questioned whether this new style of play fits Liverpool and is the best system to take the club forward. So the question I ask is, does the problem lie within the system itself? Or within the personnel used in the system?
Firstly, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Tiki-taka style of play here’s a brief explanation of the origins and the tactical aspects of the system. Tiki-taka or Tiqui-taca as it’s more commonly spelt in Spanish, is a style of play that has evolved from the Total Football style pioneered by Dutch football coach Rinus Michels. The roots for what would become the Tiki-taka style of play were put in place by Johan Cruyff during his time as manager of Barcelona from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s. The style continued to develop under Dutch coaches Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, it was also soon adopted by other teams in La Liga. The system really started to gain recognition during Josep Guardiola’s managerial tenure from 2008 to 2012, and was credited with producing a generation of technically talented footballers.
The system itself is characterised by short passing and positional interchange, maintaining possession of the ball above all else. It involves a patient style of play, moving the ball in intricate patterns with crisp one or two touch passing, working the ball through various channels probing the opponent for the perfect opening.
Tiki-taka served Brendan Rodgers very well during his time at Swansea, helping the team gain promotion to the Premier League. Again it served them superbly during their first season in the highest division which saw them finish 11th. It was no surprise that once Rodgers was named as the new Liverpool boss, he wanted to try and bring in the same philosophy that had previously served him so well. In an early press conference Rodgers explained that he wanted to implement a vision and that he wanted to do this over a period of time. Rodgers also said that he could deploy his system in two ways, the difference between them simply being the shape in midfield. The diagrams below show both variations of his 4-3-3 system.
In the first the midfield is set out with a holding midfielder, he dictates the rhythm and tempo of the game. The two more advanced central midfielders have to have the capacity to control the game but also to run forward and backwards. They have to play in the corridor of space running forward when the team moves forward attacking and backwards to get back into position to cover when defending.
The second variation is with two central midfielders and one more advanced attacking midfielder. The two central midfielders hold position in this system and dictate from behind, the attacking midfielder is then the one who moves forward when attacking.
Rodgers first league game of the season was against West Bromwich Albion away, during this game some problems became apparent. Liverpool ran out 3-0 losers on the day and finished the game with 10 men. The major problem was that when the central defenders were trying to pass their way out from the back, they were often closed down and lost possession of the ball. This led them to give away two penalties in the game, one of which was saved but the second was dispatched. Although Liverpool lost the game by three goals, they dominated possession with 60%.
Liverpool’s second fixture was at home to Manchester City, this game saw an improved performance. Liverpool were on top for most of the game and looked really comfortable, it was again some mistakes that led to them giving away goals. The first came when Carlos Tevez pulled out wide and easily beat Raheem Sterling, Tevez then got in a cross which should have been easy to defend. A mix up in the back led to Yaya Toure getting a shot away which nested in the bottom corner. Liverpool got ahead in the game after this and once again looked comfortable, that’s when the problem from the first game hit again. Skrtel couldn’t find a forward pass so he played the ball blindly back to Pepe Reina, Tevez latched onto the pass rounded Reina and made it 2-2.
Liverpool’s third game was against Arsenal, despite dominating possession again with 53% they lost 2-0. Some more problems became apparent in this game, Rodgers decided to go with the one holding midfielder and two box to box players. Arsenal’s first goal came after some good play from Liverpool, they passed out from the back and worked the ball really well down the right hand side. Glen Johnson passed infield to Steven Gerrard, who then attempted a first time pass which was cut out. Arsenal then broke forward in numbers and the two box to box midfielders struggled to track back. Liverpool’s midfield was easily bypassed and they were now left with Arsenal’s forward line breaking onto the two centre backs. Glen Johnson was unable to get back into position, and the ball was well worked to Podolski who dispatched well making it 1-0. The second goal came when Santi Carzorla took a speculative strike from a wide angle, Reina blundered and parried the ball into the net at his near post.
The next fixture was against Sunderland, Liverpool again dominated the game with 66% possession. This was once again not enough to secure a win and although Liverpool managed 23 shots they only managed to score one goal. Sunderland scored through their only shot on goal in the whole game, Steven Fletcher doing well to get in front of Skrtel and find the net.
Next was a hard tie at home against Manchester United. Once again Liverpool managed to dominate possession with 52%, despite being reduced to 10 men for 52 minutes of the tie. The game was settled by a late penalty and United took the win despite Liverpool’s dominance in a game which saw United manage just 3 attempts on the Liverpool goal.
It was in Liverpool’s sixth game of the season the first win was recorded. A game of total domination from Liverpool with 67% of possession, which saw them demolish Norwich 5-2. Although Liverpool won this game quite convincingly, some mistakes led to two sloppy goals being conceded. Reina blundered again parrying a shot straight into the path of Morison, who made no mistake in sending it home. The next Norwich goal came from a mistake which went unnoticed by a lot of pundits. The blame for the goal was largely put onto the shoulders of Skrtel, but it was in fact a result of Andre Wisdom moving out of position. The young defender stepped upfield leaving Grant Holt unmarked, the ball was then played over Wisdom into Holt. Skrtel shuffled across but couldn’t time the interception, this led to Holt getting through on goal and netting well.
The next game was against Stoke, a game which saw Liverpool dominate again managing 63% possession and 18 shots. Unfortunately Liverpool didn’t take any of their chances and the game ended in a 0-0 draw.
As you can see from the Premier League games Liverpool have played, apart from two clearly bad performances against West Brom and Arsenal they haven’t actually played that bad. Dominating games and creating chances, the problems lay within the chance conversion and individual errors. So why has the chance conversion been so bad?
Well, Liverpool got rid of some key goal scorers in the summer. Kuyt, Maxi and Bellamy being three good players who weigh in with goals. They also allowed Andy Carroll to leave on loan, leaving them with only Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini upfront. Borini has mostly been used in a wide role which isn’t his natural position, and Suarez has been used as the focal point of the attack. Suarez seems to be better when he drops deep, turns and runs at defenders. He also seems to score more goals from outside the area. That being said if Suarez was deployed in a deeper role, that leaves a place for a more natural finisher to be brought in and placed upfront. Perhaps in January Liverpool will look to buy a goalscorer, there has been links to a number of targets. Son Heung-Min of HSV is reportedly under consideration, it would be a great piece of business if Liverpool could pick him up for anywhere near the fee’s being reported. Another option is to recall Andy Carroll in January, there was a lot of debate as to whether he can play in Brendan’s system. I personally think he would fit perfectly into the system and if Suarez drops to a deeper role, it could potentially be a great combination. It would also be a good option if the tiki-taka passing wasn’t working against an opponent, stand the ball up to Carroll he could knock the ball down for Suarez to run onto or score himself. As for the questions about if he’s technically good enough to play in the system, I think he proved towards the end of last season and in the Euro’s that he’s actually more than good enough with his feet.
As for the problems with the individual errors, I think that was to be expected. The defenders are being asked to get the ball more and play out from the back, a concept there not entirely used to. They did occasionally pass the ball between the back line last season, but more often than not they just played the long ball upfield. I’m pretty sure that once they get used to the system and the movement in front of them becomes more crisp, they will have no problems playing out from the back and the mistakes will filter out. Pepe Reina’s poor form has been coming for a season or so now, he’s dipped since Rafa left the club. He made no secret of the fact that he wanted Rafa Benitez back at the club when Kenny Dalglish was sacked. However after seeing his reactions after his mistakes this season it’s clear to see he’s not happy with his form, I believe he’ll be doing everything in his power to rectify this.
There was also some problems within one of the tactical variations, often this season when the wing backs have both pushed on upfield, Liverpool have been left short at the back. This wouldn’t be a problem if the two central midfielders dropped back to help out, making it a four man back line or two banks of two. However in the system with one holding midfielder quite often both wing backs and both box to box midfielders have struggled to track back, this leaves just two central defenders and the holding midfielder back to defend. The holding midfielder has been overrun and bypassed easily in this situation, and then the two central defenders have been outnumbered by attackers. This is a problem I think Brendan needs to look at, Gerrard can’t manage to run forward and then run all the way back to defend anymore. I think there is a way to solve this, if one wing back goes forward the wing back on the opposite side should hold back and drop in to cover. The defence can then shift across making a flat three in defence and a holding midfielder just ahead of them or the wing back can drop in front with the holding midfielder to again make two banks of two.
After looking through the performances of Liverpool this season, I can conclude that the problems don’t entirely lie in the system. I think the system is working with regard to dominating games and creating chances, the slight problems with regard to being caught outnumbered on counter attacks can easily be solved. Looking at the personnel, I think things would be totally different if Liverpool had a proven natural finisher. They may look to add to the squad come January and I’m sure they will. I don’t think Rodgers will be happy with the squad on a whole, but as we all know it takes time to rebuild a team. Rodgers has been put in place to change the fortunes of Liverpool for the long term, people shouldn’t expect too much for the time being. If we look at the positives however, Liverpool are playing good football and dominating games. Liverpool are also creating a lot of chances which, if converted we could be talking about a completely different situation now.
Only time will tell if Brendan Rodgers work will prove to be a success, until then all anyone can do is watch how things unfold.