Long time readers of the site might recall that we have actually already covered Rafa Benitez’s time at Liverpool.
The Spaniard was and is the single greatest influence on my football thinking, so it’s not exactly surprising one of the first things I did when I progressed from filling up notebooks to sharing this analysis with the wider world via this website was talk about him.
However, you can learn a lot in nine years watching football, and that post certainly shows its age (or more accurately mine). It barely scrapes the surface of Liverpool’s play, spending most of its time preoccupied with Benitez’s Sacchian influence and how it contrasts with how his team sets up. There’s little in it that’s necessarily wrong, but it doesn’t do the team justice and there’s frankly nothing in there worth anyone’s time.
Benitez’s Liverpool was worth people’s time though, and so this post will hopefully shed light on why. We are going to look at the 2008-09 season mainly due to the fact its the only year I can get lots of match footage to work from, but also because, despite the European Cup win in his first season undoubtedly being his greatest achievement, 2008-09 was Liverpool’s peak under Benitez and the closest he got to realising his ideas.
Amid the criticism of Newcastle’s defensive approach in their 1-0 loss to Manchester City in 2017, the suggestion that Benitez and Pep Guardiola share similar influences might have appeared ridiculous, but that wouldn’t have made it any less true.
Johan Cruyff played in the Dutch and Ajax Total Football sides of the seventies, where position-swapping and pressing meant every player was expected to both defend and attack. He built upon this work as a coach at Barcelona, where he also happened to give a debut to a young Catalan in midfield. A couple of hundred appearances later, that Catalan ended up following in Cruyff’s footsteps, becoming manager of Barcelona, and taking those ideas to their extremes while winning everything on offer.
Benitez’s work features those same principles of Total Football – that all eleven players should attack and defend – but, while the lineage of Guardiola’s ideas run through Cruyff to those Dutch sides, Benitez’s major influence was an Italian former shoe salesman who never played professionally.
“My main role model was Arrigo Sacchi because his Milan was spectacular”, Benitez stated in an interview with El Grafico before going on to name him as the most revolutionary coach of the last 50 years.
Sacchi took over at AC Milan when the man-marking and sweepers of Catenaccio were still the standard in Italian football and proceeded to introduce a zonal 4-4-2 and pressing system that utilised a high offside trap. He drilled this into the players by often training without a ball, telling them instead where it would be and them having to take up the correct positions according to this imaginary ball’s location, while the players couldn’t be more than 25 metres apart from front to back.
Sacchi’s ideas had been undoubtedly influenced by the Total Football sides, recalling: “It was a mystery to me. The television was too small; I felt like I need to see the whole pitch fully to understand what they were doing and fully to appreciate it.”
Total Football’s lack of distinction between attacker and defender obviously struck a chord in the Italian: “I see kids who are 14 or 15 years old who are already specialists. But football is not a sport of specialists. I was watching the under-15s the other day – 14-year-old boys – and the central defenders arrived and all they did was mark their man. They took themselves out of the game. This is suffering, this is not joy, this is not football. If someone does just one thing over and over, they will get better at that thing. But is football just one thing?”
“In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have [Claude] Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball.”
While those starting principles remain the same, Sacchi, Cruyff and their followers took them in different directions.
Building on Cruyff’s foundations, Guardiola’s Position Play is all about keeping possession of the ball to manipulate and pin back the opposition and, when the ball is lost, immediately swarming them to win it back. All players are expected to be both defenders and attackers, however they rarely alter the fundamentals of how they attack and defend. When Guardiola was playing midfielders in defence, he obviously wasn’t planning on sitting back and heading away crosses.
“We’re a horrible team without the ball,” Guardiola says. “So I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I’d rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours.”
Watching Sacchi’s Milan though, they are probably significantly more direct than you might expect, while the likes of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini were all more than capable of playing in a deep defence. If a player is to be the complete player rather than the “specialist” Sacchi bemoaned, he must surely have to be able to play in a team using more than one strategy.
Benitez’s thinking followed Sacchi’s. “On countless occasions, as we tried to illustrate our ideas to Liverpool’s players, as we tried to give them an impression of what our vision was, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, the side that dominated the world in the late 1980s, provided the perfect example.”
One of the first things he did when taking over at Liverpool was to move the defensive line up the pitch, while Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz were phased out for Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, who were both quicker and more comfortable with the ball at their feet, and Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres would chase down defenders from the front.
Although Guardiola’s success has popularised the idea that defenders should do more than defend and that attackers must be willing to press those defenders if the team is to have any hope of winning the ball back, it wasn’t the standard when Benitez rocked up on English shores in 2004.
Budget limitations that wouldn’t apply to today’s Premier League meant that he had to adjust the squad over several years, but by 2008 Benitez had built a squad that fitted these basic principles of universality. All the defenders were comfortable on the ball and quick enough to play in a high line, while the attackers were disciplined and willing to put in the work to press high up the pitch.
They didn’t have to do that though. Liverpool had the defensive organisation and strong defenders to sit back and soak up opposition pressure too. They could then counter at speed or simply trade long balls, with Torres and Steven Gerrard capable of making something from nothing between them.
This flexibility made Liverpool hard to beat. Sit back and they could patiently break you down with possession play, push forward to press and they would simply hit it over the top of you. When defending, they would keep tight and compact, whether it was chasing down defenders in the opponent’s half or sitting deep in their own.
It all added up to a team capable of overwhelming and squeezing the life out of the opposition, grinding out a lead and neutering any attempts to claw it back, much like Benitez’s Valencia, nicknamed “The Crushing Machine”, had prior.
While having his Sacchian ideal, Benitez was primarily a pragmatist. If the situation called for it, Benitez had no problem simply shutting up shop and looking to frustrate the opposition. This partially explains why his Newcastle side is so different from the other teams he’s managed: there’s little value in striving towards universality when, lacking investment, Newcastle are fighting just to keep their heads above water.
Although he set up Liverpool in a 4-4-2 formation for the first few years of his tenure and would occasionally experiment with a 3-5-2, by 2008 he had transitioned them to the 4-2-3-1 that used at Valencia. This shape allowed them to generally outnumber their opposition in the middle as many teams were still wedded to a 4-4-2, but also have plenty of players in forward positions if they wanted to go direct.
Benitez also brought in a squad rotation policy widely criticised in England, yet it has since become standard. It was intended to keep the squad fresh, and Liverpool nearly always finished the season strongly as other teams tired. However, Liverpool’s squad was undoubtedly shallow and the players being swapped in were often of much lower quality than the ones going out.
If there is one thing associated with Benitez, it’s well-organised defending. Liverpool kept narrow and compact, leaving little space between players both vertically and horizontally. If one of them had to step out to make a challenge, the others would tuck inside to close the gap.
Liverpool would drop back into a 4-4-2 shape that protected the centre of the pitch. The attackers would block passes into the opposition midfielders behind them, while the midfield line would be close enough so that if any pass did slip through, they would immediately have a Liverpool player on top of them. This meant that if the opposition tried to play through the middle, Liverpool could easily surround them and win the ball back, with the attackers closing them down on one side, the midfielders on the other and potentially the wingers tucking inside to support too.
Unsurprisingly then, most opposing teams would go wide rather than trying to play through Liverpool. Once the ball was played out to the full-back, Liverpool would shift across – the team moving as a unit in true Sacchian fashion. The winger would close down the full-back, but curve his run so as to block the pass down the line to the winger, while the attackers would either both drop back or one would drop back to pick up a midfielder as the other remained forward to discourage a pass back to the centre-back.
If the ball was played down the line to the winger, he would more often than not be surrounded by three players: Liverpool’s full-back would usually get tight to his back to stop him from turning, the winger ahead would block the pass back to the full-back, while the centre midfielder came over in support. The full-back stopped him from going down the line, the winger stopped him from going back, and the centre midfielder stopped him moving inside, leaving him trapped against the touchline unless he could somehow squirm his way around them.
The full-backs getting tight to the winger often meant they were stepping up out of the defensive line, so to stop the opposition from simply hitting a ball over the top into the space the full-back left, the centre-back would come across to cover behind them, with the other two defenders also shifting across to close any gap.
This is one area where the high line really helped Liverpool. Most teams generally want three players along the six-yard line at crosses: the centre-back at the front post, the full-back at the far post, and a centre-back in the centre between them. However, if Liverpool’s near side centre-back was expected to cover in behind the full-back in wide areas, they couldn’t readily be expected to also be in a position to cover the front post – that’s simply too much ground to cover.
Liverpool would get around this by either having a midfielder drop into the backline or by having a midfielder cover in behind the full-back so that the centre-back could stay in the centre, however in general they would seek to eliminate this issue by stopping the cross in the first place. Part of this is covered above: three players surrounding the winger made it hard for them to get the space for a cross, and, even if the winger did somehow avoid their attention, a centre-back was often on hand to mop up.
Engaging higher up the pitch meant the option of a cross wasn’t readily available though. If the defensive line is high, then the opposition attackers can’t attack the box without being caught offside, which renders crossing pointless. To get into a position where a cross would be useful, the winger had to force the defensive line deeper, which basically means they had to get past those multiple players out wide.
The opposition could of course just hit it over the top of Liverpool’s defenders for a pacey attacker to chase. More often than not though, Pepe Reina was on hand to get there first.
Despite Jerzy Dudek’s heroics in Istanbul, Benitez wasted little time in replacing him, signing Reina from Villarreal that same summer. He initially had some issues adjusting – struggling to judge and claim crosses in the aerial-heavy English game – however, under the tutelage of namesake Jose Manuel Ochotorena and later Xavi Valero, he soon developed into the finest goalkeeper of Liverpool’s Premier League era.
It was said that the goalkeeper coach would go through matches with Reina and focus on his positioning, working on where he should be depending on what was happening on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes, keeping him always engaged when some goalkeepers might be shutting off with the ball in the opposition half. From interviews we can surmise that coach was Valero:
“To go through every game, and through most training sessions, with the goalkeeper is key to be able to give their best during the game. Pepe was the kind of goalkeeper that could tick all the boxes during the game and he was always willing to improve.
“I try and reduce the amount of uncertainty for the goalkeeper…You have to make the right decision from a good position and to be in a good position you have to read the game so quickly.
“I don’t worry about saves. The most important thing is consistency and you have a better chance of that if the goalkeeper’s positioning is strong. That is the key to everything, positioning.”
With that kind of thinking, it’s unsurprising that Reina was able to act as a sweeper behind Liverpool’s back four. If the opposition attempted to play a pass in behind Reina would come racing out to get to the ball first. Standard practice for sweeper-keepers is to first get in a position where they can collect the ball and then wait on what happens next: if the attacker takes a bad touch, they try to claim the ball; if the attacker takes a good touch, they adjust their position, maybe even retreating, to be in a better position to make a save.
Reina would often get into position and then aim to collect the ball regardless of the opponent’s actions, getting on top of the opponent so that they struggled to get a shot or pass away even if it meant getting dragged far away from his goal. This was a high risk-high reward strategy to the already risky strategy of using a sweeper keeper, so when it went wrong it went spectacularly wrong but this aggression undoubtedly unsettled many attackers.
“If all I do is worry about making the save that’s already difficult because he has the ball and I don’t so he has the advantage,” Valero explains about one-on-ones. “But what if I say, ‘okay, I don’t need to make a save, all I need to do is have a strategy to put pressure on you? I’m not going to move, I’m not going to dive, I’m not going to guess’. Meanwhile, the striker doesn’t know who’s running behind him. You can then have a clear mind and be in control and from a strong position you can do anything. Not just in football but in life.”
As well as acting as a sweeper, Reina was an excellent goalkeeper. Agile with lightning fast reflexes, he could spring up to palm away shots and, after overcoming his initial struggles, confidently come out and catch crosses, enabling him to dominate the penalty area.
Although the last line of defence, Reina wasn’t left all alone. Benitez moved the defensive line up the pitch and to accomodate it he brought in faster defenders. Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel joined in their early twenties but acclimatised themselves quickly to the higher level.
Both standing at 6ft 3, the pairing were capable in the air, although they didn’t excel. Agger was a little weak, meaning he could sometimes get bullied by some of the more muscular Premier League strikers, although he became more canny as he developed, getting around his lack of strength by needling arms, elbows and knees into or around his opponent to put them off and smother them. Skrtel filled out his frame better so couldn’t be pushed around, yet had some issues reading the flight of the ball – he would rarely miss headers, but he would often get caught under or over the ball, meaning he didn’t clear it with the strength he was capable of, especially if he was having to battle with an opponent.
The pair’s real strength was along the ground though. With fluid footwork and calm heads, both men could turn quickly and stay on top of their opponents without over-extending themselves. Agger was generally the keener to use his long legs to reach round his man and poke away the ball, whereas Skrtel was content to simply block them off and wait for an opening to reclaim it, keeping his balance to ensure his opponent couldn’t burst away from him.
Their reading of the game wasn’t perfect – Agger in particular could be caught flat-footed – yet they looked remarkably assured for their age, rarely getting caught out flying into challenges and their quick feet allowing them to recover or nip across and help out a teammate.
Agger or Skrtel were partnered by Jamie Carragher. The local lad was a forgettable full-back under Gerard Houllier, but Benitez immediately moved him into the centre, where he would go one to become a Liverpool legend, second only to Ian Callaghan in appearances for the club.
Unlike Agger and Skrtel, Carragher’s footwork was slower and heavier, meaning he couldn’t turn or cover ground as quickly, which in turn meant that he had to go to ground more frequently, stretching his legs as far as they could go to get something on a ball and stop his opponent advancing. At 6ft 1 he was also relatively short for a centre-back and those heavy legs meant he didn’t quite have the spring to his jumping that other men did.
Carragher didn’t let his athletic limitations stop him from becoming one of the best defenders in Europe though. He made up for his lack of bodily gifts with his brains.
The centre-back was of course strong and aggressive, frequently able to bully even the biggest of his opponents – Didier Drogba naming him as “the most difficult one in terms of aggression, but he was always fair” – although this fitted with his skillset: he didn’t want to give players the time or space to turn or run at him, because then they could expose his heavy footwork, so he would get on top of them and make it difficult to wriggle away or control the ball.
His real expertise was in his reading of the game though. Carragher might not have had the legs to cover ground quickly, but he was generally wise to where danger was building, meaning he could get into a good position to deal with it before the threat became major. He also knew what to do in those moments where he clashed with opponents though: against smaller technical players he might look to overpower them, but against bigger stronger opponents he couldn’t dominate, he might forego attempting to win a header in the air and wait for the second ball, keeping an arm in the jumping attacker’s back to make it as difficult as possible for them to control the ball.
Benitez names Carragher as one of several players who would request DVDs, shown both his own game to highlight his strengths and weaknesses and Sacchi’s Milan or Benitez’s Valencia to better understand what was expected of him. “I knew that based on my intensity in training, the manager couldn’t afford not to pick me. Most players want a day off but not me. Every day it was bang, bang. The intensity never dropped. I never took it easy. I knew mentally I’d be too strong for the other players in the squad competing for my position. I trained as if it was a game. Even though I feared for my place, I knew that if I was at it day in, day out, I’d play.”
This hard work and study not only helped Carragher, but his teammates too, as he was the main organisational force in Liverpool’s defence, even if his constant barking must have tested their nerves.
Carragher had never been the fastest of players but he did have the pace to function in Benitez’s high line. By the run-in of 2008-09 however, he was beginning to slow down. It was only a minor problem at this point, resulting in Carragher occasionally dropping off and ruining the offside trap rather than risk getting caught out by a quick attacker, yet it wasn’t until Kenny Dalglish took over that the homegrown defender was finally replaced, and he would soon be starting again under Brendan Rodgers.
A colossus in the air and another expert at reading the game, Sami Hyypia was a hard player to beat. The Finn had partnered Carragher to European glory early on under Benitez, but by now had dropped down to fourth choice in the pecking order. He was simply too slow to play in the high line – it didn’t matter how good he was in one-on-ones when the opposition could just hit it over his head and race past him. Nevertheless, he was always a good option off the bench if Liverpool wanted to hunker down and protect a lead, able to head anything away, and posed a constant goal threat at set-pieces. Injuries meant Hyypia still ended up seeing a fair amount of playing time in his final year at the club.
On the left, Fabio Aurelio was a good solid defender. Liverpool’s first Brazilian was short, which meant he could be beaten in the air, and slow, which meant he could be beaten by quick wingers, yet this rarely caused problems. He had good positional sense and technical defensive skills, meaning that while he might get beaten for pace, he could rarely be rounded in tighter spots.
Sadly, plagued by injury, a regular alternative was needed for Aurelio, so Andrea Dossena had been brought in that summer. “His dedication to the club, to proving he was not a bad signing, that he could be a success, was impressive,” says Benitez. “His fitness regime was hugely demanding, and when he was not playing, he simply asked more of himself. More hours on the treadmill, more sessions in the gym.”
Despite his excellent attitude, Dossena failed to settle. At Udinese he had been playing as a wing-back so was used to having less defensive responsibilities and more cover than Liverpool afforded him, but it’s also not uncommon for Serie A’s full-backs to struggle in adapting to English football – the pacey tricky wingers that are commonplace in England are rarer in Italy, where the width more often comes from wing-backs like Dossena. It’s understandable why he would look exposed when he was facing a type of opponent he had rarely had to wrestle with in his homeland.
Although solid positionally, he frequently wouldn’t get tight to his man in time, leaving them able to turn. Forced into a one-on-one, Dossena actually showed good technical skills, taking up the correct body shape and displaying good footwork, however, time and again, despite seemingly having his man under control, they would just get away from him, earning enough space to send in a cross that the Italian couldn’t stop. The pace of the game simply left him lagging a second behind.
On the other flank, Alvaro Arbeloa had no such issues. The Spaniard would get tight to his man and stop him from turning, but if they did manage to get a run on him, he was still well-equipped to deal with it. Fast fluid footwork meant he could he could get in to make a tackle or block and turn quickly, so opponents couldn’t hope to easily twist him inside out.
Philipp Degen was intended to be Arbeloa’s back-up, yet he made just two appearances in his first year at Liverpool, both in the league cup. Injuries plagued his time on Merseyside, so, when Arbeloa wasn’t fit, it was generally left to Carragher to move back out to full-back. One of Liverpool’s two losses in the league came against Middlesborough with Skrtel filling in on the right (allegedly because Carragher refused to play there) and after that debacle the Slovakian was kept in the centre.
The back four was protected by a double pivot. Having two holding midfielders meant that Liverpool tended to be in a strong position to defend long balls, as one could either drop onto an attacker’s toes to win an aerial duel, with the centre-back squeezing the opponent from behind, or they had several of players on hand to mop up the second balls.
Although they pushed and pulled in line with their shape, Xabi Alonso was generally the deeper of the two once Liverpool attacked, often dropping back into defence if one of the centre-backs pushed forward.
The Basque mainly defended through his positioning. He would look to block passing lanes into attackers, cut down space and steer the opposition away from threatening areas. He was undoubtedly very intelligent and his deep positioning gave him a view across the pitch that meant he could spot danger unfolding early and act before others had realised there was a problem.
Nevertheless, while excellent at what he could do, he also had his obvious limitations. “I know I am not the quickest player on the pitch. I will not change, because it is not in my legs. I know how to work around it. I have to be quick in my mind and not my legs.” Alonso wasn’t particularly mobile when he first arrived on Merseyside and Frank Lampard breaking his ankle only slowed him down further, so, even if Alonso did spot danger unfolding, when the opposition moved fast enough there was little he could do to stop them.
This is partly why Alonso’s criticism of tackling (although it’s been suggested that he actually meant slide tackling specifically and the generalisation is a miscommunication) rings a little hollow.
“I don’t think tackling is a quality,” he says. “It is a recurso, something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game. At Liverpool I used to read the matchday programme and you’d read an interview with a lad from the youth team. They’d ask: age, heroes, strong points, etc. He’d reply: ‘Shooting and tackling’. I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play. How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand football in those terms. Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition. It’s hard to change because it’s so rooted in the English football culture, but I don’t understand it.”
He would say that though, wouldn’t he? His deceptive strength allowed him to often outmuscle an opponent and he was a master of tactical fouls, tripping or body checking opponents to stop them escaping him, yet not so obviously that he would rack up too many yellow cards. However, if an opponent had the space to get a run at him there was little he could really do to stop them – he couldn’t easily shift his body and move his feet fast enough to get close. When he could stretch far enough to get a foot in, he would usually be winning the ball with a stiff straight leg that looked a leg break waiting to happen.
Benitez’s attempt to bring in Gareth Barry at Alonso’s expense is mocked, and Liverpool fans should be glad it didn’t materialise, but it does make more sense than he’s given credit for. In an attempt to meet requirements for homegrown players, Liverpool focussed on English-developed players in the summer of 2008 and lack of funds meant offloading someone. Alonso’s Liverpool career was bookended by two great seasons, however he didn’t hit the same heights in those middle years, with his poor form in 2007-08 being one of the main reasons why Liverpool whimpered to a fourth place finish. While few would have wanted to see him go, if Liverpool were in need of a good chunk of money, he was one of the more obvious candidates.
In the end, Juventus didn’t put up the cash necessary to take him to Turin, so Alonso remained on Merseyside and Barry in Birmingham. Barry was in many ways what Alonso wasn’t however: he couldn’t pick out a perfect sixty yard pass, yet he was mobile enough to move ten yards at the sufficient speed to stop an opponent advancing, which could help keep the opponent pinned in their half and in turn eliminate the need for those sixty yard passes. Benitez talked about using him as an attacking left-back as well as in midfield, helping to cover another problem area when Aurelio was injured. When Alonso did finally leave a year later, Benitez mentions mobility as a reason for picking Alberto Aquilani as his replacement.
When an opponent did evade Alonso, it was left to others to cover for him, so the Basque was rather fortunate to have one of the sport’s best defensive midfielders next to him.
Like Alonso, Javier Mascherano was very intelligent, positioning himself to cut off passes into the forwards or shepherding opponents away from threatening areas, but, unlike Alonso, he was freakishly mobile. The Argentine seemed to be able to do a full 180° turn faster than he would get the ball moving and had extraordinary acceleration, jumping from 0-100 in a second. This athletic ability allowed Mascherano to scramble across and immediately pressure an opponent, seeking the ball with such intensity they had no time to think. Going to ground is generally discouraged unless you have to, but Mascherano could fly into slide tackles, win the ball, then start to control it and stand up all while still sliding along the turf.
Take this example from the 2007 Champions League final: he quickly recovers to get close to Kaka, who was no slouch himself, and shows the Brazilian down the line, blocking the pass inside. As soon as Kaka slows down to look for his options, Mascherano pounces, going for a tackle which Kaka evades, yet Mascherano sticks to him, following his run. Mascherano attempts another tackle as Kaka begins to cut inside, which he misses again, but he then contorts his body to attempt another, which he wins, and he’s back to his feet before Kaka can even turn around.
Combined with the strong feeling of responsibility for the team that marks true leaders – his agent Walter Tamer saying “If you’re driving and take a wrong turn, Mascherano blames himself for not having told you” – Mascherano was a defensive force of nature that could more than make up for Alonso’s slow legs.
Their back-up Lucas Leiva was intelligent and disciplined for his age. “Particularly keen to learn,” Benitez remarks. “He would regularly sit in front of the screens with one of the coaches after training, to improve some aspect of his game.” He was more mobile than Alonso and showed good technique in the tackle, yet he he struggled with the physicality of the Premier League – even if he could steal the ball away he would often get barged over by a stronger opponent. He would bulk up to overcome this, which stole away some of his mobility (with injuries stealing the rest), converting into a more defensive player than the box-to-box midfielder that arrived from Gremio.
Flanking them were two hard-working wingers. The widemen were expected to track back, even dropping into the defensive line if the full-backs were pulled out too far following their man. Dirk Kuyt’s best-remembered quality is his boundless running, but Albert Riera was a diligent defender too. Even the likes of Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun, who didn’t necessarily possess the technical defensive skills of their teammates, worked hard to get back and help out.
Reflecting on Liverpool’s dogged away win over Real Madrid, Riera sums up this attitude: “I had to stop [Sergio] Ramos. So I chased him all night. From the outside, the journalist might say: ‘Riera – he did not play well. He touched five balls; he did not give the assist for the goal.’ My job was to stop the pass from Sergio Ramos to [Arjen] Robben; it had to be delayed for as long as possible. I was running, running, running all of the time. I know this game was not my best creatively. I could not say I enjoyed it. But it was so satisfying, leaving the pitch as a winner in the Bernabeu. Not many teams do that. We did. We had some great players. But the team mattered most. Benitez takes the credit.”
Benitez often spoke about the importance of mentality in his players and this willingness to do the unglamorous running was the perfect example of it.
“It can be a word, or a signal, or a shout, or a movement,” Benitez explains. “It can come from one player, from two, or from half the team. It can happen at any time, but it must happen at the right time, and only against certain teams.
“Normally, it would be Xabi Alonso or Javier Mascherano, a central midfielder who has a broader vision of the play, who shouted to the team that we were to harry our opponents, close the ball down, try to regain possession, rather than waiting for them to make a mistake.
It is most effective if it is done in wide areas, for a very simple reason: if you press a player centrally, they can pass to their left or right, front or behind. They have all four options potentially open. If you press them on the flank, one of those is closed off, and with a full-back facing them, they must normally come inside or play the ball backwards. This increases your chances of winning it back, or at least stifling their attack.
“It is not something any team can do throughout a match or all over the pitch, because it demands so much energy, so much commitment. And it is not especially effective when employed against a team who prefer to play long balls; then, it is much better to set up to try to win the second ball. Against a side who pass the ball well, though, pressing is crucial.
“We practised pressing intensively in training, to make sure that on the signal – whatever that might be – the right players would react immediately and try to close the ball down, using a variety of exercises prepared by the staff.
“If the ball was on our right, we would need the right full-back, the right winger and one of the central midfielders to press, and possibly a striker too. On the left, the opposite. It takes a long time to perfect the system, to make sure that players only do it when the moment is exactly right, when the ball is in an area you can press or the opposition have made a mistake, however slight. If you go too early, your rivals will be able to exploit the space that you leave behind, or take advantage of the brief disruption to your shape; too late, and the ball has already gone. Players have to be decisive, instinctive and determined to press; that is something that can be improved, and perfected, in training.”
Liverpool’s pressing system was simply a minor adjustment from their usual set-up, making it easy for Liverpool to switch on the fly. They would press intensely at some moments then drop back to recover, before stepping up to press again.
If they wanted to press very high up the pitch, Liverpool’s two forwards would position themselves higher, closer to the centre-backs than usual, but remain central, usually putting themselves between the centre-backs and midfielders, while the midfielders pushed up behind them in support, ensuring they were close to the opposition midfielders and full-backs. This encouraged the goalkeeper to hit the ball long, as if he played the ball to the centre-backs, they would be under immediate pressure from the forwards, who would also be cutting out a pass forward into midfield; if the goalkeeper split a pass between those forwards into a midfielder, Liverpool’s midfield would immediately pressure him from behind and the forwards would block off a pass back to a centre-back; if the goalkeeper hit a pass wide to the full-back, the winger would immediately pressure him, and the forwards and midfielders would block the pass inside to the opposition centre-back and midfielder.
In this era of the Premier League, few teams would even attempt to play out under pressure, so more often than not Liverpool would sit off initially. This compact shape meant that they had plenty of players around to win headers and the second balls that followed, but it also encouraged the opposition to play the ball short and move forward.
Benitez used this to spectacular effect in the thrashings of Real Madrid and Manchester United. “Our idea in such games was normally to press the ball high, but against Madrid we made a slight alteration: we would allow their central defenders a little bit of possession, encourage them to come forward with the ball. Only once they approached the halway line would we begin to press. That way, if we won the ball back, there would be space to run into, particularly for Torres, returned from injury and restored to the front line of our 4-2-3-1. We were to lull Real into a false and fleeting sense of security.
“Our gameplan [against United] centred on Nemanja Vidic, United’s centre-back. Vidic played on the left-hand side of Sir Alex Ferguson’s defence, despite being right-footed, alongside the attack-minded left-back Patrice Evra. Mirroring what we had done against Real, we intended to allow Vidic possession in his own half, not pressing him early, so that he might come forward with the ball. Evra, at the same time, would start his run forward. As soon as we regained possession, Torres was to target the space the two defenders, now out of position, had vacated.”
Liverpool would wait in this shape for a trigger to press. This might be a weak pass, poor touch or difficult-to-control aerial ball that they could pounce upon.
Alternatively, it could be a pass into the wide areas where they could pin the opposition against the touchline. As an opposition centre-back received the ball, one of the forwards would often step up to block a pass to the other centre-back, encouraging them to play the ball in the opposite direction.
When a pass went wide, that side’s winger would rush out to pressure the full-back, with a holding midfielder covering him, while one of the forwards dropped back to cover a midfielder and the other one either stood close to the centre-back or between the pairing. If the attacker stood close to the centre-back, he would obviously discourage the pass back to the centre-back, but if he was positioned between the pairing, then the other attacker could step up to press the centre-back, blocking the pass into the midfielder that he was previously marking, while his partner blocked the pass across to the other centre-back and was in a position to chase down any passes back to the goalkeeper.
Liverpool’s build-up was generally based on patient possession play.
If the opposition could be forced into hoofing the ball forward to a striker with little support, Liverpool’s defenders would calmly nod or flick the ball to a free teammate, enabling Liverpool to start building-up rather than getting into a game of head tennis.
Liverpool’s willingness to hit a long ball over the top and their players’ ability to pick out those balls meant that generally the opposition would sit back and let them have it. If the opposition pressured the defence, Liverpool could often find a free man in midfield, playing 4-2-3-1 when most other teams played 4-4-2. If the opposition midfielders and defenders pushed up in support to cut out that free man, then Liverpool could simply hit a long ball forward to Gerrard or Torres, who could flick it on for the other player racing in behind. Joined by the quick clever runs of the wingers or runners from deep, Liverpool posed a fearsome threat on the counter that few teams wanted to test their luck against.
As a result, Liverpool generally had to break a deep, defensive opposition down.
These moves could start from the goal-line, where Pepe Reina offered more than just shot-stopping. The Spaniard was comfortable under pressure, giving his teammates an easy outball if they were being pressed, however more useful was his passing. Many goalkeepers can find a teammate with a hoof forward, but Reina had the clean technique of a playmaker – even playing as a midfielder in a friendly against Kaiserslautern.
The space that playing as a goalkeeper afforded him meant he could pick out a teammate with low flat passes that were much easier for the recipient to control than the higher looping balls that most goalkeepers served up, and more likely to bounce into dangerous areas if the defenders didn’t clear them. This technique meant he also had a great range, able to reach the opposite penalty area with his kicks.
Liverpool’s counter-attacks would often start with Reina. He would come out to collect a cross then sprint to the edge of his area and release the ball into the path of a teammate with a throw or kick forward before the opposition had any time to prepare.
Ahead of him, the centre-backs were calm on the ball, expected to push forward with the ball if there was space ahead of them. Neither Carragher or Hyypia were particularly confident in possession and with their lack of pace they were reluctant to take too many risks in case they were caught out having to sprint back into position. Carragher in particular had a tendency to send horrible looping passes up into the air – the tell being a look up and a little skip as he went to kick the ball – rather than risk a pass along the turf. They would generally push forward with the ball to make the opposition move or open up a pass into a teammate then offload the ball before anyone could really get close to them.
Skrtel was more comfortable dribbling, opening up space for his teammates as the opposition had to close him down to stop his advances, but Agger was the most dangerous. He would take the opportunity to push forward any time space opened up in front of him and keep going unless someone stopped him, smacking shots at goal or setting up his teammates.
If the opposition attempted to press the centre-backs, they would pull wider, often right out to the touchlines, while one of the double pivot, usually Alonso but sometimes Mascherano, would drop in between them.
On the flanks, one full-back would typically stay back while the other pushed forward into attack.
Aurelio was particularly useful in deeper positions. He was a converted midfielder with an incredible left foot – everyone remembers Alonso and Gerrard’s range of passing, yet Aurelio’s ability to pick out anyone on the pitch with a clean drive of his left foot gets overlooked. That foot also posed a significant set-piece threat, as Manchester United and Chelsea discovered. In one of the more egregious examples of the English football media’s disconnect from reality, Benitez was criticised before, during and after a win against Portsmouth for picking Aurelio in midfield, where the Brazilian never looked out of place – he would have been tailor-made for Guardiola’s inside full-back role, tucking in off the flank, if he were playing today.
Aurelio’s ability to find players from deep and his lack of pace meant, although they would alternate depending on the situation, it generally made more sense for Arbeloa to be the one pushing forward into attack. The Spaniard was a solid passer and crosser, but nowhere near the level of Aurelio. Instead, it was his mobility that proved a boon to Liverpool’s build-up. With his quick feet, Arbeloa would pass the ball on and sprint forward for a one-two or form little passing triangles, working the ball forward with his teammates and moving it on before his opponent could get close.
If Benitez’s decision to sell Alonso to raise funds had made some sense, his performances the following season proved that it was nonetheless a bad idea. Alonso was back on top form.
“When Xabi Alonso came in, you could see immediately [that he was talented] because of the way he passed the ball,” says Carragher. “I’m not talking about 60-yard passes, I mean 10-yarders: bang – punching it in. He looked the part.”
“He gave balance, tempo, aggression and rhythm to the team – everything,” says Riera. “A perfect player for Liverpool, the way we were playing.
“For wingers to be effective, a lot depends on the middle of the pitch: the balance and identity of the players. These guys need to understand your movements and when to play faster, to be able to give you the ball in a situation where you can create for the next person. Xabi was intelligent and had a quick mind. He gave possession very fast, so I was one against one rather than two against one.”
“In my position, wherever I have been, I have needed to be responsible,” Alonso says. “You are in the middle of everything. You don’t have to take many risks. It is not like a striker, who tries different things to define the outcome of a result. For me, the midfielder is about security, balance and collective play. My first thought is to appreciate my teammate and his needs. I think about every other player on the pitch, because I will receive passes from every position: the goalkeeper, the centre-back, the full-backs, the attacking midfielders, the wingers and the striker. If there is a player like Luis Garcia, who was great in between the lines of the opponent’s defence and midfield, you know you can give them more balls into a little space. If there is a player who does not have the quality in those small spaces, you have to ask them to run, to expand the game.
“I am the link between the defence and the attack, so I have to be a solution for my teammates as well, to help move the ball from one side to the other. At every club, this has been my job.
“I don’t try to do things that might make me look stupid, because the risk is there. How many times have you seen me run into the box with the ball dribbling past players? It’s uncommon because it’s not my game; it’s not my thing.
“For my game to be better, I need to be surrounded by better players than me. My game is not to have one great action. My best game is to be consistent throughout: to bring the ball in the best and quickest possible way for the best players to make the last action. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are on the pitch. My duty is to be risk averse.”
Alonso couldn’t sprint, he couldn’t tackle, he couldn’t dribble. He could pass though. Alonso’s career is testimony to the idea that the ball moves faster than the player. “I have always said there are different types of aggression,” he explains. “You can tackle aggressively but you can also pass aggressively, although I prefer to use the word ‘authority’ here. Of course I was aware of the previous Liverpool midfielders. I had seen videos of Graeme Souness. Wow – what a player, what a player. I loved him. My father was a midfielder and he loved him too. Souness commanded an entire pitch. By the time I started playing, football was moving though. you couldn’t get away with rough tackling. But you could still pass with aggression, with ‘authority’, do everything convincingly, as Souness did.
“A small fraction is the difference between a good pass and a bad pass. This is always on my mind. Pace on the pass, pace on the pass. Soft passes are not good. They are risky. You have to trust that your teammate has the technical ability to deal with the pace, to deal with the aggression and take on the mantle of authority.”
Alonso was the first pass out of defence, always making himself available, picking it up then moving it on with that “authority”. His lack of legs meant he wasn’t expected to get into attacking positions. As a result, he was pretty much always behind the play and this deep position enabled him to see the whole of the pitch.
If he picked up the ball from the defenders or dropped back in between them, he could turn and spray a quick pass to whoever he had decided was the best choice. If the pass was open, this was Gerrard, turning defence to attack and getting the opposition panicking in seconds. If that pass wasn’t available, he might play a simple short one to a defender or his partner in midfield, he might try to reach the feet of a different player between the lines, he might switch play with a raking ball out to a winger or full-back on the opposite touchline, or he might even try to find Torres running behind with a long ball over the top.
If a centre-back pushed forward in possession, he would drop in to cover them, lessening the danger if that defender was caught out and also allowing all the play to be in front of him. If the centre-back ran out of options he could turn around and hit the ball back to Alonso, who would already know where to send it next. This also applied to Liverpool’s attack: if they made it into the opposition third but the attack broke down, they could always use Alonso as an outball, sending it back to him in a deep position to start the attack again from a new angle.
Alonso having a partner alongside him was for more than to cover his lack of mobility though. Mascherano’s performances for Argentina as a sole pivot proved he was better with the ball than he showed for Liverpool, where he would mainly play the ball as quickly as he could to Alonso. The existence of the second pivot meant that the opposition couldn’t just man-mark Alonso, who wouldn’t have the mobility to evade the attention, to stop Liverpool’s build-up. If they did, Liverpool could simply switch sides and Mascherano would be the first pass out of defence.
This sometimes meant that Alonso and Mascherano would be operating in the same space, making one of them redundant in the build-up and thus a waste of a man who could be posing problems elsewhere, but generally they spaced themselves well, enabling them to make passing triangles for Liverpool to move the ball forward.
The Argentine wasn’t very creative, however he would move the ball on simply with one or two touches and, when given the space, often picked out lovely diagonal passes out to the flanks that skimmed along the turf. He was also difficult to steal the ball from, having a keen sense of how to put his body between the ball and the opponent so they couldn’t win it, and his ability to turn his body so quickly meant attempts to panic him by chasing him down often ended with him twisting in the opposite direction into space. While he wasn’t very good at dribbling, his ability to accelerate from a standing start caught many opponents off-guard, suddenly upping the tempo and bursting past defenders who were expecting a continuation of the patient passing game.
Lucas Leiva was more akin to Mascherano than Alonso, although he was able to spot more clever passes than the South American. He was technically solid and helped move the ball forward through neat passing moves with his teammates, but flashy through balls that caught the eye were rare. He had a tendency to wait on the ball so as to encourage the opposition to close him down, opening up space for a teammate to use elsewhere, however this could take the zip out of Liverpool’s play and it was understandable why many spectators thought that games passed him by.
Liverpool’s build-up was geared to feeding their attack through the middle. The wide players would generally tuck inside so a couple of them, including Gerrard and Torres, would look to receive the ball to feet between the lines, while the other few of that quartet would look to run in behind the opposition’s defensive line. Who was doing which role was constantly switching to keep the defenders on their toes.
The defenders and deep midfielders would circulate the ball until a pass into the attacking players opened, and if it didn’t they would change the angle and look to open up a pass elsewhere. Once the pass was made into the attack, the forwards would quickly combine with one another to work the ball into the box and create a scoring opportunity.
Liverpool’s walking talking fairytale, the Whiston-born captain who dragged the team to the European Cup and became arguably the greatest player to ever play for the club, has never been done justice on this site.
(As a bit of an aside, one of the main reasons I stopped doing the What Could Have Been series was because of its tendency to focus on the negative meant underselling great players. The only one of them I wouldn’t now like to disown is the one on Juan Sebastian Veron. Maybe a superior writer could have done a better job, but I frankly don’t care about writing – this site exists to analyse football, not win your hearts.)
Part of this can be blamed on the fact that the blog was started just as his career started to wind down, when groin injuries stole his energetic bursts and forced him into a deeper role that exposed his flaws. Part of it on a wider problem in discussing players.
Years ago it used to be that most spectators couldn’t appreciate any midfielder that couldn’t ping a 50 yard pass, yet the success of possession football over the past decade has led many in the opposite direction. “Of course Isco is better than Gareth Bale. You simply wouldn’t understand.” “Oh, a forty yard screamer? How very gauche. What are his take-on statistics like?”
This is the most clearly seen in the way Paul Scholes has become the most overrated player to play the sport since his retirement, all while fans insist he’s the most underrated. He was a very good player, but there was a reason Alex Ferguson dropped £30 million on Veron.
There’s a willful ignorance to the idea that a sideway pass is some kind of cowardly, talentless act, and a pretentious delusion of grandeur to the idea that the sideways pass is actually superior and you need a special level of intelligence to understand why.
It depends on the context, and if we are going to really appreciate its purpose, then we are probably better off recognising there’s a distinct difference in tasks that means we can’t really accurately compare the different types of players who perform them.
The likes of Xavi Hernandez and Philipp Lahm are controllers who look to guide the match, directing the play away from their own box and towards the opposition’s. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben are explosive players, playing in the margins of the match but trying to do that something special to break through and get a goal. Some players, such as Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, were talented enough to do both sets of tasks, but these players are few and far between. Why would you compare Robben to Lahm when what’s expected of those players is completely different?
Which finally brings us back to Gerrard. When he was first breaking through to the Liverpool first team, that distinction between controlling and explosive player didn’t really exist in English football. In general, the game was based around direct, physical 4-4-2s. To control the game from midfield was to be the more explosive player, hurtling into tackles, smacking the ball forward and charging up the pitch for a pot shot at goal. Gerrard was the poster boy for what a Premier League midfielder should be. He was explosive.
The arrival of Jose Mourinho and Benitez ushered in a new, slower, more patient style of play aimed at controlling the opposition. The central midfielders were now controllers rather than explosive. Gerrard was moved first out to the right flank and then into an attacking midfield role. The discourse didn’t catch up though: throughout Gerrard’s peak, there would be constant calls, most consistently from Andy Gray, for him to be moved back into central midfield.
Occasionally, against lesser opposition, Benitez would move him back. Gerrard could utilise the full-range of his passing, charge into tackles, and lurk outside the area for long shots, however it also made the weaknesses in his game clear.
His aggressiveness meant he would physically dominate most midfielders, yet he could also be easily dragged up the pitch and he would rarely pay much attention to anyone who ran in behind him. If the opposition could pass around him, there was plenty of space to be exploited that his partner would have to cover.
This also applied when Liverpool were in possession, as Gerrard would generally get much higher, close to or inside the box, than the alternative would. It’s worth pointing out that this was strategic rather than Gerrard’s fault – he would mainly be used in a deeper role when someone like Jermaine Pennant played on the right, who would hug the touchline instead of coming inside like Kuyt, giving Gerrard more space to attack in the centre – which is why he generally only played deeper against weaker opposition, but it demanded more from the other midfielders than him playing further in attack.
Liverpool’s more patient play meant he didn’t attempt Hollywood passes with anything near the frequency that he did in an England shirt, however if the clock was ticking down and Liverpool were in need of a goal, he would get more and more direct, raining long shots down on goal and trying even longer passes. We all remember the last minute screamer against West Ham, but how many of us remember the air shot as Liverpool played out to a 0-0 draw?
Perhaps the greatest argument against playing Gerrard in a deeper role was the simple question: why would you ever want him to?
Alonso could pass, Mascherano could tackle. Gerrard wasn’t needed back there. Move him back and all you do is put extra responsibilities on him that limit his ability to be what he was: an incredible, earth-shattering colossus of a player who could single-handedly drag Liverpool over the line when they needed him. Olympiacos. Istanbul. Cardiff. Why would you want to waste a talent like that worrying about midfield runners?
Gerrard didn’t need fancy footwork to beat a man, he would just burst straight past them and there was nothing they could do about it. He couldn’t be bullied by big hulking defenders, he could beat them in the air. He could thump the ball home from distance without the goalkeeper having a hope of getting near it, or he could place a finish from inside the box like the best strikers. The mere threat of Gerrard’s shooting was enough to spook defenders: he would regularly throw out an arm as if balancing for a shot and then nudge the ball past them as they fell over themselves jumping in to block the non-existent shot.
Just because his nominal position was higher up, it didn’t mean he wasn’t allowed to drop back to pick up the ball. Liverpool would regularly shift into a 4-3-3 shape in possession, with Gerrard coming deeper and one of the holding midfielders pushing up alongside him. This allowed Gerrard a chance to use his passing range, but generally more useful was how hard he became to track – the defenders having to pass him on to the midfielders.
Even if he didn’t come deeper, Gerrard would often move far enough away from the defenders so that he couldn’t be followed, receive the ball and lay it off before anyone could get close, spinning away in the opposite direction and bursting into the box to receive a return ball with the defenders scrambling across to stop the man who had been in midfield just seconds before.
For a player who’s better known for his athleticism, it’s striking how much Gerrard would do with only one touch. Move out wide to the right and he would swing in a cross first time to stop a defender from getting close; a pass comes into him with his back to goal and he flicks it away with the outside of his foot before a defender can get tight; sprinting into the box at full speed and he still goes for a volley rather than giving the defender the opportunity to stop him.
His defensive positional foibles and poor decision-making when in need of a goal have lead some to declare that Gerrard is an unintelligent player, but a stupid player couldn’t develop the telepathic relationship Gerrard did with Fernando Torres, a stupid player couldn’t time or place his runs into the box as perfectly as Gerrard did, a stupid player couldn’t work at the pace that Gerrard did. To say that Gerrard is unintelligent simply because he struggled with certain aspects of the game is akin to saying that Diego Maradona was shite because he couldn’t play left-back.
Not having to worry so much about what was behind him, the attacking midfield role also rewarded Gerrard’s defensive aggression. He would jog towards a centre-back, blocking the pass into midfield, and any sign of weakness was pounced upon. Too slow or a poor touch and he would step up a gear, charging down the centre-back. Gerrard would often go flying into challenges he could easily stay on his feet for, yet it rarely left him exposed because his technique was so good.
This is something else that the Alonso view on tackling doesn’t appreciate: without wanting to go into intangibles too much, a tackle is imposing in a way that an interception is not. You may have made a mistake and lose the ball through an interception, but there’s a good chance it’s self-inflicted – you were simply careless. A tackle on the other hand is inflicted upon you, it’s another player saying “you do not have the time to fanny around here, if you do this again I will punish you” – a boot to the throat that only tightens until you move that ball on. That forces a quickening of thinking that could easily rattle a player or force mistakes. If Benitez’s Valencia were The Crushing Machine, the team, then Gerrard chasing down some poor centre-back was The Crushing Machine, the player.
Gerrard’s introverted, somewhat insecure personality means he’s sometimes used as an example of the captain who’s given the armband as an ideal for others to apire to, rather than his practical leadership skills. There’s more to leading than yelling though: Peter Crouch has spoken about how Gerrard set high standards at Liverpool and Riera spoke of his effect in training. “Steven Gerrard was sliding into tackles as if it was a game and he was playing Manchester United in the FA Cup final. He was the first at running and his passes always hit the mark. The level of commitment was clear: he was the example of the standard you had to meet every day. Otherwise you wouldn’t be good enough to play for Liverpool.”
A problem early in Benitez’s tenure was how reliant Liverpool were on Gerrard. The scouser could win matches by himself, but far too often he had to because his teammates weren’t of the quality needed to make a title push. By the summer of 2007, working on a budget, Benitez had tried Milan Baros, Djibril Cisse, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Neil Mellor, Fernando Morientes, Peter Crouch, Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and an aging Robbie Fowler as strikers, however he finally had the money to throw at a higher standard. Enter Fernando Torres.
Made captain of his boyhood club at 19, Torres had a lot in common with Gerrard – not least his considerable talent – and the two soon developed a telepathic understanding on the pitch.
Torres was what a number nine would look like if you built one from the ground up. Rapid, he would glide across the turf leaving defenders in his wake. This pace caused massive problems for defenders: stay tight to him and he could spin away into space with no hope that you could catch him; drop off to ensure there wasn’t space for him to run in behind and he could pick up the ball between the lines, turn and run at you, or just place a shot from distance. Any old hoof forward became dangerous when there was space for Torres to run into.
Even his dribbling was built around this pace rather than technical ball manipulation. He might take a few little steps then one big touch in one direction, forcing the defender to send his body weight in that direction, then swivel his hips and cut back in the other direction, the defender unable to regain his balance to stay with him. He might even just hit it round the defender safe in the knowledge he could get to the ball on the other side before their teammates would.
Despite the feminine good looks that had rival fans calling him a “ladyboy”, Torres was also deceptively tough. “Pretty much the first thing Rafa ever said to me was: ‘Get yourself to the gym’,” Torres revealed. “However strong you think you are, the centre-back here is going to be stronger. They’re 1.90m, 90 kilos. The stronger you are, the better chance you have of getting to the ball first.” He was good in the air and able to hold off opponents with his back to goal, meaning he could hold up the ball and lay it off for runners from midfield. Torres couldn’t be easily bumped off the ball, it had to be won back through fair means, which left defenders at the mercy of Torres’ quick feet.
Most importantly for a striker, he could also score goals. Right foot, left foot, head, in the air, along the ground, inside the box, outside the box, any angle. If the goal was in sight, there was a good chance Torres would send the goalkeeper scrambling. Liverpool defenders could send nothing punts forward and Torres would still turn it into a goal.
It wasn’t simply natural athleticism that took Torres to football’s heights though. He perfected his movement and his positioning to best exploit the weaknesses of his opponents, and worked hard on improving.
“The vast majority of footballers stop learning once they become professionals,” he said. “And that is their big mistake. I’ve been lucky enough to have coach like Rafa Benitez who tries to make you better every single day. There’s no doubt I’ve improved a lot.
“Things that you would never even have thought about, Rafa does. Things that you thought weren’t important are. You might think ‘that’s ridiculous’ but the thing is the proof is there in front of you. You try it and you see that it’s true. It really works.
“When I met Rafa I realised maybe for the first time just how important a coach is. He’s not just someone who sticks eleven people on the pitch and chooses a system. He has to get the very best out of every player and every player is different. Some players have to be pushed and piqued, others have to be looked after. When I’ve scored two goals or three goals, he tells me I’ve played badly, that I didn’t help out at the back… He always demands more. Maybe there are players who get sunk by that but personally it helps me.
“People say things like: ‘he’s got to improve his shooting’ but that doesn’t mean anything. You have to look deeper than that; you have to focus on how you get into the position to shoot, your arrival point, the position of your body. To say ‘he’s got to shoot better’ is banal, so general as to be meaningless. How do you find the space? How do you get into that position? How do you finish? In what way?”
One of the most notable things about Torres’ shooting was how often he would open up his hips to ensure he could place his shots. This was of course enabled by his pace – he had the time to open up his body like this because he could so easily build up a distance between himself and the defenders trying to stop him – but it’s a little detail most strikers wouldn’t bother with: “Rafa talks to me a lot about the position of my body. If you’re turned fractionally more to the right or left you might get a millisecond’s advantage; if when you receive the ball you shift your weight you can get away easier. The way you position yourself against the centre-backs, focus on their position and judge their movements as well as your own is vital. One of the most important things I’ve learnt with Rafa is how to play closer to the opposition’s penalty area – how to get in behind the defenders as a solo striker. I don’t have to come back and look for the ball; I fix my position by the centre-backs more than by the ball or the build up.
“Rafa always analyses the centre backs I’m facing and the goalkeeping coach tells me about the goalkeepers. In a game it’s a matter of tenths of a second and that information can help. You might be told: ‘The goalkeeper always dives one way and if you’re patient you can wait and go round him the other side, the goalkeeper comes out a long way and you can chip him…’ Those small details really helped, especially in the first year when I didn’t know the players, whether a centre-back was quick or slow, whether he comes across to the wings to cover and leaves space behind or whether he sticks.”
Although his primary role was to score goals, Torres also brought others into play. “The tactical work we do starts at the beginning of the week; our training is tailored according to the other team, focusing on switching play to try to draw them out, finding spaces. In England, lots of teams have centre-backs that man-mark you. Often my job will be to bring that centre-back out with me and leave one there isolated on his own so that Gerrard go against him. My movement will be tailored to making space for Gerrard, or Kuyt or Benayoun. I’ll go into that game knowing that it’s very unlikely I will score because on that particular day scoring goals is not my job.”
The most obvious were his combinations with Gerrard – one or the other would flick the ball on for their partner to run onto if they were making a run in behind the backline, or lay the ball off to the other if they remained deeper, before then making their own run in behind as the other sent a through ball forward. Torres would also come short to lay it off for one of the attacking midfielders or he would run the channels, helping to quickly get behind and turn while his teammates could attack the space he had left in the centre.
The main problem Torres posed for Liverpool was his injury record. He made 33 Premier League appearances in his debut season, but never again managed more than 24 in a red shirt. He was Liverpool’s main attacking force other than Gerrard and yet they had to go without him for 14 games as they chased down the title in 2008-09.
Robbie Keane had been brought in for a large fee at the start of the campaign to bolster Liverpool’s attacking options – again chosen by Benitez for his homegrown status, having started his career at Wolverhampton Wanderers rather than his native Ireland. Keane is widely considered as a flop, because he was, however despite poor individual performances, he worked better for Liverpool than many of the strikers Benitez had to work with prior to Torres.
Yes, his finishing ability deserted him on Merseyside, and yes, he couldn’t play with his back to goal like Torres (or at least refused to, constantly falling to the ground in search of a free-kick when a defender roughed him up even when referees steadfastly refused to give him anything, stopping attacks dead in the process).
He could, however, run very fast. One of Benitez’s most common problems with strikers had been that they were too slow. Morientes had failed because he was too slow for the Premier League, Crouch had been a relative success but his lack of pace certainly limited Liverpool’s attack, Fowler had never been the same since tearing his ACL in 1998 and certainly wasn’t getting it back in his thirties, and Kuyt would occasionally fill in up top but lacked that yard of pace to truly flourish. Keane getting one-on-one with the keeper wasn’t the guaranteed goal that Torres in the same situation was, but he had the pace to get into that position, and that threat is enough to worry the opposition defence.
With that mobility came an ability to press. The Irishman had an odd pressing style, sprinting at full pelt at defenders and, as he neared them, making his arms and legs wide to make it even harder for them to pass around him. If the defender had enough confidence to take it around him, they could, as the momentum from the sprinting and the strange body shape meant he couldn’t easily swivel in whatever direction they turned, however most defenders in this era didn’t, so it was generally very effective.
Keane was also technically proficient. His teammates could bounce passes off him, he could play them in and he could dribble. He might not have been playing well, but he was the closest player to being able to fill Torres’ role within the system.
With Keane gone in January, when Torres was injured it was left up to David N’Gog to fill his boots. The lanky youngster was quick and technically sound, but the fact that he’s now bouncing around the Greek, Scottish and Hungarian leagues in his prime years suggests that he probably wasn’t of the required quality to replace Torres.
The widemen obviously weren’t as talented as Gerrard and Torres, yet they earned their places in a strong Liverpool team. Rather than hug the touchline, they usually came inside when Liverpool had possession to support Torres and Gerrard. Some would stay between the lines for quick combination play, while the others would run in behind, switching roles to keep the defenders guessing and take advantage of any gaps that opened up.
Dirk Kuyt may not have had the pace to play as a lone striker, however he soon became a fan favourite for his tireless running. Benitez converted him into a right winger, which gave his willingness to work hard defensively an outlet in tracking back and pushing forward to press.
More than just a marathon runner, he still had a tendency to pop up with important goals due to his intelligent striker’s movement and finishing, reaching double figures in all his seasons under Benitez. His first touch could be hit-and-miss, as could his crossing from wide, but he rarely looked out of place in Liverpool’s passing moves, could dink the ball once inside the box to a waiting teammate at the back post, and his awkward dribbling could often confuse opponents.
Albert Riera is often remembered as a flop for Liverpool, which only makes you wonder whether anyone actually remembers Riera in a red shirt. Technically gifted, the Spaniard could dribble inside or out, constantly twisting his full-back as he went inside, deciding against it and heading back out towards the touchline, then coming back inside again, toying with the defender. This flexibility as to whether he stayed wide or tucked into the middle made him very useful for Liverpool: tuck inside and he could join in the quick technical passing, however go outside and he could stretch the opposition defence to create space for his teammates, so Riera had the ability to switch depending on what Liverpool needed from him at that moment.
Upon receiving the ball, Riera would generally move quickly, not giving the defender time to settle or for their teammates to come across and help, and if he did get trapped he tended to flick the ball over an opponent’s head, either squirming his way out with the ball or running into their back and going to ground to win a free-kick. He also had an end product once he had won some space from a defender, driving the ball across the face of goal with a cross along the turf or firing a low, stinging shot at goal.
Yossi Benayoun could fill in for any of the attacking midfield spots in that band of three. The skinny Israeli looked like he could barely find the strength in his legs to cross, but that didn’t matter because Liverpool’s narrow attack meant he wasn’t expected to cross. What he was expected to do was what he was good at: dribble and combine with his teammates in tight spaces.
Benayoun was a nightmare for defenders to win the ball back from, throwing his limbs into the air as he feinted left and right, left and right, left and away he scampered with the ball. The ball would barely leave his foot as he skinned one player after another and as the defenders jumped in to stop him, he would slide a pass through to a teammate in new-found space.
Liverpool’s attack faced two main problems though, which ultimately cost them the Premier League title as they ended the season with eleven draws.
Firstly, Liverpool lacked width. Riera would drive down the outside and Jermaine Pennant made a handful of appearances hugging the right touchline, but for the most part Liverpool’s attack was narrow. This had its benefits: the players being close together meant they could quickly interchange and pass amongst themselves, while if they lost the ball they were in a good position to quickly surround the opposition and win the ball back, especially with Mascherano and Alonso covering behind them.
However, the major negative was that, just as Liverpool’s players being closer together meant they were better-connected, the opposition’s defenders would come inside and leave themselves better-connected too. It’s harder to squeeze a through ball between defenders when they are all a few metres apart and tricking one of them means less when it’s easy for the others to cover the mistake.
Liverpool’s width was meant to come from the full-backs, however that never quite worked. Aurelio and Arbeloa were both good with their feet but couldn’t beat a man and so they didn’t really worry the opposing full-backs. Aurelio didn’t have the pace to consistently get to the byline and while Arbeloa could pass his way round, he preferred to cut the ball back into the box rather than cross. Nevertheless, Arbeloa was quite good at underlapping, making runs through the middle when a teammate took his position out on the flank.
Benitez had wanted to bring in Dani Alves from Sevilla, only for quibbling over a few million to scupper the deal, and Glen Johnson joined the next season – both of whom would have offered real dynamism in the wide areas. Dossena was intended to provide that on the left and he did, getting to the byline and whipping in good crosses, but his inability to defend meant he couldn’t really be trusted, seeing more minutes as a makeshift winger than a full-back by the end of the season.
This lack of width meant that too often Liverpool’s opponents could stay narrow and protect the centre and Liverpool didn’t have any way of punishing them for ceding the wide areas.
Secondly, Liverpool lacked strength in depth. Their first eleven was superb, but too often when injuries struck or Benitez rotated the squad to keep it fresh, the quality of the side dropped considerably.
Ryan Babel was probably the best of the attacking squad players. Fleet-footed, he could drive at defenders and was capable of picking out nice finishes from range, albeit he wasn’t without his problems.
“We worked ceaselessly with Babel after we signed him from Ajax in the summer of 2007, spending hours and hours with him on the training pitch,” Benitez says. “He had abundant natural talent – that is what had attracted us to him in the first place – but too often he was let down by an inability to make the right decision.
“Despite being predominantly right-footed, we were playing him on the left wing, where we thought he could make use of his searing pace, his technical ability and his explosive shot. It was a slightly different position for him, one that required a little fine-tuning: at Ajax, he had played as a left-sided attacker in a 4-3-3, but in our 4-2-3-1, wide left was the obvious place to use him.
“The problem was that he constantly chose to cut in on his right-hand side whenever he received possession. A winger has two choices: to go outside or to come in. If you do either one too often, defenders come to know what to expect. You make their lives significantly easier. Babel always came in. both in the Premier League and in Europe, teams knew what he was likely to do, nullifying him as a threat.
“We went through a host of exercises trying to change that. I would stand in the middle of the training pitch with him, playing him dozens, hundreds, of passes, aimed at one or both of his feet. I would tell him that if he used his right foot to control the ball, he should use his acceleration and his speed, get to the byline and cross; if it arrived on his left, then he should come inside. I even came up with a mantra – if you have space, use your pace – to help him remember.”
Babel had improved since joining Liverpool – you need only look at the way he goes down the outside to assist Gerrard against Real Madrid – however while he was more willing to go inside or out, he only ever really used his right foot. When cutting inside this was fine, but when going down the left, his insistence on using his right foot meant that the ball was often close to the defender as he dribbled, tempting and making it easier for a defender to tackle him. It might have been wiser for him to play on the right, where he could go down the outside more easily, but also cut inside in the same way Riera did.
While his decision-making did improve, quickening his play, he did also sometimes still get caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
Babel’s pace and finishing made him a decent central option from the bench, however his movement in the box was oddly exaggerated. He would make massive movements to get on his defender’s blindside, then massive movements for a cut back, six or seven steps when two or three would do. While technically being the correct movements, he would make them so big that when the ball actually came in he would often be too far away to get anything, or at least anything good, on the ball.
Nonetheless, Babel worked hard and had his moments, and his willingness to drop back and pick up the ball off the defenders before dribbling forward into attack was always a useful way of getting the ball up the pitch.
Likewise, David N’Gog, Nabil El Zhar and Emiliano Insua were hard-working, disciplined, quick, technically solid players, but were they going to make a positive difference for a team trying to win the Premier League against a Manchester United team grinding out 1-0 win after 1-0 win?
If you enjoy these posts, please consider subscribing to our Patreon or making a one-off donation. For the price of a coffee, you can get access to premium videos and training sessions.