It’s fair to say that Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea were the Premier League’s obligatory ‘surprise package’ last season. They arrived on the scene with a courageous and effective footballing philosophy which saw them to an impressive 11th place finish, just five points behind Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool who ended up in 8th after a campaign plagued by inconsistency.
The King brought us some good times, great times in fact, but claiming the club’s first piece of silverware in six years was not enough to prevent the sword from swinging. FSG’s head had been turned by an up and coming manager who had proven his ability to overachieve with limited resources. They saw in Rodgers someone who they believed could guide us back into the top tier of continental competition, and in doing so reap the (financial) rewards that rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite entails.
Standing between Liverpool and a return to the top four is the most successful team in Premier League history, two of the world’s richest clubs, a side who haven’t finished outside the Champions League places since the mid 90′s and a couple of clubs who have recently emerged as real forces to be reckoned with after considerable investment in their respective squads.
The challenge, as Rodgers himself has admitted, is one of epic proportion, and will require the manager to squeeze every last drop of ability out of the players he has at his disposal.
In recent years there have been two particular tactics which have enabled teams to perform above all expectations in the Premier League; the Stoke, and the Swansea.
Under Tony Pulis Stoke’s game is built upon rigid formation and direct tactics, underpinned by physical prowess. This methodology has served them very well since their promotion to the Premier League in 2008; they have not since looked in any real danger of going down, and have even gained themselves a reputation as one of the country’s most resilient sides, such is the challenge teams face on the dreaded wet Wednesday night at the Britannia.
The issue with this approach, though, is that there is a limit to how far it can take a team. It is a good tool to be used for the sake of survival and stabilisation in the top tier, but at the business end of the table it just wont stand up.
The Swansea approach, one built on fluid, possession based pass and move football is a far more scalable style of play. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are perhaps the best example of a team who have found Premier League success as a result of this philosophy. At their peak they were quite literally invincible, and although a lack of investment in the squad may have prevented them from adding to their honours roll, they have been a mainstay in the world’s most lucrative club competition ever since the visionary Frenchman took the reins.
Like it or not, this is what Liverpool are aiming for under the ownership of FSG, and here’s how their new appointment plans to acheive it…
The trademark of any tiki-taka team is their ability to retain possession. Barcelona do it better than anybody, passing the ball about at a speed which suits them, rather than being pressured into making certain moves by the opposition. This allows them to dictate the nature and tempo of the game – if they need to take a breather they can play the simple ball, or if they feel fresh and ready to mount an attack they can step it up a notch and attempt more ambitious passes.
“If it is not going well we have a default mechanism which makes us hard to beat and we can pass our way into the game again. Rest with the ball. Then we’ll build again.” - Brendan Rodgers
“I like to control games. I like to be responsible for our own destiny. If you are better than your opponent with the ball you have a 79 per cent chance of winning the game…for me it is quite logical. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, if you don’t have the ball you can’t score.” - Brendan Rodgers
One of the most effective ways for a team to retain possession is to pass the ball in triangles around the opponent as shown in the below diagram.
The minimum amount of players required to form a triangle around an opponent is two. As shown above, player 1 passes to player 2 before moving to a secondary position to receive the ball back again. It is difficult for player 4 (opposition) to intercept the ball here unless they can latch onto the initial pass. Once players 1 and 2 have completed a triangle, they can either repeat the process or, if the path is clear, player 1 could emerge with the ball and start the next phase of play.
The other and much more effective type of triangle is made up of three men, as shown below.
It is even more difficult for player 4 to intercept the ball here because he has no way of knowing whether player 1 will pass to player 2 or player 3 initially. Since he cannot cover both possible paths player 4 would likely have to call upon the support of his team mates, but so long as the team seeking to retain possession keeps passing and moving, or outnumber the opposition by one man or more, they should be able to protect the ball.
As shown above, even with the introduction of player 5, the blue team are unable to close off every passing option, thus the red team should be capable of retaining possession providing their passing is accurate enough. Even if player 3 is completely cut out of the equation, players 1 and 2 can revert to the basic two-man triangle.
The possibilities are almost endless with this system – so long as the team in possession outmove or outnumber their opponents they have a very good chance of remaining in control. Even if the blue team close off all of the initial passing options above, the red team can call in another player (7) and open up another triangle as shown below.
It is this tactic which results in the hugely one-sided possession statistics teams such as Barcelona and Swansea record on a regular basis, and Brendan Rodgers has already begun teaching his Liverpool players to retain the ball with intensive pass and move training drills involving everyone, even the goalkeepers.
Possession counts for nothing without penetration, and with chances usually fewer and further between in a tiki-taka system than they are in more direct styles, it is important that they are crafted with care and finished with quality.
Barcelona can rely on the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi in this area when they are unable to pass their way through more compact opposition, but not every team is fortunate enough to possess a player with seemingly superhuman ability, although Luis Suarez comes very close to falling under that description. The Uruguayan will be particularly important when it comes to picking the proverbial lock, but it is essential that his supporting cast also play a significant part.
Rodgers usually opts to field a front three in attack, backed up by two central midfielders as well as overlapping full-backs. This allows for several possibilities when it comes to creating triangles around the opposition, and working the ball in on goal. Having studied all of the above diagrams, you can probably already see the triangles available in the set-up below.
Another system Rodgers may occasionally opt to play is the ‘false nine’ tactic which served Spain so well in Euro 2012. This approach results in a more compact midfield which is very difficult for the opposition to breach, whilst also ensuring more passing options are available within that area of the pitch. It also means the opposition defence cannot man mark attacking players as they pop up from all areas of the pitch like the world’s most difficult game of whack-a-mole.
It’s all very well playing perfectly when in possession, but it is inevitable that you will at some point find yourself without the ball, and that is when tiki-taka teams are expected to work their hardest.
Resting on the ball should leave players feeling fresh for the purpose of winning it back if and when they lose it. Rodgers will allocate each of his players a zone (more on that later), and it will be their responsibility to regain possession should it be lost in that part of the pitch. This philosophy applies to all players from front to back, ensuring the ball is won back as quickly and as high up the pitch as possible.
“You win the ball back when there are thirty metres to their goal not eighty.” - Pep Guardiola
Tiki-taka, more than any other footballing philosophy, requires patience from players and supporters alike. On the pitch it is important for those tasked with executing these plans to have complete faith in them, and trust that even if they don’t bear fruit at once, that if they keep at it they will eventually reap the rewards.
The Anfield faithful, too, must appreciate that it will take time for the new manager to implement what is a drastically different style to that of his predecessor. He is being asked to change the very fabric of the squad’s thinking, and that is not something that can be rushed.
As we’ve seen with the success of teams such as Arsenal and Barcelona over the years, though, as well as the global domination that Spain are currently enjoying, when it does comes together it is as close to perfection as is possible on a football pitch.
“I think Brendan will do well if people support him. All he needs is to be given time and support.” - John Barnes
OK, I know this article is entitled the four P’s of tiki-taka, but there are a few Z’s which are equally important in understanding Brendan Rodgers’ slant on this particular style.
Prior to taking the Liverpool job Rodgers sat down with journalist Duncan White and sketched out his preferred formation in an attempt to explain his approach to the game. The below image is a reproduction of his diagram.
As touched upon previously, Rodgers divides the pitch into several zones in order to allocate each player a particular role. Below is a breakdown of the eight different areas and the responsibilities each of them entail.
Zone 1 is the goalkeeper’s jurisdiction. Under Brendan Rodgers Pepe Reina can expect to play a ‘sweeper keeper’ role, compensating for a high defensive line by filling the vacant space and being aware of any threats to his goal. He will also be expected to make himself available to receive the ball at all times. After all, playing football with 11 men is easier than playing with 10.
This is where the centre-backs will operate, providing an easy outlet for the goalkeeper in order to avoid speculative long-range kicks and throws. They will also be available to receive the ball from the players in front of them for the purpose of retaining possession, or for switching play from one side to another without risking cross-field balls. And, of course, they will have to deal with the small matter of defending on top of their other duties.
Daniel Agger will relish this particular role, while the solid and dependable Martin Skrtel should complement him perfectly at the back. As for Jamie Carragher, it would appear that the man with a penchant for punting will be restricted to even fewer performances than he was last term, unless the old dog can and pick up some new tricks in training.
This is a key role for any tiki-taka team, both in and out of possession. The player who patrols this zone will provide a shield and an outlet to the defenders behind him, as well as an option for the players in front. They must be capable of keeping a cool head under pressure in order to record a high pass completion rate and significant turnover of tackles.
Lucas Leiva could make this role his own, while there is also a shout for someone in the mould of Steven Gerrard to feature as a deep lying playmaker if the opposition on the day allows for it.
“I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass, I get the ball, I pass.” – Xavi.
Attacking full-backs aren’t exactly a recent addition to the modern game, nor are they unique to tiki-taka, but the way in which the likes of Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson operate could be set to change slightly under the new boss.
The former will have to work on releasing the ball when the opportunity presents itself rather than twisting and turning himself into trouble, while the latter may be encouraged to get to the byline more as opposed to cutting inside.
This is the zone where everything can change, where players are expected to find space to create chances for those in front of them to finish off or, indeed, to link up with them and convert the chances themselves. It is at this stage that the tempo of the game can change drastically, and it is these players who will dictate it by deciding whether to retain the ball by continuing to pass and move between zones, or risk losing it by attempting to penetrate the opposition defence.
The likes of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Alberto Aquilani and Charlie Adam (if he’s still here) will likely be used in this role, while there is also a chance that Suso could be blooded at some stage.
Not wingers in the traditional sense, but still expected to be competent dribblers as well as proficient passers of the ball, the players in zone 6 will be expected to chip in with both goals and assists throughout the course of a campaign. Much like those in zone 5, the two wide players have the option to change the tempo of the game by choosing whether to embark on an attack or continue working the ball around.
Brendan Rodgers is known to favour pacey and skilful players out wide, which bodes well for 17-year-old Raheem Sterling who could play a more prominent part next season, especially in the Europa League when the manager will need to explore the squad in its entirety if he is to keep everybody fresh.
“If you‘re good enough, no matter what your age, you‘ll play.” - Brendan Rodgers.
This position requires the services a complete forward, such is the variety of duties they will have to undertake. This player must be equally adept at receiving the ball with their back to goal as they are in front of it, and they need to be capable of both providing and finishing with quality and assurance.
Players from every other part of the pitch will look to link up with the man in zone 7, so he must possess good vision and intelligent movement in order to create ample space within which to operate. New signing Fabio Borini has many of the attributes required to lead the line, and is sure to feature there throughout the course of the upcoming season.
Luis Suarez, too, could play a starring role here, while Clint Dempsey is another who has been touted as a possible addition. The aforementioned trio can play anywhere in zones 6 and 7, which would make for a fluid and potent strike force. It remains to be seen whether Andy Carroll fits into these plans, but early signs suggest he may not have a part to play in Rodgers’ Red revolution.
This is the area where everything from zones 1 to 7 is expected to come together, culminating in that most precious of commodities; goals. Statistically (and obviously) this is the optimum area for assists to be converted, so Rodgers will instruct his players to try to work the ball into this zone before attempting to craft an opportunity out. This doesn’t mean that attacking players will focus entirely on getting into this area before playing that final ball, just that they will prioritise it.
Of course, once in this zone there are no guarantees that an opportunity will present itself, and if the door does slam shut then the ball will continue to be worked around until the resultant play leads to an opening. In the case of extreme examples (see Chelsea vs Barcelona in the 2011/12 Champions League) the attacking team could lure the opposition out by playing backwards through each zone, thus creating more space to exploit when mounting the next attack.
One last, crucial factor in understanding tiki-taka is to bear in mind that the above diagrams can only go some way to explaining what is a very fluid and interchangeable system. Not only can players alter their positions, but their zones can move, too.
As the team move up and down the pitch they will do so as a unit, meaning every player is effectively taking their ‘zone’ with them. They will be expected to perform all of the same tasks as they would in their starting positions, but in varying amounts of space depending on how high up the pitch they are.
At times what transpires in play may be completely unrecognisable to what has been described in this article, but based on the trends in his career to date, and with a little speculation, we can deduce that Brendan Rodgers will base his blueprint for Liverpool FC on these tactics.
Ultimately the conclusion to of all this will play out before our eyes on the football pitch, but taking into account what we know now and what we can make educated guesses about, tiki-taka can certainly be an effective system for Liverpool if they can recruit the right personnel.
Football is always evolving and there is no definitive approach, but this one certainly seems to be at the forefront of game right now. Whether it leads to the levels of success this prestigious club has enjoyed in the past remains to be seen, but it will give us the best chance of outplaying those teams who we may be unable to outspend, and in doing so could be the key to achieving our most immediate goal of regaining an invitation to Europe’s premier party.
Let’s talk about it on Twitter: @liam_tomkins
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