For Tyler Adams, it was an exhibition in letting his opponents know he was there.
First came the collision with Fabinho, a tackle neither player was bottling. The noise from it echoed to the other side of Stanley Park. Then came a set-to with Andy Robertson, right in the face of one of Liverpool’s poster boys. And lastly, there were words with Jordan Henderson, persisting to the point where Henderson gave up with a look that said, “OK, whatever, let’s agree to disagree.”
Winning at Anfield requires backbone like that, the nerve to pick whichever fight is next. Poor form demands it too and Adams’ performance for Leeds United on Saturday night was Mike Grella’s impression of him laid out in one game: loves a tackle, respects nobody too much, likes upsetting the apple cart. There is the story Grella tells of the days when he and Adams were in the same New York Red Bulls squad, of a much older player goading Adams into trading punches and losing the scrap, badly.
The players at Leeds picked up on that self-confidence almost as soon as Adams signed. There was no settling-in period or nervous integration; more a swagger that made him feel like part of the dressing room’s furniture overnight. People who know him and Jesse Marsch talk about them being alike, about their shared traits and attitudes. They are fundamental to the fact that Marsch has worked with Adams at three different clubs. Marsch rates his drive, his aggression and his positive, obstinate personality. He accepts that Adams knows his own mind and is not inclined to keep his mouth shut. He finds something infectious about the midfielder looking at reputations and shrugging his shoulders.
When Adams joined Leeds from RB Leipzig in July, he was asked in his first interview about similarities between him and Marsch. “I’m more competitive,” he said, and deep down he was serious. John Wolyniec, a coach who dealt with both men at New York Red Bulls, said Adams was the type of person who would “even talk about the weather as if he could control it”, a kid who was believed from an early age that he was “going to be everything”. When full-time came at Anfield, Adams seemed impervious to the enormity of Leeds’ 2-1 victory. “Three points,” someone heard him shouting beside the away dressing room. “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
It would be doing Adams down to describe Saturday as a coming-of-age game for him because at 23, he has climbed part of the ladder already. He is the United States men’s national team captain and a veteran of four seasons in the German Bundesliga with Leipzig.
He was a Supporters’ Shield winner with New York Red Bulls in MLS in 2018. But Liverpool away is as well as he has played in the Premier League, the best overview of what Adams is, what he does and why he matters in the team Marsch has built. Combat aside, he is not a footballer who occupies the centre of attention or draws eyes towards him. A little like Mateusz Klich, so much of the best of Adams’ game are the things that go unnoticed or under-appreciated.
Six days before Anfield, Adams was injured and missed a 3-2 defeat at home to Fulham, a damaging loss in an already damaging sequence of results for Leeds. Marsch’s assessment of one of the key differences between that match and the win over Liverpool was that “at 1-1, when it was close with Fulham, we were more waiting to lose than pushing to win”. At Liverpool, as the game developed, Leeds’ body language was better. It might not have been a coincidence that in having Adams on the pitch, they were more inclined or able to gamble. Neither his season nor Leeds’ has been anywhere near flawless but in Marsch’s system, a line-up without Adams, or Adams at his best, is a little like having half a midfield.
No coach in the game would recruit Adams for goals, assists or deadly attacking play. In 11 appearances for Leeds, Adams has posted 0.04 for expected goals (xG), the same as zero in real terms. He has had only two shots on goal and neither of them on target. But he seems unabashed in accepting that he is not that type of player or here to fixate on those aspects of the game, although his shot-creating actions (SCA) data — the metric that measures the two offensive actions before a shot is taken — ranks higher than Marc Roca’s and is steady enough at 1.91 per 90 minutes, building the picture of someone who contributes more than the naked eye sees.
The speed of transition-to-attempts-on-goal that Marsch craves means the graft he gets from Adams — the interventions, the interceptions, the counter-pressing — should lay the ground for a few opportunities.
At Anfield, his touches over 90 minutes (below) came almost exclusively between both boxes, most of them either directly behind the halfway line or out towards the right, concentrating on the side of the pitch he had been allocated alongside Roca. His constant presence and reliable positioning was one reason Liverpool’s midfield were never able to settle and why much of the post-match narrative concerning Liverpool’s shortcomings focused on that area of the pitch.
Adams also presented Jurgen Klopp’s side with a regular obstacle in the half space, the lanes of the field where teams often do most damage but lanes that Adams, over the years, has learned to monitor and patrol.
The deeper areas of midfield at Leeds were once Kalvin Phillips’ domain and over the summer, Adams was part of the discussion about how the club would cope without Phillips after selling him to Manchester City. Phillips was less crucial in Marsch’s system than he had been in Marcelo Bielsa’s and, on the handful of occasions when he played under Marsch last season, did not look wholly comfortable with it. But the fact remained that the 26-year-old was an outstanding defensive midfielder with a good passing range and natural strength. There was a hole to fill, even if Marsch saw Leeds shaping up differently.
Adams and Phillips are comparable in some senses. They are physical, robust players who hold their ground and tend not to compromise the shape of the team by drifting thoughtlessly. Adams, on Saturday, was impressive in making sure that Liverpool’s central three rarely turned possession over with him trapped upfield or unable to track back in time. The threat to Leeds came more from balls over the top or attacks down the flanks. Adams has good, sustainable pace and goes after the ball directly when opponents attack, trying to kill the danger at source rather than track players elsewhere.
Part of Phillips’ skill set was a talent for long, searching passes and Leeds do not get much of that from Adams. The largest percentage of his distribution are short, simple balls, albeit with a respectable amount of ambition. Per 90 minutes, his progressive distances are not a mile adrift of Roca’s, despite the impression of Roca as a player who pulls more strings and is more comfortable in possession. Adams, as shown by his passes at Anfield (below), is still inclined to look forward.
When Adams is on the pitch, he is in the thick of the play, in possession and out of it, getting his foot on the ball as often as the system allows. He is not a playmaker who conducts the orchestra but he has had the most touches per 90 at Leeds this season, as well as the second-most completed passes and the second-most attempted passes. He averages almost eight recoveries of the ball — 12 at Anfield was his best of the season — and is a fairly prolific tackler, with a 50-50 record in them. By locking himself into the middle of the pitch and rarely straying into the final third, the team around him know where he is likely to be.
Liverpool had chances on Saturday but the growing desperation in their play was symptomatic of Leeds denying them any rhythm and worrying their defence with turnovers and interceptions. “In the centre, they were very compact,” said Klopp, which left his side hunting for openings on the wings. Consistently, that is where rival clubs seek chances against Marsch’s Leeds. So many bodies in close quarters centrally, Adams among them, makes wider zones more open and vulnerable.
Adams is a bona fide product of the Red Bull project, in the system for longer than Marsch was in it himself. He has grown up with high-pressing football and is programmed to contribute to the inordinate amount of individual pressures Leeds apply in each game. He disrupts, he frustrates, he counter-presses with bursts of acceleration and he sticks to the basics. In a setup that does not ask its midfielders to dictate entire contests with the ball, it figures that Marsch picked him out as a target in the last transfer window. As it stands, StatsBomb rate Adams as the best Premier League player in his position for counter-pressures, at just over five per 90.
Pressures In The Opposing Half, Premier League 2022/23
*per 90 minutes pic.twitter.com/LlYONFQkxP
— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) November 1, 2022
Counter-pressing was what brought about his full-blooded smash with Fabinho, a sequence in which Rasmus Kristensen unintentionally pinged a pass to Fabinho in the centre circle. Leeds, momentarily, left too much space in front of the Brazilian. Adams’ acceleration helped him to cover the gap and a heavy touch from Fabinho brought out the fire in both of them, inviting a crunching challenge on halfway. “Big tackles weren’t my game,” Grella told The Athletic in July, “but they were no problem for (Adams). I’d look at some he went into and think, ‘Woah!’.”
Beyond his technical attributes, signing him added more captaincy material to the dressing room at Leeds and if Marsch is to find a long-term way out of the trouble he was in last week, the player he knows best will be as vital to him as anyone. Leeds have had problems this season but even if the make-up of their midfield does not lend itself to free-flowing football — and, in fairness, it is not supposed to — they have been compromised far more by lax finishing, defensive weakness out wide and individual mistakes. Adams, individually, has not had a bad start.
Wolyniec, the former New York Red Bulls coach, always found Adams’ spiky streak endearing. “It wasn’t anything bad,” Wolyniec said, “but it wasn’t a secret: Tyler’s not quiet.” Adams’ personality would manifest itself in classic ways, like the sound of him trying to referee training or shouting the odds with players and coaches far more experienced than him.
In that regard, the rough and tumble of Anfield and Adams’ role in it was how he has always been: a player made for blood and thunder who has to lead from the front.
(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
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