By Mihail Vladimirov.
- The game’s pattern was mainly Liverpool committing bodies forward and Villa sitting deep defending
- Villa tried to do the same as West Ham and Norwich, but did not do it as well
- Conceding early and defending poorly made it impossible for Sherwood to do what the other two teams did
- Unlike the Norwich game, Liverpool went for a left-side overload, with a shift in Can’s and Sakho’s roles
- This exposed Westwood’s defensive shortcomings
- Liverpool kept pushing forward even after they went 1-0 up so early
- Villa carried minimal counter-attacking threat
- Liverpool’s 3-1-4-2 formation gave all the midfielders clearer roles and areas of responsibility
- Lucas’ central position was key in how Liverpool passed the ball around
- Coutinho had a deeper position than against Norwich
- Liverpool’s superb counter-pressing was a main tactical feature of their display
- Once again though, Liverpool were often short of attacking numbers
- The start of the second half followed the pattern of the first half
Both teams lined-up largely as expected. For Liverpool the main question was whether Rodgers would prefer the 3-4-2-1 or continue with the 3-4-1-2/3-1-4-2 hybrid used in the Norwich game. As it was, Ings partnered Sturridge in the latter shape.
Sherwood was boosted by the news that his influential box-to-box midfield Gana was fit to start, which logically saw Villa go back to the 4-1-2-3 shape used before he got injured and an introduction of the 4-2-3-1 followed.
As the game mostly followed the pattern of Liverpool committing bodies forward and attacking while Villa were sitting deep and defending (it was only at 2-0 and in the final 15 minutes when the visitors opened up a bit more), there is no point going through the game in chronological order. Instead, here are the main tactical points of interest based on how both teams performed:
Villa doing a poor imitation of the West Ham/Norwich approach
On paper the Sanchez-Westwood-Gana midfield is Sherwood’s best and most balanced unit as there is that nice blend – respectively – of a natural ball-winner that sits in front of the back four and patrols the space between the lines, a passer who is good at spraying good direct balls to initiate quick attacks and a powerful and energetic runner who contributes during the build-up play and at both ends of the pitch.
There were signs that Sherwood was keen to replicate the way West Ham and Norwich came to Anfield and won results against Liverpool, being solid defensively and dangerous on the break. Both teams used similar 4-1-4-1 formations with, more or less, the same type of players Villa started with here. However, conceding a goal so early and Villa’s poor defending made it impossible for Sherwood to replicate Bilic’s and Neil’s approach in practice.
To start with, it was peculiar to see Gana and Westwood swapping places. Typically, Westwood plays to the left of Sanchez with Gana to his right, but here it was the opposite. Perhaps Sherwood – anticipating Liverpool would continue with their recent back 3 system that puts the emphasis on right-sided overloads (as in the Norwich game) – wanted his more mobile and energetic player (Gana) on the side Milner would be playing and match the Liverpool’s vice-captain. Meanwhile Westwood was playing on the right where – at least in theory – he could receive the ball in more space in the area Liverpool wouldn’t be congesting, and initiate the team’s counter-attacks from there.
All of this made sense if one was to assume Liverpool would play how they did against Norwich (which was also quite logical). But Rodgers set up his team in completely the opposite manner to the Norwich game, in that his team now focused on overloading down the left-hand side (more on this later), immediately making Villa’s midfield structure redundant.
Liverpool going down Villa’s right side made Westwood’s zone the targeted one. This was a problem as for all his qualities on the ball, the Villa midfielder is short of the required defensive nous and capabilities. Throughout the game he was constantly too easily dragged towards the ball, leaving acres of space in behind. Other times he was too easily bypassed as he seemed completely unaware of where and how the threat was coming from. This forced Sanchez to continually move across and mop up in behind him, meaning the vital space ahead of the centre-backs was left totally free. Liverpool’s first goal and a few subsequent chances came precisely because of this. Meanwhile, with Milner regularly drifting from right to left he was rarely in Gana’s zone of responsibility. The former Lille man was often caught in no man’s land in that he had no-one to cover down his left-of-centre position, while his midfield teammates were continually dragged to the right and easily overloaded.
All this meant Villa couldn’t defend as efficiently as West Ham and Norwich did. The fact Liverpool didn’t set up as in the last game (arguably based on which Sherwood drilled and tweaked his team) meant the whole approach of the visitors was largely redundant and easily exploited. In addition, the early goal had the potential to completely throw Sherwood’s initial plans out of the window.
The early goal completely changed the game’s context, as it meant Villa couldn’t continue to just sit deep and defend being already a goal down but would have to change their strategy and push forward more chasing an equaliser. At least that’s what you would have expected. This, as briefly happened in the Norwich game (i.e. between Ings’ goal and Martin’s equaliser) would’ve completely favoured Liverpool, who had the suitable shape and numerical presence through the middle to easily recycle possession as a defensive strategy in addition to having the defensive bodies (three centre-backs, wing-backs able to drop in and form a back five in addition to Lucas’s natural defensive nous and the discipline of Milner just in front) to be sure of relatively easily withstanding any incoming pressure. On top, with the presence of two mobile and roaming forwards, the team would’ve been able to pose a big threat on the break and exploit any gaps and free space vacated by the opposition as they pushed forward.
However, Liverpool didn’t look particularly keen to relinquish overall control of the game. Instead they kept pushing forward and continued to enjoy considerable possession supremacy even if they were a goal up. Meanwhile Villa simply continued with their initial approach of trying to defend and waiting patiently for chances on the break. The two Gestede chances which quickly followed in the 7th and 13th minutes showed this was very much a possibility.
Still, bar those two chances the visitors managed little going forward while their defending was largely poor, mainly due to the unsuitability of their midfield three’s positioning. There was little pressure applied on the ball – Villa waited until Liverpool reached the edge of their penalty area to start engaging or getting tighter to their opponent. Another factor counting against their defensive solidity was their lack of organisation of how to use their defensive numbers to block off Liverpool’s advances. Westwood was easily bypassed, meaning even with Sanchez moving across, Hutton and Richards were too easily dragged out of position and overrun.
It was also strange to see Sherwood not adjusting his side seeing Liverpool were playing in a different way that was getting too much joy down Villa’s right. A simple solution would’ve been to swap back Gana and Westwood in order to have the tenacity and energy of the former helping Sanchez fight the fire over there and leaving Hutton to concentrate solely on Moreno when he advanced.
On top of the defensive struggles, Villa – bar these two Gestede chances (one of which came largely courtesy of Can’s poor clearance, even if the whole break was nicely developed by the visitors) – offered little going forward and carried minimal counter-attacking threat, which was always going to allow Liverpool to simply come at the visitors with wave after wave of dangerous attacking moves. This, in particular, was strange to explain as on paper the visitors had a superb outlet up top in Gestede in addition to two good ball carriers in Grealish and Sinclair down the flanks.
Then with the presence of two full-backs able to quickly surge down the flanks and a powerful midfield runner, Villa looked well equipped to follow the script of how West Ham and Norwich threatened Liverpool on the break. The problem though was that Villa were defending so deep and without any clear organisation that as soon as they regained possession they were simply unable to quickly play out. Only when they tried to hit long passes from deep for the wingers to chase did the visitors managed to get the ball out of their half.
All in all nothing seemed to work for Villa. They defended poorly and couldn’t counter-attack dangerously, with Sherwood’s decision to swap his midfielders not proving a good one in that Gana didn’t contribute defensively and Westwood, who was easily overrun and couldn’t cope due to the amount of defensive work he had to do, didn’t have the time and space to spray the ball around and initiate potential counter-attacks.
Liverpool change their zone of overload
The only tactical positive from the Norwich game was the way Liverpool combined to produce a positional overload down the right channel. In simple terms this was created by having Can stepping forward to act as the de-facto deep-lying passer, allowing Clyne to push up down the flank with Milner and Sturridge taking it in turns who to drift wide and who to surge in and around the penalty box.
It was easy to imagine Rodgers keeping that particular aspect of his team’s display and working on providing something else on top of it as an attacking threat. But as soon as the game started it was clear the manager set up his team in a completely different way – changing the area of intended positional overload from right to left.
Against Norwich, Can was playing as the de-facto libero – a centre-back who had total freedom to move into midfield and combine with the players ahead of him to initiate the right-sided overload. Here it was obvious how, although he still pushed forward, his primary concern on the ball was to change the direction of the passing flow from right to left by mostly passing inwards instead of seeking to quicken the tempo by passing it forwards. In contrast, Sakho – who against Norwich was the more reserved in terms of how and where he passed the ball – assumed the role of the de-facto libero. The French defender doubled the forward-thinking passes he made to his left-sided teammates Moreno and Coutinho with Lucas, drifting to the left, also receiving plenty of passes from him.
Also, in contrast to the Norwich game where Liverpool played in what was a hybrid of a 1-2 and 2-1 midfield triangle due to the staggered positioning of the midfield three, here the team’s formation was a clearer 3-1-4-2. As a result all the midfielders had clearer roles and areas of responsibility too.
Typically, in the 3-1-4-2 formation the ‘1’ is either a proper holding midfielder whose primary focus is to win the ball back and screen the defence or the team’s main creative hub whose role is to dictate the passing flow and channel the team’s attacks from his deep-lying position. Here, Lucas was neither limited to only ball-winning and screening activities, nor was as creative and incisive on the ball as a true regista. He had a pivotal role in both phases of the play without having a unique or special input in either – meaning he was more of a recycling retriever than either a limited ball-winner or playmaker not participating defensively.
Lucas’ central position was key in how Liverpool passed the ball around. Being right in the middle of the shape made him the conductor who received the ball from all areas but had the duty to continually channel the play down the intended zone of overload down the left. In addition he ensured the central zone was well patrolled defensively.
Lucas’ crucial input in and out of possession mainly benefited his midfield partners. Coutinho was much more involved compared to the Norwich game given how often the general build-up play and attacking focus was done through his zone. Also, it’s important to note that instead of being the de-facto #10 as he was asked to be in the previous game, here he played deeper. As a result he had easier access to the ball and much more space and players roaming around ahead of him.
Milner was the only player who had an almost identical role to the last league game. He was still starting on the right, helping during the initial build-up play and often combining well with Clyne before timing his diagonal runs to appear down the left-hand side. Here though he did all of this with even greater attacking emphasis and freedom to become the de-facto advanced attacking midfielder. With the team channelling the play down the right he was less burdened to bring the ball out and feed others. It also helped that with Can stepping forward and Coutinho now deeper, Liverpool created a proverbial 1-2 midfield triangle with Lucas central and the other two to his right and left respectively. This freed Milner even more to concentrate on exploiting any gaps between the lines and surge from right to left off the ball. His goal in particular happened in exactly that manner, showing the potential benefit of all the tweaks applied by Rodgers for this game.
It was as if Liverpool used their left-sided players to build-up the play and be the providers with all of the right-sided players being off-ball runners and main consumers. It helped that both Sturridge and Ings were both often roaming down the left, helping to further congest and overload that particular zone. Instead of drifting to the right before darting infield, Sturridge was most of the time featuring down the left flank with Ings being the pivot central player around whom others roamed and interchanged positions.
The opening goal was a perfect example of how Liverpool’s overall passing flow was directed from right to left in order to have the inside-left channel as the designated area of overload. But there were several other good attacking moves developed in a similar vein, even if they didn’t end up creating the same level of openings.
Liverpool’s best playmaker?
Despite their good lopsidedness and left-hand side overload, Liverpool had one major problem coming from how they were shaped up structurally on the pitch. This issue is nothing new as was too often seen in Rodgers’ tenure up to now and especially in the past 14 months or so. The lack of extra attacking numbers and players making incisive vertical or angled off ball runs from deep and/or wide once again limited the team’s attacking efficiency.
As in the Norwich game, Liverpool had seven players dedicated to contributing in attack, although in a different way, but only five were in positions to attempt the required attacking runs and push forward from deep and/or wide. With Coutinho, Lucas and the centre-backs often staying behind the ball and looking to provide passes for others, Liverpool had only the two wing-backs, the two forwards and Milner attempting the required level or type of movement off the ball in the final third on a regular basis. Even accounting for how badly Villa were defending as a whole, this meant Liverpool were simply short of enough numbers to convert the impressive build-up play and positional overload on the left into dangerous passing combinations and movement interchanges in the final third.
That lack of attacking bodies put extra importance on each player to individually work out some magic and get past one or two opponents to create some space for himself or a teammate. This wasn’t done often enough, nor should it be expected to be the team’s main attacking pattern given how much they dominated in the game. The team also often struggled to quicken the tempo and use sharper passes, quick give’s and go’s and sudden switches of play to try and catch the opponent by surprise. This further reduced Liverpool’s attacking threat.
Granted, overcommitting players in attack and slower build-up play could have been a deliberate adjustment, with Liverpool being one up so early in the game. The Reds didn’t need to be gung-ho in their approach. Splitting the team in two groups of five, able to get hold of the ball as a way of controlling the game and being ready to exploit any space on the counter, was enough to maintain the status quo without over-risking in attack. But although this could have been a smart in-game adjustment, based on recent performances and how often Liverpool were set up in a way leaving them short of attacking numbers – it could be perceived as yet another example of how the team may have encountered problems without the benefit of the early goal when the onus was on carving the opposition open on a regular basis.
Anyway, Liverpool benefited from having a ‘playmaker’ that largely compensated for all their attacking shortcomings. As Klopp once famously said, counter-pressing is the best playmaker in the world, and this is exactly what happened here.
Liverpool’s superb counter-pressing
Apart from the left-sided overload, the other main tactical feature of Liverpool’s display in this game was their superb counter-pressing. With Villa being so deep and passive out of possession, Liverpool’s team was so high up the pitch that even all of their centre-backs were often 10 or 15 metres inside the visitors’ half. Then with the Reds having a shape that inherently promotes central congestion with the wide men being also so high up the pitch, they were in the perfect position, zonally, to attempt a quick press as soon as they lost possession. Having the right type of players who are all hard-working and able to quickly close down obviously also helped. This helped occupy all of Villa’s passing angles which in turn meant it was easy for Liverpool to quickly squeeze the distance between their players and where the ball was lost.
This made it very hard for the visitors to play the ball out unless they completely bypassed their own half and launched aimless balls down the channels. The other benefit was that following that quick and – more importantly – efficient counter-pressing, Liverpool either regained possession and broke forward quickly or forced the opposition into hurried and panicked passes which gave the ball away cheaply, which also led to the Reds creating dangerous attacks.
In the first half this was less visible as the impact of Liverpool bossing possession, with Villa showing no intent to compete in terms of possession, meant there were simply not enough opportunities for the home side to apply their counter-pressing. But once the visitors opened up in the second half and especially in the last half hour, Rodgers’ team created a succession of very good goal-scoring chances following their efficient high press as soon as they lost possession.
Liverpool created little from their own efforts on the ball in open play. Bar the opening goal there were only a couple of genuinely threatening attacking moves throughout the whole game. The left-hand sided overload often resulted in either a poor Moreno cross into the general direction of the penalty area or Coutinho sending in a final third pass that was not so sharp or well-timed. But when the Reds were out of possession and pressing quickly and en masse, they were drastically more dangerous and either regained possession from which a goal-scoring opportunity followed or forced the opposition into poor possession giveaway which led to such chances.
Sherwood replacing Sanchez, Villa wide open
The start of the second half followed the pattern of the first half – Villa defending deep and being passive, Liverpool dominating but struggling to create chances. Following one throw-in, the hosts reacted quicker and better and through Sturridge’s brilliant finishing following a one-two with Milner, Liverpool scored their second goal.
A minute later Sherwood made his first move. Replacing the only holding midfielder with another energetic box-to-box midfielder clearly showed Villa’s manager intent to open up. The problem though was that it had a disastrous defensive impact while helping little to increase the visitors’ attacking threat.
Sanchez was, as usual, a very solid presence ahead of the back four, breaking up Liverpool’s attacks and helping fight the fires down Villa’s right. In possession the Colombian ball-winner was one of the few cool heads, helping retain possession and trying to play the ball out with reliable simple passes to his nearest teammates. Now, without him, Westwood was put ahead of the back four which made the space between the lines completely unprotected, in addition to not fixing Villa’s struggles down their right side.
Meanwhile the decision to bring on Veretout for Gana proved equally disastrous. Not only couldn’t he provide that missing attacking spark, but he gifted Liverpool two goal-scoring opportunities following his poor first touches and passes. The first one resulted in Liverpool’s third goal, while the second put Sturridge into yet another goal-scoring position only for Richards to block him at the last moment.
Aston Villa’s goals came following two well worked passing moves, the type of moves they did try a few times in the first half and more often in the second, but rarely succeeded due to Liverpool’s good positioning and timely counter-pressing. The first saw Hutton’s cross converted by Gestede with a simple tap in on the far post, the second saw the big striker head the ball in unstoppably following a superb Amavi cross from the left.
Clearly this was an improved performance from Liverpool. The hallmarks of it were the newly introduced left-sided overload and the superbly efficient counter-pressing. But it also had the familiar shortcomings – the lack of extra attacking numbers, the struggles to create from open play and the reliance on the opposition to make costly mistakes for Liverpool to be really penetrative and dangerous.
Pressing, individual quality – Milner’s finishing, the two one-twos initiated by Sturridge for the second and third goals – and ruthless finishing by Sturridge did the trick for Liverpool here. Tactically Rodgers had some nice ideas but as often is the case, that something extra was missing to convert these ideas into real game-changing aspects. Still, the efficient counter-pressing and the overloads (be it down the right or down the left) seem like good platform to build and expand on for future games.
For Villa this was yet another poor performance both tactically and technically. Unless Sherwood drastically improves his side on these two fronts to increase his side attacking’s prowess and solidify them defensively, it won’t be long before his side is dragged into a serious relegation battle.