Much has been made about Liverpool’s start to the season, and a lot of the discussions have centered around Jurgen Klopp’s team not being what they used to be, regardless of the injuries they’ve suffered. The fact of the matter is that the Reds have been better than any other side in the league this season. Liverpool have lost just a single game so far this season, although it was an absolute thrashing against Aston Villa. They’ve scored 36 goals in 14 games, and currently hold the best goal differential of all teams in the league. Perhaps most crucially, the performances have been good, even despite their injury woes, and they’ve been able to give young players a chance to perform in the side. For a side that some would say haven’t been brilliant this season, Liverpool very well might be on their way to becoming champions again this season. With that, here is a Tactical Analysis of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2020-21.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3
Liverpool’s dominance on the world stage has been incredibly consistent for the past three seasons, even if it took them a couple of tries to win the league. During that time, particularly in the past two seasons, their dominance has been aided by an incredibly consistent starting 11. The centre-back position between Joel Matip and Joe Gomez has virtually been the only position up for debate the past two seasons. But this season, with COVID, injuries to star players, inconsistency and just the strange season that 2020-21 is altogether, all of that has changed. There’s been almost no consistency in the Liverpool side, not even at goalkeeper.
Only Andrew Robertson has played every single minute of Premier League action this season, starting all 14 games and contributing 1 goal and 5 assists so far. Roberto Firmino is the other player to have started in all the league games so far this season, although he’s been left out of the Champions League eleven on all but one occasion. Central midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum is the only other player to have played in all fourteen league games, after his move to Barcelona in the summer fell through. With all of their injury struggles and relative inconsistency, Liverpool have featured 26 different players this season, 1 more than the Premier League allows to be registered on a squad. For context, in the 38-game season of 2019-20, the Reds gave time to 24 different players. This demonstrates the odd circumstances they’ve found themselves in this season, but it’s also a positive. Young players like Rhys Williams, Curtis Jones, Nathan Phillips, Neco Williams, and Caoimhin Kelleher have all been given time this season; more than they would have been given otherwise.Embed from Getty Images
With all that said, without Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool still have a clear sense of their best eleven (or should we say ten). Alisson remains in goal and has done so for 11 of the fixtures so far, but has kept only 3 clean sheets. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s return in terms of assists hasn’t been up to his usually high standards, along with his numbers in crosses and chances created. Fabinho has fared excellently well as a replacement centre-back, showcasing his aerial presence, assured passing and astute ability in 1v1 situations. For what it’s worth, he’s looked like one of Liverpool’s best players this season and currently holds the title as their top tackler. Joel Matip hasn’t found that same level of consistency in terms of fitness, but has been a great partner for Fabinho when available. Meanwhile, we’ve already mentioned the fantastic form and fitness Andy Robertson has been in this season. The Scotsman is one of the few Liverpool players to keep up the same form he had in previous years this time around. Jordan Henderson can be thought of in the same vein and has adopted a role this season as the anchor in front of the back-four, accommodating Fabinho’s positional change. Henderson is extraordinarily comfortable in the role, having played there before the Brazilian’s arrival in 2018. Georginio Wijnaldum has had a major part to play again this season, but the other side of central midfield has been far less consistent. Without Fabinho in midfield, Liverpool have actually adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation on occasion instead, giving Diogo Jota greater freedom to go on and express himself in the Liverpool line-up. When in their traditional 4-3-3 as per usual, Naby Keita and Curtis Jones have battled for a place in the side. Thiago Alcantara remains another excellent option and likely will come back into the side ahead of those players once he is fit again.Embed from Getty Images
Up front, Liverpool have shifted formation and chopped and changed their front-three far more than would have been expected in order to accommodate their new starlet Diogo Jota. The Portuguese winger’s recently gone out injured, and so Liverpool should expect to have some consistency return in that regard. Salah currently leads the league in goals with 13, while Firmino and Mane sit on five each. Given the high standard of both players in seasons past, many have questioned the form of both the Brazilian and Senegalese forwards this season. It’s quite harsh given what they do for their team both in and out of possession, beyond just scoring goals. With Liverpool’s recent form and absolute bashing of Crystal Palace in a 7-0 win, hopefully the questions being asked of the two men will now begin to slow down. In truth, Liverpool have been pretty darn good this season, and each and every player has played their part. All 26 of them.
playing out from the back & switching playEmbed from Getty Images
One of Liverpool’s greatest assets is their ability to keep possession of the ball and play out from the back. It’s probably no surprise to anyone that the Reds rank second (behind Manchester City) in possession (59.4%), pass percentage (86.2%), and short passes per game (596).
During build-up phases, Liverpool often form a diamond shape, utilizing two-centre backs and two of their three central midfielders. Jordan Henderson will drop alongside or in between the centre-backs, who provide varying angles of support, as one central midfielder forms the top of their diamond. The midfielder to fulfill that role is usually the one playing on the opposite side of where Henderson joins the back-line. If he joins on the left of the defenders, the right central midfielder will add to the diamond as the left central midfielder remains high. If he joins on the right, the exact opposite occurs. This often gives Liverpool a 4v2 in build-up phases, as the opposition wingers are usually more concerned about tracking Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, giving Liverpool strength in numbers to pass out from the back.
Another interesting point of consideration with their methodology of playing out from the back is that it is rarely done to penetrate in central areas. They are not usually looking for Firmino to drop in or to free up someone like Wijnaldum or Keita to carry the ball forward. Even if the central midfielder at the top of the diamond is allowed room to carry the ball, they usually play the ball into a wide area shortly afterward. Their methodology of playing out from the back is all about freeing up their fullbacks, to then free up their wingers, to then try and score a goal. That sounds simple, but given how much opposition players focus their attention on Liverpool’s fullbacks, it’s far from easy. They may instead need to play in the opposition winger directly through a gap (as available in the example image), as the fullback makes a forward run off-the-ball to combine.
Jordan Henderson’s role is crucial in this phase of the game, as illustrated by his 82.5 passes per game, the 3rd most in the league. The Liverpool captain can be found in all areas of the pitch every single game. His movement off the ball is impeccable and his teammates show him a tremendous amount of respect in allowing him to get on the ball whenever he pleases. He’s also imperative to the quick switches of play that Liverpool use to combat the opposition’s midfield block, and the ability Klopp’s men have to properly utilize their fullbacks.
Against Crystal Palace, Liverpool had a strong desire to play to their right side and free up Alexander-Arnold. Potentially, this was out of a desire to disrupt the less defensive trio of Zaha, Eze and Van Aanholt, in comparison to Ayew, Schlupp and Ward. This meant that Jordan Henderson would often adopt a position on the left of the centre-backs, quickly switch it to Matip, who would then play in Trent Alexander-Arnold. If they had telegraphed the move, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to find Alexander-Arnold in the same manner. But because they worked the ball quickly from left to right, they were able to capitalize on Palace’s poor positioning time and time again. This is exactly how Liverpool worked the ball out from the back to score their opening goal. In the second half, they played to the left side with Robertson more and more, meaning Henderson adopted a position on the right. So on paper, it actually seems quite simple. For any opposition teams looking to anticipate which side Liverpool want to progress the ball to in their build-up, all they need to do is read Jordan Henderson’s position. Simply saying, “stop Jordan Henderson from receiving the ball” would be too simplistic. Liverpool have far too many excellent passers and carriers of the ball for Henderson to make that much of a difference (although they have performed worse without him). But what opposition teams can do is examine Henderson’s starting position in build-up phases, and understand that likely means the ball is going to be worked back to the opposite side at some stage, with the fullback being the key man they want to find.
pressing from the frontEmbed from Getty Images
One of the hallmarks of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool over the years has been their intense high pressing system. Many have noted that Liverpool don’t quite press with the same fervidity and aggression that they used to, particularly this season. This may be out of a number of contributing factors. One theory might be that such an aggressive high press would not be as sustainable in a year where a pandemic rages on, where they’ve had injuries to several of their key performers already. Another theory could be that Liverpool’s possession and passing statistics have improved over time and they’ve needed to do less pressing as a result of having more of the ball and less defending to do in general. A third and final theory, which has been hypothesized by a few analysts, is that it is an attempt to protect the fullbacks. If Liverpool’s press is broken and the fullbacks are out of position, they can be susceptible to counter attacks in wide areas. By sitting deeper and attempting to cut off passing lanes instead of passing options, the front three allow Robertson and Alexander-Arnold time to adjust if they are caught out of position. Whether or not any of these theories are actually true, perhaps only Liverpool and their staff will know. It is very possible that the increased amount of passes they allow their opposition is a combination of these factors. It is also very possible that the amount of pressure they impose on their opposition has stayed exactly the same when playing their biggest rivals, but not against the likes of Crystal Palace and Fulham. Liverpool were after all, much less eager to thwart Crystal Palace’s attempts to have the ball, than Arsenal or Chelsea earlier in the season.Embed from Getty Images
The simplicity to Jurgen Klopp’s press is probably a bit understated in all of the talk of heavy metal football and the team as a whole being the hallmark for what a good pressing system looks like. Liverpool pressure opposition players when close to the touchline, when they are attempting to play out from the back, and when each individual player is about to receive the ball. The closest to the ball is the one to actively pressure the ball, as the surrounding players form a diamond shape to combat passing options. When opposition players play out from the back for example, this might include Sadio Mane as the first line of pressure, Roberto Firmino drifting inside to try and force the opposition to the outside, Andy Robertson covering that outside option, and Giji Wijnaldum covering the advanced option in midfield. This forces the opposition into bad passes and losses of possession, where the Reds then look to counter attack. As greater evidence of their press continuing on this season to great effect, Sadio Mane remains the team’s 3rd top tackler of those to have made more than 3 appearances. He tackles successfully twice as many times as he gets dribbled past, which is also the case for Firmino and Salah, who attempts fewer, but also gets dribbled past to a far greater infrequency. Diogo Jota is the only one of Liverpool’s front-men who statistically isn’t very good when it comes to tackling or pressing, although his mobility and dynamism means he suits the style of play nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, Mane and Jota are also two of Liverpool’s top foulers. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but it points to their eagerness to win the ball back high up the pitch on both an individual and collective basis. Speaking of fouls, Liverpool have the best disciplinary record in the league. They’ve conceded the least amount of fouls per game, the least yellow cards, and are one of the few sides yet to have a player sent off. When they do press, it is a clear result of wanting to win the ball back, rather than cause harm to their opposition, which is a noticeable distinction from what “heavy metal football” might be perceived to be.
With all that said, the disappearance of Liverpool’s intense press is in part true and in part exaggerated. Salah and Mane don’t really have any degree of defensive responsibilities in their own half, but they are still required to put pressure on their opposition high up the pitch. Mane is more likely to do so in an attempt to force a mistake and win the ball himself, whereas Salah is more likely to do so in an attempt to force a mistake and allow someone else to win the ball. Either way, Liverpool’s high pressing system still exists and to say that it has disappeared would be a fabrication.
chemistry of the front threeEmbed from Getty Images
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Liverpool without mentioning their illustrious, powerful front-three. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have been integral to Liverpool’s success over the past three seasons and remain relatively un-droppable even despite competition from Diogo Jota this season. Each of the three offers Liverpool something different. Mane and Firmino are more defensively minded than Salah, while the Egyptian is more involved in possession, attacking moves and combination play than the other two. Mane is more of a powerful dribbler, constantly getting fouled by the opposition, Salah is a speedy goal-scorer and Firmino is many things wrapped into one. He’s a target man, a false nine, a striker capable of holding the ball up, and the leader in the team’s pressing system. Each of the three have tremendous goal-scoring and play-making ability, although Salah has historically achieved the best numbers in both categories, other than the fullbacks who have assisted more. As any trio of players who have been playing together for this long should, Liverpool’s front men have a tremendous understanding between each other. They almost always appear to be on the same wavelength, even when one of the three of them are trying something absolutely absurd.Embed from Getty Images
Positionally, Firmino’s role as a ‘number 10’ playing in a ‘number 9’ position is quite crucial. This false 9 adaptation allows Salah and Mane to do more of the damage higher up the pitch and be Liverpool’s key goal-scorers. They get all the plaudits, and Firmino gets criticism for not scoring as much. It can sometimes be completely ignored that his role in the team isn’t to score goals. Even those who speak about his role in the side as more than just goals often fail to elaborate. His desire to drop in deep and pick up the ball in between the lines can also be seen when the side play a 4-2-3-1. In this formation, Firmino plays in actually what becomes a very natural ‘number 10’ position for him, as either Salah or Jota secure the striker spot.
In both formations, Firmino’s desire to drop into midfield causes much in the way of chaos for the opposition back-line, even when you think it shouldn’t. For whatever reason, opposition centre-backs are often dragged out with Firmino, even when a defensive midfielder could do the same job. This creates greater space for Salah and Mane to exploit in behind, which they are incredibly effective at doing so. Liverpool aren’t shy about playing longer passes, and this is one of the most frequent times that they do so. Firmino will drop deep to pick up possession, but instead of picking up the ball, a player like Trent Alexander-Arnold will whip in a longer pass in behind the opposition’s defense. The pass will land in the gap that Firmino created in behind the defense, setting Salah through on goal. In the 4-2-3-1, the issues for the opposition defense are compounded with the potential for interchange between Firmino and the striker, further creating chaos.
LONGER, DIAGONAL PASSES & CROSSINGEmbed from Getty Images
For a team so rooted in possession football, Liverpool use longer passes, often diagonal one’s, more than you might think. These passes are usually attempts to play in their front-three when the opportunity presents itself in build-up phases, such as when playing up against a high-line. But, the longer passes can also be used for quick switches of play to the fullbacks, allowing for crossing opportunities in wide areas.
Jordan Henderson, Virgil Van Dijk, Thiago and even Alisson Becker all have tremendous ability to pick out these longer passes and will often do so when they see the opportunity. Given that Salah and Mane are two of the fastest players in the league, it’s easy to see why Liverpool adopt this approach from time to time. Even if these longer passes don’t come off, Liverpool trust their ability to win the ball back high up the pitch and counter-attack. So this approach can be used to set their front-three in on goal, or to simply just get the ball in the opposition half and avoid danger at the back, with the knowledge that the workhorses up front will eventually win it back and go on the attack closer to goal than they otherwise would have been able to do with a slower build-up.
The final note to make about Liverpool’s attack in the 4-3-3 system is that their front three can often be found all on the same side. This creates overloads for their opposition to have to contend with, while getting three of the Premier League’s most dangerous players all on the ball in close proximity. With the fullbacks bombing forward from deep, the balance on the other side of the pitch is not lost. If the Reds can switch play quickly to the other side, or open up a corridor to play in either fullback at any stage in the attack, they trust their ability to put in good crosses into the box. Liverpool currently rank 4th in the league for crosses per game, with 21.
If one of Liverpool’s central midfielders want to be more adventurous instead, the far-sided fullback can also invert, allowing the Reds to maintain their midfield balance and recover against counter-attacks. In Trent Alexander-Arnold’s first season at the club, a lot of the comparisons to him as a Joshua Kimmich like figure who could play in central midfield came out of the slotting in he did for Georginio Wijnaldum’s advancing runs from deep. To a lesser extent, this is still a feature of their play today, particularly in the 4-2-3-1.
conclusionEmbed from Getty Images
Liverpool have started the season firing on all cylinders, losing just one of their opening fourteen fixtures. Their impressive play becomes even more impressive when you consider almost every single one of their players has suffered at least a minor injury this season. The unlucky one’s like Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez to miss longer spells haven’t been missed as much as Liverpool fans might have feared. They’ve undoubtedly been missed, but others have been able to step up to great effect. Liverpool currently appear to be on track for another title win this season, but they will need to continue on their fine form.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Be sure to check out more Tactical Analyses and share your thoughts on Twitter @mastermindsite or in the comments below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!