Tactical Breakdown: Sheffield United 0-2 Liverpool
Liverpool ended a run of four consecutive league defeats with a 2-0 away victory at Bramall Lane.
Tactically, they made a few changes, but their performance was mostly in step with recent matches.
Setting up in their native 4-3-3, with the unchanged front three supported by a midfield three of Jones, Wijnaldum and Thiago. In defence Alexander-Arnold, Phillips, Kabak and Robertson played in front of Adrian, who deputised for Alisson.
Liverpool’s used Alexander-Arnold in a deeper position, to support both Kabak and Phillips in buildup, and offer extra protection on the counter attack. When the ball moved upfield, Alexander-Arnold would move out of defence and into an interior position, with Salah taking the wide-right role. Ahead of the centrebacks sat Thiago and Wijnaldum in a double pivot, creating a strong defensive structure, with the capacity to play forward and cope with the Blades’ press. Robertson featured high and wide on the left wing, hugging the touchline, as he attempted to draw out his opposite wingback, and facilitate Sadio Mané playing more freely, so he could drift inside and into the box, rather than staying out wide.
Curtis Jones also played in a tweaked role, as the most advanced no.8. As a native no.10, this role suited him well, as he was able to join the forward line, drop into spaces with Firmino and interchange with Mané, thereby creating a passing network and numerical overload in the left half space. Salah played wide on the right side, but notably had two shots from inside the six-yard box, demonstrating his ability to run from deep positions and attack space when opposition defences are occupied with Liverpool’s other attackers.
Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United played in their normal 3-5-2, but when out of possession, as Liverpool built pressure with the ball in the final third, this moved into a 5-3-2. Also, when in offensive-defensive transition, United’s system resembled a 5-3-2, which left them exposed in the middle of the pitch. However, the visitors did not explore this route often in the first half, instead looking to build up and progress the ball through the wide outlets. The Blades’ system was able to cope with this aspect of play, but not the way which Liverpool moved the ball from the wide areas inside, and into the box.
The Blades also looked to press up the field, with McGoldrick and McBurnie applying ball pressure across the front, hoping to force an error from Kabak, Phillips or Adrian. This press was supported by the midfield five pushing up. However, Liverpool were able to evade this press comfortably, due to the presence of both Alexander-Arnold and Thiago in these deep areas, and the outlet option of Salah on the right and Robertson on the left.
United started the game with an early headed chance inside the box from a set piece, but after this, Liverpool largely controlled proceedings, managing the move the ball up the field quickly and catch the home side in transition.
An excellent chance fell to Firmino as they broke through the centre with Mané and Firmino both dropping simultaneously, allowing Thiago to play a ball into the open space in behind. The closeness of the two Liverpool forwards allowed them to occupy the United back three without needing to go man-to-man, and it displayed the virtues of having forwards pushed up against the backline, so when they drop, they can draw the centrebacks out of position.
One of Liverpool’s best strengths in this game was their ability to develop possession structures in the final third, which they were able to maintain for minutes at a time – unlike previous games where the team was unable to set up in the final third and exert consistent control and pressure with the ball. The positioning of Robertson and Jones helped a lot with these structures in the final third. Importantly, as they began to progress up the field, Alexander-Arnold would move up too, offering an extra forward passing option, and breaking in beyond Salah to disrupt United’s defensive structure and not allowing them to settle.
The first half was a promising but also frustrating period for Liverpool. The champions managed to progress the ball well, move into the box, get shots off and create a number of good opportunities, yet poor finishing once again bedevilled what was otherwise a good tactical performance.
The second half started well for Liverpool who managed to pin Sheffield United back even more than they did in the first half. The sheer volume of attacking players involved made defending tough work. In the moments just before Jones scored the first, the Reds had six players in the final fifth of the pitch, and five of them were in the box, whilst Alexander-Arnold was stretching the pitch to the maximum by crossing from the touchline with a drive into the six-yard-box. Jones’ sharp finish gave Klopp’s team the gamestate advantage, and with that and the possession structure they developed, Wilder’s team found it very hard to create opportunities of their own.
The home side manufactured another headed chance, this time missing the target, and shortly after, Firmino combined some sensational dribbling and passing with Jones and Mané, before scoring with a deflected effort. Given his torrid run in front of goal, a little luck with the deflection seems more than deserved.
This game also saw Salah triple his shot attempts for the season in the six-yard-box. Only three weeks ago, Salah had not registered a single shot inside of the six-yard-box – an exceptionally rare occurrence, especially for the league’s top scorer. And whilst Salah was not as involved as he would have hoped to have been in terms of goals, his runs from wide positions and shots inside the six-yard-box did not go unnoticed. With greater involvement in these areas, which is facilitated by the midfielders like Jones, and players like Robertson pushing up and taking attention and defensive pressure off Salah, the Egyptian may find a good opportunity to get back to scoring more frequently, now that he cannot be isolated and doubled up on so easily.
This game was generally in line with most recent performances. Unlike the City and Everton games though, Liverpool did not give away easy chances through errors, and also held the gamestate advantage, which allowed them to play more freely. The Reds still have to make sure they finish their chances and reduce the defensive errors in their game, but a well earned 2-0 win has been coming a long while, and there are more than signs that there is more to come.