Fulham 2-5 Liverpool – Match Report

Maxi Rodriguez scored his seventh in three games as Liverpool ripped apart Fulham

Starting lineups and formations. Click to enlarge.

A meeting of two in-form teams ended with a spectacularly one-sided result as a Luis Suarez-inspired Liverpool destroyed Fulham at Craven Cottage. The home side lined up in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 cross with Eidur Gudjohnsen playing off Moussa Dembele up front, and Danny Murphy and Steven Sidwell sitting in midfield. Liverpool continued in what has become their regular formation under Dalglish: a 4-4-1-1ish formation. Legendary defender Jamie Carragher made his 666th appearance for the club behind a screening midfield duo of Jay Spearing and Lucas Leiva. Raul Meireles continued in a tucked-in right midfield role, with Maxi Rodriguez offering more thrust and penetration from the left flank in support of Luis Suarez and Dirk Kuyt. Last year, Fulham won this fixture 3-1 against a nine-man Liverpool. This time round, the match seemed to promise goals, with seven nominal forwards on the pitch and Kuyt, Rodriguez and Dempsey all in fine goalscoring form.

Liverpool take control from kickoff

The game had just begun when Luis Suarez collected the ball on the left wing and drove towards goal. His delayed cross was deflected and rolled across the box before Mark Schwarzer oddly cleared it all of five feet. It landed at Maxi’s feet, and the experienced Argentinian controlled and drove it coolly past Schwarzer. The match was thirty seconds old and already Liverpool were ahead, pressing ferociously and attacking in numbers, looking truly dangerous with swift one-touch play. Fulham were shell-shocked, and within 7 minutes they fell two behind. Glen Johnson got behind Carlos Salcido and crossed to the back post, with Maxi claiming his second of the game from an acute angle. Fulham just couldn’t cope with Liverpool’s slick interchanges, and in particular Luis Suarez’s lateral drifts across the pitch. As the match entered its 15th minute, the ball fell to Dirk Kuyt on the left of the Fulham box. A speculative effort seemed to be covered by the veteran Australian keeper, but it slipped agonisingly through his fingers and trickled in, leaving Fulham three-nil down and utterly reeling.

Although the possession was roughly equal in the first 20 minutes (Liverpool with 57%), the Merseyside team were vastly superior. Luis Suarez, in particular was at the heart of everything good about Liverpool’s attack, dictating play from deep and wide positions. The Fulham defence had a conundrum: either they pressed high and allowed Suarez space in behind as a direct goal threat, or dropped deep and allowed him to create. In the end they chose the latter option, and Suarez’s eye for a pass and his silky dribbling skills attracted individual defenders towards him and left huge holes in the Fulham defence. More often than not, he would attract a full-back, beat him, and recycle the ball unselfishly as the Fulham defenders scrambled back into position. Brede Hangeland, in particular, constantly found himself beaten both on the ground and, unbelievably considering the height difference and how dominant he normally is, in the air by the Uruguayan.

Fulham stem the tide…

Fulham eventually settled into the game, with Clint Dempsey’s improvised shot being cleared off the line by Glen Johnson. Liverpool sat back and played on the break. Suarez continued to work the channels, especially the Fulham right-back position. Normally, Suarez has been played just off the striker, in order to use his creativity to thread balls to his strike partner. Today, however, he was the furthest forward player, with Dirk Kuyt playing behind him. This may well have been a tactical ploy by Dalglish, as when out of possession Kuyt picked up Fulham’s deep-lying regista, Danny Murphy. With no time on the ball, Murphy was hurried into distributing, occasionally waywardly. With Steve Sidwell a midfield ‘terrier’ rather than an expansive passer, Fulham had no way of relieving pressure past long balls to the diminutive Dembele, who invariably lost out to the towering figures of Carragher and Skrtel.

Not all of the blame for Fulham’s display can be placed on Dalglish’s clever tactics though, as their defending both individually and as a unit was truly abysmal. Kuyt and Suarez in particular had the beating of both Hughes and Hangeland, and the full-backs were sometimes caught behind the centre-backs. Baird in particular had a horrendous game, offering little attacking threat and often the victim of Suarez’s pace and trickery. The first half ended with Liverpool 3-0 up.

…but continue to struggle.

Bobby Zamora was brought on for Simon Davies at half-time, with Dembele moving to the right wing as Fulham retained their shape. Liverpool made no changes until early in the half, when Raul Merieles was forced off with an injury. Jonjo Shelvey replaced him, playing the same narrow right-sided role. Fulham’s renaissance continued, however, especially as Danny Murphy had moved higher up the pitch and out of the reach of Dirk Kuyt. Additionally, Zamora’s introduction made direct balls to the striker more of a viable option (though he didn’t contest a single aerial ball, the threat was there), and he made himself a nuisance to good effect. Eventually, Fulham removed Eidur Gudjohnsen to bring on a pacey goal threat in the form of Andy Johnson, changing to a classical 4-4-2.

Zamora’s introduction had made a marked difference, grabbing himself an assist as Moussa Dembele brought the score back to a more respectable 3-1. Unfortunately for the Londoners, another out-of-the-blue goal for Liverpool restored their three goal advantage – Maxi Rodriguez completed his hat-trick with a powerful strike that ripped past Schwarzer for his seventh goal in three games. Minutes later, the awful Fulham defence was pulled apart by a great decoy run from Kuyt, allowing Shelvey to slide an excellent pass through to Suarez, who took the ball around the stranded Schwarzer before finishing with aplomb. The game was no longer about tactics: Steve Sidwell scored a beauty of a half-volley out of nowhere to retain some modicum of dignity for the scoreline, but Liverpool remained firmly in control of the match. A handball penalty appeal against Aaron Hughes was turned down in the dying minutes, and an unequal but extremely exciting match ended 2-5 to Liverpool.

Analysis Point: Liverpool outclass Fulham

Suarez's pace and trickery was just too much for the Fulham defenders, and he drew seven fouls over the course of the match.

Tactically, this match was interesting for a whole range of reasons. Dirk Kuyt’s right-of-centre positioning, for example, allowed him to combine well with Merieles and dragged Sidwell away from the Fulham right and centre of the pitch, leaving acres of room for Maxi and Suarez to wander into and get into one-on-ones with the defenders. Kuyt’s work rate also stifled the man Fulham relied on as their ‘link’ between defence and attack, former Liverpool captain Danny Murphy, and left them without a creative passer, with the result that Gudjohnsen often dropped too deep to collect the ball and left Dembele isolated. The lopsided formations of both sides also gave Liverpool key advantages in certain areas, discussed later.

However, some of the reason why Liverpool won was simply because they were better than Fulham both individually and as a team. Technically, the gulf in class was particularly evident, with the wonderful build-up play of Liverpool based around sharp one-touch passing and constant fluid movement. Fulham looked laboured and only occasionally sparked into life in comparison, with the lively Dempsey and the fleet-footed Dembele attempting to find space and time. Both of those were in short supply, however, as Liverpool’s pressing was impressive. Starting from the front, the athletic duo of Kuyt and Suarez constantly harried defenders and midfielders alike, and the disciplined midfield four of Lucas, Spearing, Meireles and Rodriguez are all defensively sound and possess good energy levels. Unlike some high tempo pressing teams, Liverpool were able to keep this up throughout most of the match, a fine indictment on their physical prowess.

One man stood out in particular though, and although I mentioned him earlier Luis Suarez was astounding. Even with Maxi’s excellent hat-trick, Suarez was the best player on the pitch by far. He had the measure of every person who attempted to stop him, with Hangeland and in particular Baird often on the receiving end of his confounding movement, pace and trickery. He completed a brilliant 7 dribbles, more than twice the amount of Fulham’s entire team by himself. At times, he was simply unplayable, and Fulham could only stop him by double or even triple-marking. This has unfortunate knock-on effects, of course, as holes developed all across the defensive line, which Maxi took advantage of well – see his third goal, Liverpool’s fourth, in which the movement of Suarez wide and left has dragged Baird and three members of Fulham’s midfield bank of four across the pitch, allowing Maxi the time and space to unleash his piledriver.

Analysis Point: Lopsided formations

They way both sides set out were interesting variations on their base formation. Liverpool played a skewed 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 cross, with the former being more accurate a way of describing it. With the back four fairly standard, the midfield two resembled the ‘holders’ of a 4-2-3-1 in style and ability. However, they played higher up the pitch, more or less level with Meireles, who was tucked-in on the right. On the other flank, Maxi was given free rein to go forward and roam across the pitch in support of Suarez and Kuyt.

Combined chalkboards showing Lucas (top) and Spearing's tackles (left) and passes.Both of the midfield two had separate roles. Spearing, though sitting deeper, played more passes - 50 successful as opposed to Lucas' 38 - whereas Lucas was more dynamic and looked to win the ball high up on the pitch, with 12 successful tackles to Spearing's 6. Both had excellent games, however, and complemented each other well.

Fulham’s midfield was also lopsided, though it was more of a 4-4-1-1 than Liverpool’s. Simon Davies acted as a traditional up-and-down winger on the right and Dempsey was given more of a license to roam – 48% of his passes attempted were from positions other than his left-wing berth. In theory, this would make sense, as Carlos Salcido is more of a dynamic player than his counterpart on the right, Chris Baird, and attempts to get forward when he can, overlapping Dempsey and stretching the player. Kenny Dalglish had other ideas, however.

A diagram of Maxi's passes with a heatmap overlay.

Dalglish’s plan was masterful, allowing Liverpool to both counter and attack the opposing formation perfectly. Firstly, Dalglish recognised the Fulham reliance on their link players of Danny Murphy and, to a lesser extent,  Clint Dempsey in order to get the ball to the front players. Steve Sidwell has neither the inclination nor the ability to dictate play from deep, and Simon Davies is an old-fashioned winger; good pace, good crossing ability and a decent dribbler, he is an honest and hard-working player, but he does not contribute much creatively. As a result, Dalglish’s plan was to restrict Murphy and Dempsey, the former by the phenomenal work rate of Dirk Kuyt assisted by the tenacity of Spearing, and the latter by Raul Merieles’ excellent positional sense and defensive discipline. With Murphy shackled by Kuyt, Merieles tracked Dempsey until it was time to hand him on to the next player, at which point he returned to track Salcido. Without Salcido’s penetration from left-back, the Liverpool defence was able to narrow and congest the centre of midfield when Fulham had the ball, effectively snuffing out their attacks. With the only other players capable of creating for themselves and others, Dembele and Gudjohnsen, starved of service, Liverpool defended excellently.

Dalglish’s lineup also shows the immense trust he has in his players to perform: Kuyt was playing a pivotal role, and even more important was the use of John Flanagan at left-back. Dalglish knew that Dempsey was a greater threat than Davies, and so moved the young Flanagan into a left-back position, trusting that he could adapt well and handle the pacey Welshman. This freed up the more experienced Glen Johnson to move back to his right-back position and marshal Dempsey as well as provide attacking thrust from right-back, safe in the knowledge that Merieles was there to cover for his runs.

Another stroke of genius was Maxi’s positioning. Safe in the knowledge that Baird was unlikely to get forward too much, Maxi was allowed to wander across the pitch in support of his strike partners. Though he is defensively disciplined, Rodriguez is (as we have seen) an excellent goalscorer and offensive player in his own right, and Dalglish’s reliance on Baird’s defensive nature (aided by Suarez’s destruction of the Northern Irishman) coupled with his trust in Flanagan to keep Davies quiet with a minimum of help freed Maxi up to play his natural game. With both sets of central midfielders playing relatively deep and static, the wide areas were always going to be a key area of the game. With their attacking full-backs and inventive lopsided wingers, Liverpool took control and kept it throughout the game.

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