Dalglish v Rodgers: A Comparison of Passing Games
Last week Paul Dalglish questioned whether the ‘new style of play’ that Brendan Rodgers is trying to implement at Liverpool is actually new at all. He correctly highlighted that Liverpool have always tried to play a passing game and implied that the evangelical support and praise being afforded to Rodgers’ pursuit of a new ideal was possibly misplaced.
A few days ago a friend made a similar point to me, suggesting that very little had actually changed at Liverpool and our league position provided ‘proof’. Clearly, there are some misconceptions out there about the impact Brendan Rodgers has had at Liverpool.
It’s understandable that fans of other teams make such mistakes as they often speak from a position of ignorance. (Small changes to a team aren’t always visible to those who view the side from afar. How much interest do you take in the subtleties of, for example, West Brom’s team shape and playing style? Or Stoke’s? Or West Ham’s?)
And it would be very surprising if Paul Dalglish could view the club in its current guise from an unbiased perspective. How could he after his Dad was ejected from the club so unceremoniously just a few short months ago? Nevertheless, his comments raised some valid and interesting questions around Liverpool’s ‘new’ direction and specifically, their passing game.
Let’s take a look at this element in more detail.
Following yesterday’s game against Reading, Brendan Rodgers now has eight league games under his belt as Liverpool manager. It’s not a huge amount of games to use as a test sample -and the earliest period in a manager’s reign will rarely reflect the latter- but it remains a significant amount of games (8 matches is 21% of a 38-match campaign).
To give us a yardstick for later comparison, here’s the data for Kenny Dalglish’s first 8 games in charge:
Dalglish’s arrival heralded a welcome return to the ‘passing game’ Liverpool fans were denied during Roy Hodgson’s archaic and moribund tenure. The 77.7% pass completion here was an immediate improvement over Hodgson’s last eight games in charge which saw an average pass completion of 76.8%. (The same as Stoke enjoyed yesterday against Man Utd; the fourth lowest pass completion percentage in the league yesterday.)
When a manager takes over a new team it takes time for him to shape the side, so a better comparison to use alongside Rodgers’ first 8 league games would be Dalglish’s last 8 league games. (By this point Dalglish had made several signings and had plenty of time to communicate his ideas and preferred playing style to the team.)
Here’s the passing data for Dalglish’s last 8 league games as Liverpool manager:
We’ll move onto Brendan Rodgers shortly, but the improvement during Dalglish’s tenure is clear.
6.1% more Liverpool passes found a red shirt in Dalglish’s last 8 games than Hodgson’s. (Based on that period’s game average of 473 attempted passes that’s THIRTY more successful passes a game. In a sport with such fine margins this represents a significant improvement in passing quality.)
So Dalglish significantly improved Liverpool’s passing and possession, but how does Rodgers’ early Liverpool side to compare to Dalglish’s more established one?
Here’s the data for all of Rodgers’ league games as Liverpool manager (this includes yesterday’s data from the Reading game):
Rodgers’ Liverpool side attempt an average of 47 more passes per game than Dalglish’s team did. That’s an increase of 9.5%.
And because Rodgers’ Liverpool also complete more passes than Dalglish’s Liverpool the total effect on passing success is compounded. On average, 60 more passes per game are successful which means Liverpool successfully pass the ball 14.9% more under Rodgers than they did under Dalglish.
Of course, the key issue is where those passes go and whether they actually lead to goals, but what this data tells us is that Rodgers’ preferred style of play (at least with regard specifically to passing) is more successful than Dalglish’s.
Another profound difference to Dalglish’s team is shown in Rodgers’ preferred formation. A typical Dalglish formation looked like this one (v Swansea):
Whereas Rodger’s plays a very different (and previously unfamiliar to LFC fans) 4-3-3 system with a triangular midfield trio and lopsided wing offense.
Yesterday’s team shape against Reading looked like this:
It’s sometimes difficult to compare managers’ styles as so many factors can alter the context of the assessment; changes in personnel due to injuries/transfers and myriad off-field factors can change the picture dramatically.
But to suggest that Rodgers’ isn’t doing anything different at Liverpool to his predecessors is incorrect. Liverpool are passing the ball more, completing more passes, enjoying more possession, there has been significant changes to the first team and Liverpool are playing in a different formation.
Whether or not formational changes, increased passing and increased possession actually matter if they don’t hurt the opposition is a wider issue, and one well worth debate. Clearly Rodgers’ side desperately needs the addition of 1-2 experienced and proven strikers in January who can deliver the game’s only true currency. Goals.