Tactical Breakdown: Liverpool 2-0 Midtjylland
Time is precious, especially time on the training pitches. Since the start of the season, Jürgen Klopp has found very little time between games to work tactically with his team, with match preparation, recovery and rest requirements taking up the majority of time between fixtures. The fixture schedule is so intense that rotation across the squad is not just frequent, but necessarily incessant. When dealing with such an intricate system such as the one Liverpool play though, changes to the XI can disrupt patterns of play, rhythm and lead to players starting without sufficient match time to build up to form or to develop on-field relationships and understanding with their teammates. The Champions League matchday 2 fixture against Midtjylland encapsulates this best.
Klopp made a number of changes to the side, with Divock Origi, Takumi Minamino and Diogo Jota forming the forward line, supported by Xherdan Shaqiri, – in a new tactical role, which we have not seen him play in before – James Milner and Jordan Henderson.
The first half was, by most accounts, a poor performance. Liverpool’s chance generation was poor, the side’s ability to control space and the ball effectively was significantly lower than usual, and there was a distinct lack of rhythm and direction when the ball was in the Red’s possession. Midtjylland, to their credit, pressed with great intent and purpose. Utilising a front two, much like Sheffield United, they looked to press the home team’s centrebacks when on the ball, and were supported by a superb industrially effective midfield, whose pressing regularly forced the Premier League champions backwards, and disrupted the English champions from sustaining possession in the middle third, thereby eliminating the opportunity to build into the final third.
Undoubtedly, the lack of game-time for Shaqiri, Milner, Origi and Minamino played a role here. Origi was asked to play on the left – a position he has played regularly, but truthfully does not suit him given the difference in player profile between him and Mané, especially with respect to the difference in their movement. Similarly, Minamino – whose strengths at Salzburg in terms of him dropping deep and then breaking into the box – is seemingly best utilised with a more classic number 9 who he can work off and break beyond, rather than occupy the number 9 space himself. At Salzburg, he found particular joy working off of Hwang, however, Origi’s hold up play and positioning as a number 9 is not particularly strong, plus Origi was positioned on the left side which made this even harder to do.
This lack of synergy and complementary player profiles manifested itself in the way the Reds struggled to develop movement patterns to break down the Danish champion’s defence or break through their midfield press. With a lack of control from midfield and the forwards, the creative impetus fell to Alexander-Arnold, whose role in recent games has been more restrained and conservative.
Alexander-Arnold utilised this opportunity, with a number of switch passes early on, as Liverpool looked to move past the Midtjylland press, and expand the field. With Klopp’s side struggling to progress the ball through the middle, and lacking ball speed on their passes, which allowed the Danish champions to retain their pressing shape effectively, Alexander-Arnold began to move forward, with Jordan Henderson then filling in for his defensive duties: the inverse of what we’ve seen in recent weeks.
Despite these efforts to foray forward by the Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Red’s lack of direct runs from their wingers, especially on the inside, in order to manufacture or expose one on ones was apparent. Compounding this was Origi retaining a high position with little support around him, and the tight press employed by the Danish side’s defenders if the ball reached Liverpool’s forward line. The penetrative runs – usually provided by Salah and Mané – are crucial to their sides offensive play if the midfield is struggling creatively, as it forces opposition teams backwards, creates more space and generates opportunities for players to run into whilst the opposition defence is backtracking and unable to settle. The only notable penetrative run in the first half came from Alexander-Arnold late in the half, as he came inside from the right, jinking past a number of players, with his final pass cut out.
Within the opening ten minutes of the second half, Alexander-Arnold produced another penetrative run, this time linking up with Shaqiri in the right halfspace who was able to play an immediate return pass into space, allowing the right-back to break into open space and provide a superb assist for Jota. Trent being able to beat the first man through breaking past in a dribble, and then following that with a run into the box was crucial, and is demonstrative of the dynamism required from Liverpool’s wide players, as they need to expose and exploit one on one situations out wide when the central area is congested.
From this point, the game state favoured the home side, who should have capitalised on a few chances, especially after Mané, Salah and Firmino were brought on. Despite this, Midtjylland held their own and created a great chance late on demonstrating their capacity to threaten the Liverpool goal and their admirable and respectable tactical setup.
There is no point in criticising a tactical setup which is composed of players whom play alongside one another infrequently, however, it is useful to highlight what is not working, and what is absent from what we usually see from the former European Champions’ full-strength side. The effects of Van Dijk’s injury on the six times European Champions’ attack and defence are becoming more apparent with each game, but so too is the difference between a side with Mané and Salah or Keïta and Thiago to a side without them. This was by no means a strong performance, but it was a very good result, and there are signs of real promise in the side too; Alexander-Arnold, for instance, has produced his finest performance of the season, and looks to be back to his creative best. If he can maintain this level, and Salah, Mané, Alisson and Thiago remain fit, there is more than enough tactical nous and technical skill there to dismember most sides in Europe. The Reds just need to keep winning, by hook or by crook, as the schedule is tortuously intense, and given the rotation requirements and injuries to the squad, it’s not entirely fair to have a rigorous performative analysis of the side amidst this context.