A prominent and recurring feature of Pep Guardiola’s trophy-laden spell as manager of Manchester City has been the Catalan’s utilisation of his expensively assembled full backs as ostensible centre midfielders.
The positioning of his full backs has provided his City side with numerous advantages.
Firstly, it allows for effective triangle shapes to be created between the full back, winger and attacking midfielders. This adds layers to the Etihad sides’ attack and allows the likes of De Bruyne and the Silva’s, Bernardo and David, to operate higher up the pitch.
Additionally, knowing that the full backs can progress the ball from deeper positions means that the defending Premier League champions can commit to keeping their attacking players higher up the pitch. With a high lined defence, this ensures the team is compact and also has the bonus effect of keeping teams pinned in their own half.
City are not the only side who uses their full backs in this manner, however, as Liverpool — their title rivals — also have the capability to execute this strategy.
The Reds’ 4-3 win over Red Bull Salzburg was living evidence of this as the European Champions’ full backs, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold, were in sensational form throughout. Alexander Arnold provided an assist, while Robertson — benefiting from his fellow full back’s cross — netted a beautifully worked goal.
It is fitting that the Rugby World Cup is in progress, as the 24 Premier League goal assisting full back pair provided an element to the attack against Salzburg that you often hear referred to in Rugby; they switched the point of attack.
Either full back can either go inside or outside and this causes panic in opposition defences as they cannot predict or telegraph the ways in which Liverpool’s full backs will move. If you show them the line, they can go past you and cross; if you let them inside, they can combine with one of the front three and drive through towards the centre of goal.
In the sixth minute, with Jordan Henderson drifting into a nominal right wing position in order to stretch the play and make space infield, Alexander Arnold stationed himself centrally.
From there, as seen in the screenshot below, the 20 year old curled a sumptuous ball between both of the visitors centre halves and onto the toe of Firmino. Perhaps distracted by Mane, the Brazilian’s slack touch squandered what an assured take would have made a one on one situation. But this shouldn’t detract from the quality of Alexander Arnold’s pass. Schooled in the Kirby academy as a central midfielder, it should be no surprise that the England international is accustomed to playing in those channels.
It is slightly more remarkable that Robertson looks so uncomfortable drifting into the engine room. Almost the entirety of the Scotland captain’s professional career has come on the left hand side; either as a conventional full back or as a left wing back.
But no doubt thanks to the coaching of Jurgen Klopp and Pepijn Lijnders, the 25 year old former Hull player, as evidenced by his goal on Wednesday night, has added a new weapon to his arsenal.
The 24th minute of the Salzburg game bore the fruit of this new approach from the beloved full back, as shown in the below screenshot.
Starting a move by coming infield off the left hand touchline, the Scotsman passed to Henderson. The Liverpool captain then found Salah, with the Egyptian return the ball to the number 14. Henderson’s pacy first time pass found Alexander Arnold wide on the right, and the right back’s drilled cross was prodded home at the near post by Robertson.
The goal itself was one of the best worked team goals the Reds have scored since Emre Can volleyed home versus Hoffenheim in the 2017/2018 Champions League qualifier and it perfectly highlighted Liverpool’s full back’s switching the point of attack.
Robertson, showing the movement of a supreme striker, played infield — displaying his ability to go inside or outside — and Alexander Arnold, in the manner of a conventional full back, held the width and provided the assist.
The Scot is helped in this manner by Sadio Mane, too.
The Senegalese forward is strong off the either foot and this allows him to play his left wing role as either a winger, playing wide and whipping in crosses, or a forward; playing narrow and shooting.
The first goal was evidence of the latter as the 27 year, dovetailing nicely with Firmino, run from outside to in and slotted cooly past the Salzburg keeper for the games opener on his right foot.
The third goal was an indication of Mane’s comfort of playing as a conventional winger. Crossing with his left foot, the Liverpool number ten found Roberto Firmino in the box. The Brazilian’s header was then saved into the path of Mohamed Salah who bundled home his finish in the six yard box.
With their full backs offering unpredictability in attack, the Reds could have another goal sodden season to look forward to.