Tactics Session

Tactics Session: Liverpool’s midfield to blame for poor defending, too

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Here’s something said by anyone and everyone who’s watched an hour of the Premier League over the last 24 months: Liverpool won’t win the PL title until Jurgen Klopp sorts out that shambolic defense.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City’s historic start; Man United, Arsenal win ]

Well, duh, and thanks for really going out on a limb with that one.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle went error-by-error in picking apart one of the Reds’ many defensive breakdowns (above video) during last weekend’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. In short, Dejan Lovern, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Simon Mignolet were all guilty of critical errors as Harry Kane opened the scoring after just four minutes. There’s another group of players, though, which is worth considering as opponents continue to pick Liverpool apart on a near-weekly basis.

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Theory: it’s actually Liverpool’s midfield which is most responsible for this season’s repeated disasters at the back. The results are as poor as they’ve ever been under Klopp — they had the worst defensive record of the PL’s “big six” sides during Klopp’s first (partial) season at Anfield, followed by the second-worst of the six last season, and are sixth out of six thus far in 2017-18 — with little reason to expect significant change as the defensive characters remain the same. When called upon in 2016-17, again, it was simply more of the same.

The key difference being: they were better protected, thus forced into action less frequently, in the past. Whether by design or happenstance, the midfield and forward lines aren’t disrupting possession and winning the ball back as consistently as previous iterations of Klopp’s old gegenpress system. Most notably, it’s the early moments (first five seconds, or three passes) of opposition possession which haven’t been challenged with that familiar urgency.

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Take, for instance, that loss to Tottenham — while Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can are probably the three most “defensive” midfield options in Klopp’s squad, they’re also the three least mobile and press-suited. Georginio Wijnaldum is often labeled an “attacking” midfielder, that what makes him perfectly suited for the transition from pressing to attacking. The same goes for Adam Lallana, who’s currently injured and gutting this side through his absence. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, should he ultimately end up in central midfield, is very similar in that regard. Marko Grujic, while still a relative PL unknown, profiles better as a central midfielder than the three who started at Wembley Stadium.

Without that constant on-ball pressure, Mauricio Pochettino was inspired in his tactical tweak to feature Harry Winks, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli in a pass-heavy midfield-three, as the three on-ball technicians were able to play through the middle third of the field with very little resistance and get at the likes of Lovren, Matip and Gomez more directly. The return of starting right back Nathaniel Clyne (hamstring), who hasn’t played a minute this season, will undoubtedly add a bit more mobility and athleticism to an otherwise plodding rearguard.

It’s a trend that, should it continue, will result in more and more — and easier and easier — goals conceded by the Reds.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

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The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

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This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.