The last five league matches provide something of a snapshot of the season so far for Liverpool. There has been the good, 4-1 against Stoke 1-0 against Everton and 3-0 against Middlesbrough, the bad, a draw against West Ham and the downright ugly as Bournemouth came out with a 4-3 win.
Inconsistent form interspersed with moments of fantastic attacking football is a microcosm for Liverpool this season under Klopp. There are still however far more positive signs than negative that Liverpool are approching the level required to once again become champions of England.
Going in to this match the media narrative was firmly negative following Roberto Firmino testing positive for alcohol whilst driving on Christmas Eve. There was a feeling that Jurgen Klopp would drop the Brazilian to shield him from any negative reaction but instead Firmino started, a sign of support from a coach that recognises mistakes but does not feel the need to bow to public pressure around those mistakes.
Stoke though would still pose an interesting challenge for this Liverpool side. Whilst not necessarily as defensively focussed as they were under Tony Pulis they still form an imposing defensive structure through which it would be difficult to play. It was interesting to see the initial issues faced by the Liverpool attacking trio as they tried to find space in and around the defensive line for Stoke.
As mentioned above the biggest story from the team news was that Roberto Firmino retained his position in the team despite his drink driving charge prior to Christmas. As we would see in the game the Brazilian more than repaid Klopp’s faith with another superb performance.
In goal the Belgian Simon Mignolet retained his place in the side at the expense of Loris Karius. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case for the rest of the season but I would not be surprised to see the German reinstated before the end of the season.
Joel Matip continues to be unavaliable leading to the centre back combination of Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren with Clyne and Milner once more taking the fullback spots. Wijnaldum, Henderson and Lallana once again make up the midfield three with Mane, Firmino and Origi continuing to lead the attacking threat for the side.
Stoke press to unsettle Liverpool
In the first half we saw a concerted effort from Stoke to disrupt Liverpool in their initial build up. This is not part of the game that we seen week in week out from Stoke but is instead most likely a reaction to the use of Mignolet in goal.
The Belgian is the recipient of some favourable revisionism from some groups of fans given his poor distribution from any number of situations before being replaced by Karius. Opposition teams however will not have forgotten about this and will look to capitalise on his indecision whenever possible.
With the ball at the feet of Mignolet the usual mechanisms from Liverpool apply. The fullbacks advance to the same line as the central midfielders and Jordan Henderson as the controlling midfielder drops to split the centre backs and provide a third short option.
Normally this movement from Henderson will give Liverpool the numerical superiority in this area of the pitch and they can advance the ball through the spare man.
Stoke were obviously fully prepared for this rotation in the build up and were happy to match Liverpool man for man with ex Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen often taking the opportunity to step up and press Henderson to prevent him taking possession of the ball.
This simple pressing movement from Stoke was enough to disrupt Liverpool in the opening half hour of the match as any attempts from Mignolet to hit the second level directly with the ball at his feet was also quickly closed down by the next line of the Stoke press. That is of course if the pass to the second level even made it to a Liverpool player.
Movement and Rotations
I have written more than once about the movement and rotations utilised by Liverpool under Klopp in the final third of the pitch and against Stoke we saw more excellent examples of this tactical feature in particular down the right hand side of the Liverpool attack.
Rotations are in general very simple as players move in and out of different positional slots across the field in order to try to pull the oppositions defensive block out of place and create space to play through.
In the case of Liverpool these movements occur most often down the right hands side with Clyne, Lallana and Mane especially strong at reading one another’s movements and reacting accordingly.
It is my preference in coaching and analysing football to split the field in to five vertical corridors across the field to show how player movements can effect the opposition and create space for other members of the team. I have chosen to show these corridors in my next two images from the game.
Here Clyne is in possession of the ball in the far right corridor (1) as he takes possession we immediately see a supporting run from Mane in (2) as he looks to access the space in (1) ahead of Clyne.
In moving in this manner Mane forces an opposition player to mirror his run and creates space in (2). This space is then accessed by a central player moving across from (3).
All of these movements cause reactions in the opposition defensive structure. The movement by Mane in to (1) gives the option of an overload in the wide line whilst the other two move across and create space centrally that players can move in to to occupy and attack.
A similar story here but this time Mane has the ball in the wide area (1) and Lallana drops from (2) down to (1) to offer an option to pass.
Interestingly Clyne has effectively become an inverted fullback as he takes his lead from the positioning of Mane who has held the width. As Lallana empties the space in (2) we see Clyne accelerate down lane (2) to get beyond the defensive line and take the pass from Clyne.
The importance of these movements so far this season cannot be underestimated. There are few coaches in European football who are sophisticated enough to devise defensive gameplans that can account for so much explosive attacking movements from Liverpool.
I have been hard on Henderson previously in these analysis pieces and I know that he is seen by many Liverpool fans as being sacred to the point that you cannot be critical of his performances. Any negativity from my part however has been purely from a tactical viewpoint as he initially struggled to come to terms with his role in this system for Klopp.
After a slow start against Stoke I think that the Liverpool captain went on to have one of his strongest matches for the club both with and without the ball.
In the defensive phase we have seen Henderson play too passively at times failing to recognise and react to danger in time and struggling to fill the role tactically.
Here however he is aware of the threat as Milner loses a headed challenge and Klavan is pulled out to defend in the wide area. Henderson sees the connection between the two central defenders being stretched and he moves to cover the run through the gap negating what could have been a dangerous situation.
This time in the attacking movement. Stoke were largely content to sit off and allow Henderson possession of the ball aware that there have been times in which he has been overly passive in possession of the ball.
Instead we saw Henderson capitalise on this space and time to play the ball through the Stoke lines and in to advanced positions of the pitch even though there were easier or more secure passing options open to him.
A very emphatic performance especially when you consider that Liverpool had gone 1-0 behind early in the match. In the end the 4-1 scoreline did not flatter the Merseyside team. It could well have been more.
We were again however reminded how much this team is going to miss Sadio Mane when he leaves for the African Cup of Nations shortly. Even in a replacement is recruited they are unlikely to have the same tactical understanding with his teammates that Mane displays.
On not to Manchester City and 3 points that are becoming an absolute must to keep in touch with Chelsea at the summit of the table.