The early stages of the league season have been inconsistent at best for Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool side. The first match away at Arsenal was a game of high emotion and an even higher tempo as both sides struggled to find any defensive cohesion. Liverpool still took the three points to face Burnley in week two where their gameplan was undone by a dogged Burnley defensive display.
There are some in the media that are ready to start questioning Klopp and his staff citing a lack of genuine progress since the German took charge.
Thankfully the majority of the Liverpool fanbase are more sensible and long sighted than British journalists.
Week three would be a genuine challenge as they travel back to North London to face Tottenham. Spurs are an interesting tactical proposition given the work of their Argentinian head coach Mauricio Pochettino.
The good news for Liverpool is that after his scintillating debut against Arsenal summer signing Sadio Mane was fit to return on the right hand side. The winger was a huge miss for Liverpool in the match against Burnley as his pace and movement may have proven effective against their deep defensive structure.
There was however no central role for striker Daniel Sturridge, who was left with a seat on the bench as Klopp preferred the movement and pressing ability of Roberto Firmino in a false nine role at the pinnacle of the attack.
The midfield three was identical in personnel and roles from the match with Burnley. Jordan Henderson was therefore once again deployed as the controller in front of the back four. Thankfully on this occasion he displayed a far greater understanding of the role.
Tottenham were setup largely as expected. With the absence of key midfielder Moussa Dembele we saw a more defensive-minded double pivot with Victor Wanyama and Erik Dier.
Movement in the final third
In the match against Burnley there was a real problem for Liverpool as they attempted to find a way to penetrate the deep defensive block of the opposition centrally. Time and time again we would see the ball played in to the wide areas on the final third only to see the player in possession cut back across the face of the defence.
This is nowhere near the best way to bypass a narrow and deep defensive structure but it would certainly have been more successful had there been more vertical and penetrative runs from the midfielders.
Against Spurs though we saw a much more complete performance with a balanced attacking plan.
I hope that these articles will be a regular addition to the weekly content on Anfield Index and as such there will be times when I draw comparisons to matches that we have already seen.
The front three for this match were Coutinho, Roberton Firmino and Sadio Mane. Three players that we will without doubt categorise as attacking players but none of the three would presume to call themselves a striker.
We shouldn’t be surprised though. During his time with Dortmund we saw Klopp prefer a mobile and adaptable attacking unit with a lot of positional interchanging.
In the above image we see one of the few instances in the match when Georginio Wijnaldum actually made a genuine foray in to the final third of the pitch. The key however is the movement of Coutinho who has found himself in the central attacking position with Firmino sitting deep.
Coutinho has the presence of mind to make a false run to create space for his teammates in the oppositions defensive structure. As he moves diagonally to threaten the box he drags his closest defender with him. This defender is unaware of the danger behind him. As the run is made Mane is able to move in to a large pocket of space.
This little piece of interplay was indicative of a string of attacking moves that we saw from Liverpool with mobility and tactical intelligence the key.
Again Liverpool are attacking in the central zone of the final third. This time Roberto Firmino has retained his central role and he bursts diagonally through two defensive players. This simple run is not essentially a decoy as the ball could be played through as he makes the run.
When the man in possession delays the pass though we see the space created by the original run come in to play. The emptied space can be attacked by the central midfielders running from deep. Vertical and horizontal runs from different angles are one of the keys to the attacking game plan for Liverpool this season.
Did the ‘real’ Henderson turn up?
In the previous analysis that I wrote for Anfield Index for the Burnley match I was highly critical of the role played by Jordan Henderson.
Against Burnley he was too passive and unable to give his defensive teammates an effective out pass to escape pressure.
In this match however we saw a new side to Henderson as he was far more active when Liverpool were in possession, he found pockets of space beyond the initial press to relieve the defenders and he was able to take possession and pass vertically to create attacking moves.
In the match last week Henderson was too often positioned between the two pressing players in these scenarios. This may have been a symptom of a lack of confidence in the role as he saw himself as the defensive lines insurance policy.
Against Spurs though Henderson was far more willing to position himself behind the first press. This slight positional change gives the defenders another clear connection when in possession. It allows them to pass vertically through the press and forces the opposition to react and change their structure.
Henderson was also far braver and more proactive in possession. He was willing to take possession of the ball in tight spaces within his own half and he was able to play incisive and vertical balls in to the midfield.
Here he has taken possession of the ball while facing his own goal from a goal kick. Despite being quickly closed down by Erik Lamela he does not panic in possession. It would be easy under this type of pressure for Henderson to try to force a pass in to a covered team mate.
Instead he plays a very difficult but tactically proactive pass through the centre of the pitch and in to the middle third of the pitch. The pass connects with a team mate just out of shot and bypasses two banks of opposition players.
This is the kind of passing that we would more expect from the German Emre Can.
Stronger Defensive Structure
One of the least acknowledged aspects of Klopp’s tactical philosophy is the defensive structure. There are, without a shadow of a doubt, times when the initial press leaves the defensive unit exposed and Liverpool are susceptible to direct counter attacks.
When the defensive structure is set in a medium or even low block though we can see a clear and intelligent defensive system with near perfect spacing between zones.
As the ball is moved backwards on the near side by Erik Lamela to Danny Rose we can see Clyne and Mane are positioned to push the Spurs side back.
Henderson is again the controlling player between the defence and midfield and on this occasion the only vertical pass open to Rose is through to the striker currently being closely marked by Joel Matip. Henderson is quick to shift over in to the space to prevent the pass from being made.
There are no clear weak points in this established defensive structure and for the majority of the match Spurs struggled to find a way through to the goal.
That this match ended in a 1-1 draw can go down as a clear injustice. Whilst the possession battle was more even than it was last week Liverpool were clearly the dominant side.
The understanding and interplay between Mane, Coutinho and Firmino is showing real promise and going forwards this should be the first choice attacking unit.
Adam Lallana showed again why he is an under the radar player for Liverpool as he pressed relentlessly from the midfield and constantly looked to provide passing options and support to the man in possession. His role in the team is difficult to quantify given his lack of goals or assists but he is always working in the background.
Liverpool need to be more ruthless in the final third to see out games such as this. Never the less after a disjointed performance against Burnley things are looking up again.