Monday, 30 October 2017

Liverpool 3-0 Huddersfield: Post-Match Thoughts

“There’s still time for this one to break down, we’re not there yet”. As we reached Marylebone, where we finally found a train heading back to where we needed to go following a missed connection, a journey into London, a closed tube line and a hastily-located bus, optimism was thin on the ground. Hours earlier, similar creeping doubts pervaded those around us in the Upper Main Stand as Liverpool sat on a slender 1-0 lead, having already missed a penalty. But, much like the last train to Oxford, the team came good: questions had been asked, but in the end the answer was emphatic.

A late change in the line-up saw Dejan Lovren replaced by Ragnar Klavan. This gave cause for some concern in the opening fifteen minutes – the Estonian was repeatedly targeted, and lost multiple duels to Depoitre. It was only the lack of ambition from Huddersfield that prevented this from developing into a more serious problem; there were rarely any runners looking to meet these flick-ons, and Liverpool were allowed to clear up without too much difficulty. The assuredness with which these situations were dealt with is also attributable in part to the interesting role played by Joe Gomez. He was ostensibly at right-back, but regularly drifted inside to essentially function as a third centre-back: Matip could consequently play closer to Klavan, and sweep up some of his missed clearances. This system worked well, and Gomez excelled in it; his confidence and poise was one of the few positives in a generally lacklustre first half, and in truth a convincing case could be made for naming him Man of the Match. Going forward, it was only Salah that looked even vaguely likely to make something happen; in a harsh irony, it was he who missed the penalty late in the half that would have made Liverpool much more comfortable going into the break. Daniel Sturridge failed to make any kind of mark on the half – he spent most of the time as neither one thing nor the other, failing to make darting runs in behind but not coming short to receive passes much either.

Thankfully, there was a big reaction after the break. All too often this season this kind of response has been lacking, but Liverpool got straight to the task at hand in the second period and grabbed a crucial early goal. Sure enough, it was the up-to-now anonymous Sturridge; he showed exactly why he still has a role to play, slotting home with unerring coolness after the ball broke to him fortuitously. Huddersfield’s stubborn resolve was broken, and Klopp’s men did well to keep applying the pressure. There had been no goal threat to speak of at all from the away side, but everyone was aware that one moment of madness in that back line could mean more points dropped – it was imperative to stay on the front foot. Henderson must take some credit for ensuring this happened: he pressed relentlessly to ensure Huddersfield never had the time to work anything. It was also the captain that produced a glorious ball into Firmino, who really should have picked out Sturridge in the middle with his pull-back. Far from dwelling on his error, though, he immediately netted the vital second goal from the resultant corner. He connected sweetly with the ball, using his head to guide it beyond Lossl. Joel Matip could do with taking tips off him: the centre-back was guilty of missing two guilt-edged headed opportunities.

At 2-0, arguably the most pleasing passage of the game ensued. The tempo was taken down a notch, and Liverpool asserted near-complete control: this has been rare indeed in recent times. That is not to say that attacking intent was extinguished completely, but the midfield began waiting for gaps as opposed to trying to force them. Unbelievably, Jordan Henderson has been taking criticism for this – he played a few balls sideways and backwards when a forward pass would have been a needless risk, and this apparently opens him up for abuse. There are often legitimate criticisms to be made of the captain, but he was an important part of the win on this occasion. It was one of his midfield partners, however, that added the clinching third goal: Wijnaldum’s first of this campaign bore a striking resemblance to his last of the previous season, as he curled it in powerfully at the near post despite seemingly lacking the angle to do so. It was nowhere near as crucial as his goal against Middlesbrough, but it could be important on a personal note – he has had a shaky start, and a goal could do him the world of good.

Solanke and Oxlade-Chamberlain were brought on in the latter stages of the game, and both impressed. They linked up nicely, and not just in the obvious ‘run down the byline, cross for the target man’ way; there was some of that, but there was also a nice interchange on the edge of the box that should really have resulted in Solanke adding a fourth. The other substitute, Can, was also very solid – it was great to have such accomplished options off the bench. He kept up the intensity with some good pressing, and added a further controlling presence in the middle of the park. This contributed to a very pleasing clean sheet, and a satisfying afternoon all round.

Liverpool now have a great opportunity to notch up back-to-back wins in response to the shambles at Spurs; Maribor in midweek offers an excellent chance to get some momentum going with another victory. Another performance such as this one will surely see Klopp’s men take a big stride towards qualification from the Champions League group stage – let’s hope the players got home quicker than I did and were able to get some rest!

- Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 16 October 2017

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United: Tactical Analysis

A familiar fault reared its head as Liverpool once again failed to capitalise on their opportunities and consequently squandered the chance to win. Nonetheless, there was plenty to be pleased with in the performance: Mourinho’s typically deep line was unable to prevent the creation of a couple of big opportunities, and United’s erstwhile prolific attack never really looked like troubling the hosts’ back line. These plus points are both endemic of a change of tactical approach that has the potential to make Liverpool unstoppable.

The new tactic is in many ways a subtle change, but it could serve to dramatically improve results. Out of possession, things are much the same: Klopp has his players pressing high, looking to hustle the opposition into a mistake. This was very effective against United, who were forced to simply put the ball out of play on multiple occasions. The change has come in the approach when Liverpool do have the ball. Previously, attacks have been as frenetic as the turnovers in possession through which they were instigated; in other words, the plan was to nick the ball and then descend upon the goal as quickly and directly as possible. This worked to destructive effect against teams who left gaps to be exploited at the point of turnover, but opponents were increasingly opting to sit very deep against Liverpool so as to negate this risk. In response to this, Klopp has got his team playing much more patiently in the build-up phase. The only way to consistently break low blocks is intricate passing sequences – recently, these have become a much more regular feature. The idea is that teams can no longer feel safe sitting back: if they do so, the likes of Coutinho and Firmino will find a way through with their playmaking talents. This is good in and of itself, but what gives it the potential to be so effective is the fact that the attack still possesses the capability to launch explosive counter-attacks. Teams will be in trouble when they step up and in trouble when they sit deep – once the players are fully adjusted to the new method, there will be no simple way of stopping them.

In some ways, it is strange that this tweak to the system hasn’t come sooner: patient passing when in possession and aggressive pressing off-the-ball are a natural mix. When the opponent is only rarely afforded the ball, their natural tendency is to take more risks when they get it – they wish to capitalise on the fact they are actually in possession by turning that possession into a scoring chance. This risk-taking leaves them more vulnerable to the press: this allows a gap to be exploited at the turnover if it exists, and if it does not then the side playing the possession-based game nonetheless have the ball back. Thus the system serves as a potential way of creating chances, but also as a way of limiting chances for the opponent: given Liverpool’s defensive woes of late, any help they can derive from their tactical setup is welcome. To put it simply, the opposition cannot score if they don’t have the ball – the principle is basic, but the ramifications are significant. All the while Liverpool are moving the ball around, looking for an opening, they are simultaneously relieving the defence of all pressure; they may be called upon as ball-players, but this is one aspect of the game in which Matip and Lovren are fairly accomplished. As such, the new system being employed is working towards improving things at both ends of the pitch.

Why, then, did Liverpool still fail to pick up a win against United? There are two principle reasons. The first is that the adaptation to the new style is a work in progress: the team cannot be expected to transform into Guardiola’s Barcelona overnight, and the incision and fluidity of the passing therefore still left something to be desired at times. After a full season of being stumped by the deep line, it would be unrealistic to demand that the players immediately work out how to consistently unlock it. The second reason is that, even when the chances were cleverly carved out, they were not taken. Emre Can and Joel Matip missed the biggest opportunities of the match, with Mo Salah also failing to turn home from close range. This has been a big problem of late, and can also in part be attributed to Klopp’s tweak of the system. Under the old methods, nearly all of the chances created were 2v1s (or similar) by virtue of the way in which they came about: everyone charged forwards off the back of the press, overwhelming defences and creating easy scoring situations where the ball could just be passed home. Now, whilst some of the chances being made are still clear-cut, the goalkeeper cannot be taken out of the equation completely: faced with beating him, the players are struggling. Admittedly David De Gea is something of an exceptional case – he is one of the best keepers in the world, and his stop to deny Matip was extraordinary. Nonetheless, the problem applies more generally: Liverpool have to get better at burying their chances if they wish to reap the full rewards that the change in style has to offer.

All in all, though, the draw was more encouraging than it was frustrating. There are clear signs that Klopp’s amended tactical vision is starting to be understood and implemented, and when this comes to full fruition it will be fantastic.

-   - Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013