Despite the relative ease of Liverpool’s opening pair of Premier League fixtures, six points is a pleasing return. I thought yesterday’s win away at Aston Villa was mighty interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly what Liverpool didn’t do: counter attack with any great threat once they were one goal to the good. And secondly, what Liverpool did do: shelled pretty heavily.

Now, I once again discussed defensive shells in last week’s 10 Points column, Ted then elaborated on that topic further in fine style. Teams who have a one goal lead tend to sit back, tighten up the defensive shape in an attempt to prevent the opposition from exploiting any space and creating good goal scoring opportunities.

A good defensive shell should also have a threatening counter attack element to it. Yesterday, Liverpool’s shell did not have that.



Tied Plus 1
Shots 4 / 1 1 / 16
SoT 1 / 0 0 / 3
Blocks For 1 / 2 0 / 4


Liverpool took the lead in the 21st minute and thereafter proceeded to shell, and shell hard. Liverpool had just 1 shot for the remainder of the ~75 minutes that remained (injury time included) and this points to the counter attacking threat being non-existent.

Although there was no counter threat, Liverpool’s shell worked pretty well. yes, Villa had 16 shots when Liverpool were employing varying levels of their shell but just three (18.7%) of Villa’s shots were on target.

Let’s now look at Liverpool’s shell, what it restricted Aston Villa to and how self inflicted errors on Liverpool’s part gifted Villa their best shooting opportunity of the game.


The Shell



This screen grab shows us just what Aston Villa had had to break down in the second half. Liverpool were in shell mode and it became visually obvious what kind of tactics Liverpool were employing once Villa gained controlled entry into the final third.

Two banks of four, ten yards apart and twenty or so yards wide. What Liverpool were aiming to do is to prevent Villa from taking shots from central positions close to the goal.


Faced with Liverpool’s deep defensive shell and two banks of four setup Villa could attempt the following methods of attack:


  • Central pass to the attacking midfielder who is dropping off.
  • Pass down the line for the wide player.
  • Shot from distance
  • Chip cross into the box in the hope of a knockdown/secondary ball.

Let’s see how Villa fared in trying to break down Liverpool’s shell.


’44 Shot From Distance


A failed clearance – the first of many – allowed Villa to work the ball to Weimann in a central area. The Villa player struck a fierce shot which looked destined to be on target but was blocked by a Liverpool player.

This screen grab highlights just how difficult it is to get a shot through a crowd and on target. Liverpool were sat very deep with numerous bodies in front of the ball and it paid off with a vital block of a goal bound shot.


’74 Snap Shot From A Secondary Ball



Villa went for option 4, the chip into the box. Three Liverpool defenders won the duel for the initial chip cross, but as Villa had hoped, the secondary ball fell to a white shirt who was able to attempt a shot from a good position.

Villa were only able to attempt a shot, which was off target, due to Benteke’s aerial prowess and the failure of the Liverpool midfield block to get closer to the defensive block once the ball had been chipped in. Kolo Toure, quite rightly, was extremely displeased.

’79 Shot From Distance


This time, Villa chose option 3 – a shot from distance. The play shifted in field from Villa’s right flank and the Villa player has options. Tonev could lay off to the player immediately to his left but the better option would be a 15 yard square ball to Agbonlahor who was not only in space but had his left-back available for support.

Tonev elected to shoot from distance, and given the improbability of the shot resulting in a goal, the Bulgarian wasted possession. Tonev’s poor decision making prevented Villa from potentially carving out a higher quality scoring chance.

’86 Liverpool Chaos, Benteke Volley


The sequence of events that took place just before this screen grab were important. Villa, once again, attempted a straight chip pass which Agger, Enrique and finally Gerrard failed to clear in 3 attempts. That failure to clear led to to flicked headers by Villa players putting Benteke clean through with the keeper for a volley opportunity.

It was arguably Villa’s best chance during Liverpool’s spell of defensive shelling and that chance came through poor defending and a sequence of failed clearances which led to the giveaway.


Final Thoughts

Liverpool’s defensive shell was effective. It gave up a high number of shots, but most of them were from distance or had to find their way through numerous defensive bodies. This is what a defensive shell does, it gives up the ghost in terms of possession-based attacking play and focuses on reducing the quality of opposition chances. The reduction in quality of Villa’s chances may be evident in the low number of their 16 shots that were on target.

Liverpool’s shell worked, although they were a little too deep at times, which may have led to some of the fatigue and errors that gifted Villa some good quality scoring chances.

Oh, and Liverpool, when shelling, need to offer way more counter attacking threat than they did. A better team than Villa would have overwhelmed this error-prone Liverpool shell with their skill and speed of ball movement. A hub player like Suarez will help with the counter attacking threat.

  • Tartaruga Jones

    I think Liverpool got lucky. The Benteke shot was a clear chance which he should have buried and was far easier than the one that Sturridge did score. That’s the trouble with using the result in a particular match to demonstrate the efficacy of the tactic.

    The over all observation that the chasing team gets a boost to their goal rate while the leading team gets a reduction in their’s is obviously a correct one. It is a step on from that to assume this is a deliberate “Defensive Shell” tactic. In some cases it may be, but I think you probably have to demonstrate this as a trait of a particular team over a prolonged period over and above a side that typically doesn’t do this. Even then you have to show why it isn’t simply a case of psychology, i.e. some kind of risk aversion effect whereby we’re more scared of losing what we have than what we haven’t (we have the lead/we don’t have the lead.). To do this I think you’d probably have to look across a variety of sports and see if it’s a repeated phenomenon. If, as I suspect is the case, there is a risk effect at play, it doesn’t invalidate the “Shell defence” theory, but you’d need to strip out the risk effect before making the case for the tactic.

  • Toshack

    Thanks for an interesting analysis Ben,

    In the Stoke game Liverpool couldn’t respond well enough to the changes in tactics made by Hughes, either in energy, counter attacking or changes in personnel and went into a kind of shell mode. They struggled a bit (even though the penalty was not a consequence of the shelling), but managed to hold out.

    I’ve only seen the highlights of the Villa game, but heard that one factor Liverpool started to defend was that Villa was simply playing well. Rodgers has so far a track record of dubious in-game-changes to counter changes made by the opposition and maybe that was true in the villa game as well, even though bringing in Allen was more useful than bringing in Sterling in the Stoke game.
    As you note, no matter the reason Liverpool goes into shell mode, their interaction between the two banks still needs fine tuning (secondary balls needs winning) and aerospace strength is a problem from set prices.

    I haven’t thought about the counter attack ability, I’m just a bit surprised that with the speed in legs and head of Sturridge, Coutinho and Aspas and the ability by Gerrard to make both medium and long passes accurately this is a problem. Perhaps they focus too much on shelling and sink too deep and then cannot get forward fast enough?


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