Taking down the Premier League’s high-flying leaders is no easy feat; Liverpool coming off a winless three game streak never helped the build up to the game either. The talks of the Riyad Mahrez-Jamie Vardy combo ripping through the Reds flooded social media after what a Troy Deeney-Idion Ighalo partnership did in Watford’s 3-0 win against Liverpool. On the other hand, questions remained for Liverpool and their ability to score goals (or lack of).
But that’s not the point of this article today.
After having a chat with Gags Tandon before he recorded the excellent “Pressing Analysis vs Leicester” podcast (listen here), perhaps a topic in reverse would help – did Leicester do anything to subdue Liverpool?
Leicester City’s Triggers
Having None of Mamadou and Dejan
A centre-back partnership of Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho may give out mixed signals to any football fan who watch them regularly. Some may say that this is a recipe for disaster as one is so error-prone and the other is clumsy on the ball. Some may say that it is a one-sided affair with Mamadou Sakho needing to take the defence onto his shoulders all alone. Some may say that this is the best centre-back pairing Liverpool have at the moment. Others may have a combination of all of the above.
Despite the possible perception that these two centre-backs are error-prone in their own regards, they were NOT the target of Leicester City’s pressing, ergo they had plenty of time on the ball while Liverpool were in possession.
(As seen above, Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki were miles apart from the two Liverpool centre-backs. When in possession, they were not interested in chasing neither Lovren nor Sakho down.)
(As per the previous image, while Dejan Lovren had the ball, the Leicester strikers – indicated by the blue line – were nowhere near the Liverpool centre-backs. They were not even remotely interested in pressing the centre-backs.)
So who were Leicester’s main target for presses and markings? Which area was deemed crucial to slow down Liverpool’s attacks?
Eyes on the Prize – Emre Can and Jordan Henderson
The “real” pressing and marking started from the Reds’ midfield of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can.
(The same image as above, but the point of reference now is the two yellow circles which indicate how closely Vardy and Okazaki were to Henderson and Can respectively.)
This could perhaps imply that Claudio Ranieri was content with allowing the Reds’ centre-backs to have the ball; it did not mean harm just yet. Having his strikers – Vardy and Okazaki – follow and shadow Liverpool’s midfielders meant the following:-
- If the ball was played into the midfielders and Vardy or Okazaki managed to intercept it, Leicester would flip to counter-attacking mode almost immediately. Better yet, if either Henderson or Can was dispossessed and they were left chasing, Leicester’s striker would be going straight at Liverpool’s supposedly error prone centre-backs, which is a win in Ranieri’s books.
- Playing a 4-4-2 formation, disregarding the opposing centre-backs could be beneficial for Leicester in a multitude of ways. When the strikers marked Liverpool’s midfielders, the wide players (Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton) took responsibility of pressing the full-backs, while the centre-midfielders (N’Golo Kante and Andy King) helped to nullify Liverpool’s attacking trio who operated behind Divock Origi.
(An illustration of how Leicester City’s pressing and marking structure was versus Liverpool. The blue circle is the strikers’ marking duties being played out, the blue arrows are the wide-players’ presses on Liverpool’s full-backs, and the blue rectangle is the area that Andy King and N’Golo Kante could protect their team from against an attacking-trio of Coutinho-Firmino-Lallana.)
- All-in-all it forced the Liverpool side to have to go a little bit unorthodox in building up their attacks from their half into Leicester’s. For example, instead of Alberto Moreno making darting runs along the flanks with the ball or to receive it, he may now have to play a long ball forward in behind someone making a run (Philippe Coutinho, mainly); or the ball would have to be quickly switched to the opposite flank and attempt to break down Leicester’s pressing and marking.
For Leicester, it all points to the following – force Liverpool to create chances from out-wide by overloading the midfield (via strikers pulling back, etc.), force Liverpool to put in crosses or high balls, and force Divock Origi to win continuous one-on-ones with Wes Morgan in the air.
(Blue lines show Henderson and Emre Can being cut off from build-up play. This meant that either long balls from the centre-backs or crosses from wide areas have to be made to attempt to create chances – as per the dotted, yellow lines. The blue circles indicate the aerial battles Divock Origi had to win against Wes Morgan or Robert Huth.)
Theoretically, Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri had it pretty much spot on. However, just because a team has a pressing and marking structure, it does not mean that counter-measures cannot take place.
As discussed earlier, to disrupt Leicester’s defensive structure, it appeared that both Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno (not as uncommon for the latter) were instructed to just bomb forward and stay higher up the pitch. Not typically where you would expect full-backs to be in when possession is still with the centre-backs. This is Step 1.
(Step 1: The advancing of Moreno and Clyne further up the pitch vacates the wider areas of the pitch. It also pushes Leicester’s wide-players back a touch as instructed.)
Jordan Henderson and Emre Can then occupy the vacated areas left by the roaming full-backs. This pulls their respective markers (Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki) to wide areas along with them, which subsequently vacates the middle of the park. This is Step 2.
(Step 2: The midfielders move into the space vacated by the full-backs – as per the black-coloured arrows. The blue arrows replicate the movement of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki as well.)
Below is the real-time event of how Step 2 panned out.
(Yellow circles indicate the positions of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can out wide, with the blue lines showing the Leicester strikers who moved away from the centre-circle.)
Step numero tres is where the magic happens for Liverpool. With the middle of the park vacated, one of the attacking midfielders can drop deeper down the pitch and be a passing option for the centre-backs.
(Step 3: Observe that with the middle of the pitch being virtually empty, an attacking midfielder – like Roberto Firmino – can drop deeper from his usual, advanced position as per the yellow circle to become a passing option for the Liverpool centre-backs.)
Again, this is displayed in real-time:
(The red circle indicates where Roberto Firmino is on the pitch – in between midfield and the final third, as expected from a number ten. Also observe the area surrounding the tip of the red arrow; empty.)
In this scenario, Dejan Lovren played a pass to Jordan Henderson who was out-wide and dragged Jamie Vardy along with him who came in for a press. Henderson then played a quick pass to Roberto Firmino who dropped back to receive the pass and is left with acres of space, as seen with the yellow circle around him upon receiving the pass from Jordan Henderson.
Despite Leicester City’s defensive structure being near-perfect, theoretically speaking, it did not leave Liverpool helpless and defenceless against it. Excellent movement and smart positioning helped counter the pressing and marking systems Claudio Ranieri had in place. With Liverpool not being the best of teams when it comes to starting off strongly, perhaps this structure was laid out by the Italian in an attempt to encourage a shaky start by the Reds. It alone may not have contributed to the slim 1-0 victory at home in Anfield, but it never hurts to be able to break out of pressing and marking traps.
Who knows? The pressing and marking structure could have actually worked early on against Liverpool and the odds could never have been in our favour from the very beginning.