Despite their excellent performance against Spurs, Liverpool have yet to fix the issues that vexed their team in January.
While it’s no secret Jurgen Klopp’s high-flying Liverpool have come crashing down to earth as of late, many still fail to understand why. From dismantling teams with heavy metal football to dropping points against Hull City, many have struggled to figure out what’s gone wrong. Some blame the lack of goalscoring ability solely on the absence of Sadio Mané, especially since the African star netted twice against Poch’s pressing pack, but it’s safe to say Tottenham’s approach differed to that of Hull, Plymouth, and Southampton. Of course, there are the usual accusations concerning the players’ lack of dedication, passion, drive, effort and other unquantifiable intangibles, but their energetic display at Tottenham offers concrete evidence to the contrary.
In fact, the thrilling contest against Spurs offers visuals of the ingredient Liverpool have been missing more than any player, abstract motivational feature or idea; space. Tottenham afforded Liverpool acres of green pitch to exploit from a defensive standpoint, attempting to play the usually effective high line with their less usual members of the back four. With plenty of room to run into and manipulate, Liverpool’s attacking options finally had the air to ignite their fiery attacking trio, and although Spurs sought to keep the pitch as large as possible via their offensive spacing, Liverpool’s press was organized, intense, and unwavering in it’s duty to stop Spurs from ever playing out of the back quick enough to exploit the space in behind their midfield. Though their back line featured the central defensive soft spot that is Lucas Leiva, the Brazilian was never tested because of the efficiency in which the forward players defended from the front.
The match highlighted everything Klopp’s team can do extraordinarily well when the onus isn’t on the Reds to create, but should Liverpool’s fantastic performance against Tottenham allow us to forget the weeks of impotence when smaller spaces are available going forward? Despite the roaring beauty that is a Jurgen Klopp side in full flow, it doesn’t diminish the fact that his team has a problem breaking down a packed in defense, and that his solutions to those offensive issues made Liverpool weaker at the back.
What’s Going Wrong.
An excellent example of Liverpool’s impotence in attack against packed in defensive systems is their second leg match against Southampton in the EFL cup. Though Liverpool had the majority of possession, they failed to create a significant amount of shots on target. This was due to Southampton employing a 4-5-1 with a shifting overload, effectively stopping LFC from maintaining any viable possession in central areas; specifically zone 14. Zone 14 is commonly described as the area directly above the 18-yard box, and according to a collection of data, it’s the most dangerous area for a team to hold possession, as a significant amount of goals and assists come from, pass through, or begin in this area. Funneling possession towards the sideline and away from immediately threatening areas is something Southampton did extremely well, and ultimately a strategy that most teams would find difficult to break down.
The graphic above is a layout of Southampton’s defensive shape against Liverpool with various elements of the formation highlighted. The two banks of defense, midfield circled in green and defenders highlighted in blue, operate with efficiency and communication to ensure the spacing is correct, illustrated by the yellow lines. Proper spacing between the two defensive lines is necessary for quite a few reasons. Teams seek to create space and chances against a packed in defense via off-ball movement, especially when playing a false nine. A forward player will often move into a central area and receive the ball, demanding a member of the back four, usually a central defender, to come forward and apply pressure. The space left behind is exploitable. Keeping an adequate amount of space between the two lines of defense not only eliminates the need for a member of the back four to come out and pressure, but it also reduces the chance of passes ever even coming into central areas.
Jurgen Klopp has tweaked his attacking formation slightly in recent weeks to try and account for this defensive set up by piling forward both fullbacks, creating a forward bank of five. Typically, this would stretch the flat back four, forcing either the defensive midfield line to drop back, creating more space centrally, or, the overload would create gaps to be exposed in the back line. Southampton combatted this overload by using their wide midfielders, Tadic and Redmond, as defenders, allowing their back line to stay conjoined and compact, while still blocking Liverpool from passing into the center with their defensive midfield trio of Steven Davis, James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu.
The only way forward, then, for Liverpool, would be combination play on the flanks. At times this does work, and some space is afforded in wide areas due to intelligent overlapping runs or clever link up play, but the reality is that sending a cross into an area where defenders have already marked attackers isn’t going to cause many problems. Add on the fact that statistically crosses have been found to be an inefficient way of creating chances, often leaving the attacking team exposed in counter attacking situations, especially in Liverpool’s case since they’re piling between 5-7 and players forward, and you have what the media calls an apparent defensive crisis and a lack of drive going forward.
So, what exactly should Liverpool do? Many have claimed the Reds should take to the transfer market in search of a player with the ability to play through the lines in a more efficient manner, but one could certainly argue that LFC already have those kinds of players in spades. Phillipe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Daniel Sturridge are all players most would describe as capable operators in a jam, so why spend the money on something you already have? Liverpool must become better at creating spaces between these lines, rather than trying to batter their way through them.
At Dortmund, Klopp had Mats Hummels, an excellent defender that differentiated himself from the pack via his exceptional range of passing, linking up well with players like Jakub Błaszczykowski, Marco Reus, and Robert Lewandowski. Even under the current manager, Tomas Tuchel, Dortmund have the perfect combination of Pierre-Emerick Aubuymeyang and Julian Weigl to stretch the space between defensive blocks via long passes. Attacking players with the ability to run onto a long accurate pass force the back line towards their own goal in fear of being exposed, creating either a larger amount of space between defense and midfield or shifting both lines back, bunching up the defending team, allowing for inefficient defensive spacing. Either way, it causes problems.
However, one doesn’t necessarily require the pace of Aubumeyang or Błaszczykowski to stretch the defensive blocks. What is needed, is an excellent passer from deep. Jordan Henderson has shown glimpses of his ability to break the lines with passes to an on running James Milner for example but has yet to do so with any real consistency.
If we look at the way Pep Guardiola utilized Xabi Alonso when he slipped between the defenders at Bayern Munich and similarly how the Catalan seeks to employ Yaya Touré at Manchester City, the Blues may suffer similar defensive issues when it comes to the consistency and efficiency of their counterpress, but City have rarely experienced prolonged slumps going forward because of their ability to create space.
If Liverpool are to elevate themselves back to the level which earned them their storied reputation across Europe anytime in the near future, they’re going to have be more than just a bogey team for those who seek to hold possession. Becoming a multi-dimensional attacking side, similar to Klopp’s Dortmund of old, may finally allow Anfield the luxury of no longer needing to look to the history books for a reason to smile.