On Monday night the Champions travelled down to St Mary’s to face a depleted Southampton side, who were without a number of key players, such as Alex McCarthy, Oriol Romeu and Ché Adams.
The Saints lined up in a 4-4-2, in which they looked to press Liverpool’s backline. Ralph Hassenhutl’s team were also instructed to form a box around the deepest midfielder, Thiago, who would be pressed from all four players whenever he received the ball. As he passed the ball out wide, the home side’s fullbacks would push up directly onto the visitor’s fullbacks, thereby forcing play backwards and stifling the Reds’ outlet ball.
Liverpool, as ever, started in their native 4-3-3. There were three notable changes to the side: Henderson started at centreback, Thiago as the no.6, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started as a no.8. Like Southampton, the Reds also looked to press where possible, with the forward line attempting to engage presses on a number of occasions, however, when in possession Southampton would leave one of their fullbacks deeper, creating a back three, who were then supported by a double pivot in front of them. If possible, the Saints would look to pass into them, and then play balls in behind the defensive line. These long passes in behind served two purposes: one was a genuine attempt to put balls in beyond Fabinho and Henderson, for Ings to run on to, the other purpose was to create second ball opportunities. In these instances, a Liverpool player would head the long ball, and in doing so they would become stationary. Following that, the home side would swarm on the ball and attempt to move the ball forward immediately, in order to take advantage of the stationary defender and create a one-one-one with the other centreback.
For all this tactical planning though, the game would likely hinge on two aspects which are closely linked: clinical finishing and gamestate. As it so happened, the opening phase of play in which a generous free kick was awarded to one of the best set-piece takers in the league led to an opportunity which displayed clinical finishing and determined gamestate for the remainder of the game.
A significant body of analysis has already been done on Southampton’s opener. Captain and stand-in centreback Jordan Henderson came in for some criticism following his decision to draw Gini Wijnaldum away from the goalscorer Ings and for playing him onside, but the main error in the goal came from Alexander-Arnold who missed his clearance attempt. Let this take nothing away from Ings’ brilliant finish, nor the pressing display of Southampton for the remainder of the half.
Over the remainder of the half Liverpool once again seemed to struggle to create big chances with consistency, but more worryingly struggled to sustain possession up the pitch, from where the team could sustain pressure and hope to create a goal. Much of this came from the home side’s pressing, but Klopp’s players and execution of their tactical system also share responsibility. With Thiago playing with Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain, the midfield balance was not quite clear. In previous seasons, Oxlade-Chamberlain was deployed as an attacking midfielder who would regularly join the front three. However, over the past two seasons the midfield setup has tended away from having a midfielder who primarily looks to progress the ball vertically and interchange with the front line in forward positions, instead, in possession, the no.8s are required to drop into deeper positions which protect the team in offensive-defensive transition and allow the fullbacks to progress up the field. On the right side that simply did not happen anywhere near enough. As a consequence of this, and Ryan Bertrand’s pressure on Alexander-Arnold, there was no advanced presence on the right side of the field to progress the ball, involve Salah and create chances.
Liverpool’s possession issues were evident for the majority of the first half, the first instance in which I noticed Thiago drop into the right space to facilitate Alexander-Arnold progressing up the pitch was in the 46th minute, following which Alexander-Arnold played a brilliant switch pass – another thing the Reds required in the first half but did not complete often enough – and from which the Reds displayed some promising play in the final third and penalty area.
The second half was a display in tactical dominance. Liverpool dominated with the ball, building up particularly well on the left side, with Mané breaking beyond Kyle Walker-Peters on a number of occasions, and combining with Robertson who offered a dangerous vertical presence as he broke into the box and also attempted to make cutbacks and low crosses. Almost all of these efforts were blocked though by an extremely robust Southampton defence who walked the line on a number of instances but managed to retain the favour of the referee in those moments.
In order to dominate the ball, Liverpool’s fullbacks were required to push up, and both Thiago and Wijnaldum would cover for them when either player stepped up. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s early withdrawal saw the introduction of Shaqiri who allowed Thiago to stay deep, whilst looking to combine in the right half spaces, but on the right side their efforts never quite came off.
What Liverpool lacked in these moments was a presence further up the field. Shaqiri on the right needed either himself or Salah to sit on the edge of the box, so the other player could run off the sitting player, whilst Alexander-Arnold stood near to them to combine. However, the spacing and positioning of these players was not ideal, and consequently, Alexander-Arnold was a little too deep and unable to link up with Salah. As a product, from the right side we saw a number of crosses that seemed a product of frustration. The Reds’ crosses are best when they’re played by the fullbacks when in forward motion against a backline which is also moving and unable to settle. Yet these crosses were largely from deep positions against a settled and static defence, and that’s easy to defend against.
This game saw Liverpool make 35 crosses, their highest in a Premier League match under Jürgen Klopp, underscoring this growing trend in recent games. I’ve attached a thread below discussing our problems with crossing over the previous five matches.
LFC tactics & stats thread: Crossing, the low block and set pieces
(Using FBref crossing data) https://t.co/vCcIK94CWa
— Hamzah Khalique-Loonat (@HKhaliqueLoonat) January 1, 2021
The second half saw Liverpool pretty much eliminate Southampton’s ability to counter, and unlike the first half battle against a mid block, this was essentially the champions up against a low block. There were a few issues, like the no.8s not getting up high enough and breaking into the box as noted earlier, but even when watching the game it was clear the champions were on top, creating chances, but were struggling to just get a shot away that was not blocked.
The first-half performance was poor, but the second half was pretty solid. The Reds were not able to get a goal or force Forster into more than one save, but in terms of passes into the box, total shot volume, touches in the box, xG and non-shot xG, it’s pretty clear the away side were good value for at least one goal. There were a lot of bad decisions made in key moments, and a lot of wasteful possession, but despite that, we can reasonably expect Liverpool to score from the situations they had, and that’s without being awarded two penalties by the referee that even on second and third watching seem more than warranted.
Fundamentally though, Liverpool need to stop conceding first. When the side has to chase the game, most teams in the league are going to sit back and sit tight. Last season the team was able to score from a set piece, or a moment of brilliance, but without Van Dijk, set piece goals are harder to come by and it’s not a sustainable way to win games when you’re relying on moments of brilliance to equalise against a low block more often than not.
This result blows the title race open once more. Truthfully, Manchester City must be considered favourites from here on, but this is not a reason to panic – Liverpool are mostly doing the right things, but have truly rotten luck at the moment. There are a few tweaks that need to be made, but nothing massive to the tactical structure of the team. If the team keeps at it, and makes some incremental changes, we can expect results to turn around in the Reds’ favour, whether we can do that before City can establish a lead in the league is the question of the season so far.