Where Liverpool Have Gone Wrong This Season – Tactical Analysis

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Much of the dialogue going into this weekend’s Liverpool-Manchester City match centered around the fixture as a potential title decider for Liverpool. The assumption was that if Liverpool lost, their hopes and dreams of winning the title would dash before their eyes. As it turns out, Liverpool didn’t just lose, but were badly beaten and bruised by a terrific Manchester City side that absolutely terrorized the Reds. It was their third home loss of the season and fifth in total. So with all of their struggles this season, not just against Manchester City, we take an in-depth look at where Liverpool have gone wrong this season. Here is our latest Liverpool tactical analysis.

what’s missing without virgil van dijk?

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So many things, is the answer to the above question. Virgil Van Dijk’s absence in the Liverpool team has been one of the most discussed topics of Klopp’s team this season. Van Dijk’s injury, compounded later by injuries to Gomez and Matip, has meant that Fabinho and Henderson have had to play an awful lot of time at centre-back this season. This has caused a ripple effect that has disrupted their normal balance in midfield, and the urgency and fervidity to which the fullbacks normally gallop forward. For all the quality that Henderson and Fabinho have on and off the ball, they don’t have the same experience being in the sort of positions that they’ve found themselves in throughout the season. Henderson in particular looked susceptible for City’s second goal, where Virgil Van Dijk probably would have been able to shrug Phil Foden off the ball. They also don’t really know where to pick up their position when Alisson has the ball at his feet, which proved to be absolutely detrimental for City’s third goal.

Just look how disorganized they look! Alisson had no options nearby, had pressure on him from Sterling, and probably should have just hoofed the ball long. But he had just made a previous mistake from going long and so he panicked, played the ball short to Fabinho (who was giving him nothing), only to find out that Bernardo Silva was there instead. It looks very bad for Alisson, but it’s a direct result of Liverpool not having players in their normal positions, who have become accustomed through years of playing at centre-back and defensive midfield, developing knowledge over time of exactly where to be in certain situations, such as when the goalkeeper has the ball under pressure.

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Virgil Van Dijk is also an exceptional passer of the ball, including long driven long balls in behind an opposition’s defense. The weight of this has fallen to Trent Alexander-Arnold instead, who has been forced to make long passes from deeper on the field, where he’s been less effective and less adventurous linking up down the right and advancing into positions where these types of passes are more likely to lead to a goal. Thiago’s also been tasked with spreading long passes and well…we’ll talk about that.

The one positive for Liverpool without Van Dijk is that they’ve been able to identify Nathaniel Phillips as a genuinely solid centre-back option. Phillips might not play for Liverpool forever, but he does look like a very comfortable, confident centre-half who can play in a sort of robust, no-nonsense Dejan Lovren type of way. Speaking of Dejan Lovren, Liverpool’s decision to sell him looks like a very bad one and didn’t really make sense at the time. It’s a bit shocking that it took Liverpool so long in the January transfer window for them to finally give in and sign two new centre-backs. The signing of Thiago in central midfield in the summer perhaps contributed to their reluctance, since theoretically Liverpool don’t lose too much by dropping Henderson and Fabinho out of the midfield line. But as it turns out, they do.

thiago’s tactical threats to liverpool’s harmony

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One of the most underratedly successful aspects of Liverpool’s play in the past few years has been their right-sided combinations of Alexander-Arnold, Henderson and Salah. Henderson is very adept at covering for the advancing Alexander-Arnold, but he’s also great at linking up with the young right-back. The Liverpool captain has been and will always be a team player in that regard. Thiago Alcantara on the other hand has been very individualistic in his role inside the Liverpool team. He plays with a swagger and an air of confidence that can’t be matched in Liverpool’s roster. This can be a good thing in terms of his desire and urgency to make things happen for Liverpool. But it can also be a bad thing in terms of his desire and urgency to make things happen for Liverpool. First and foremost, Thiago’s been a bit of a luxury player for Liverpool, which you can’t really have from your number six. He tends to float wherever he pleases and doesn’t really stick to one position. That’s fantastic when you have someone as disciplined as Joshua Kimmich, or even Fabinho or Jordan Henderson in alongside you. It’s even more fantastic when you have someone with the non-stop energy levels of a Thomas Muller in front of you. But this constant floating of Thiago’s movement has posed several tactical problems for the Reds. Their defensive structure and shape is constantly in flux with no stability or coordination, as others are constantly having to abandon their roles to make up for where Thiago should be. He’s also become something of a very terrible tackler. He doesn’t seem to win any tackle when he goes to ground, he gets booked every game, and he’s made significantly more fouls per game than any other Liverpool player. The Spaniard is still mobile enough that he’ll win a few tackles per game, but most of them tend to be little toe-pokes, where his team have done well to press and he’s in the right place to shut a player down from there.

Thiago’s involvement in the team hasn’t just disrupted their defensive shape, it’s also disrupted their attack. When he plays on the left, he constantly looks for sideways switches of play to the right, and when he plays on the right, he constantly looks for sideways switches of play to the left. This poses a few issues. First of all, Robertson-Wijnaldum and Henderson-Alexander-Arnold have spent countless hours developing a relationship to link up with each other in wide areas. Without that link, Alexander-Arnold is constantly trying to create from deeper. He knows that if he plays in Thiago, he’s probably not going to get it back. Trent’s crossing numbers have almost been cut in half from last season, and he’s been far less creative. Robertson’s also been less influential, putting in more crosses than the intricate link up play down the left that’s rewarded him so many assists in the past. They’re not playing to their strengths, and that is partially down to the lack of stability in the team from midfield.

The second issue that Thiago’s created is a constant concoction of passes that don’t really do much. Thiago’s sideways chipped balls twenty feet in the air look pretty, but they give opposition teams more than enough time to shift across and shut things down. The Liverpool midfielder hasn’t scored or assisted a goal so far this season, and instead just seems to float around the pitch trying to make too much of an impact with fanciful tricks, skills, and passes twenty feet up in the air. He’s undoubtedly one of the most talented players in the world, but Thiago Alcantara has actively been disrupting Liverpool’s harmony in midfield. It’s a shame to see and a shame to say, but some of Liverpool’s best games this season have simply come without Thiago in the roster.

misfiring front three

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It’s no secret that Liverpool’s front-three haven’t been up to their usual standards this season. It’s become almost a psychological issue at this point, and only Salah appears to have any goal-sense about him at the moment. Liverpool are over-reliant on Salah and don’t really look to engage the other two with long-ball passes. Against Manchester City, it was almost like they were waiting for the perfect moment to play Salah, in the hope that he’d win something in the box or pull off the spectacular. Against City, Alexander-Arnold picked out the right pass from deep, Salah found himself with space to advance into momentarily and as soon as he realized he was going to be cut off by John Stones, he fell and won himself a penalty. Liverpool cannot rely on moments like this if they are going to win football matches. They need to engage Firmino and Mane constantly throughout their attacking moves, as they found a way to do in seasons past.

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Beyond Van Dijk’s absence meaning less accurate long-balls being played into their paths, the front-three just appear to lack that same urgency they’ve had in previous years. Mane doesn’t have his finishing boots on, Firmino doesn’t take enough shots and Salah doesn’t tend to do much off-the-ball to be anything more than just an out-and-out goal scorer at the moment. He’s done brilliantly to be the league’s top scorer on sixteen goals in twenty-two matches, but Mane and Firmino haven’t exactly pulled their weight. Normally Mane and Salah would be battling to be Liverpool’s top man in attack. That just hasn’t happened this season and Mane appears to have some psychological concerns with his finishing in front of goal that he might need to have help in sorting out from the Liverpool coaching staff. Beyond their normal front-three, Diogo Jota had an immaculate impact in the early months of this season. The Portuguese forward scored five goals in his first nine matches at the club. If they hadn’t lost Jota to injury, who knows where Liverpool could be right now. As a result, they will be hoping their Portuguese star comes back as soon as humanly possible, to help them get back on the right track. For now, Liverpool’s front-three continue to misfire and looks unclear where the Reds can go from here.

concluding thoughts

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Liverpool have had a torrid time of late, but they still remain in position to finish in the top four. If they can sort out their issues at centre-back and restore Fabinho and Henderson to the midfield, Liverpool may find their success returning in a blink of an eye. Mane and Firmino will need to get their shooting boots on again, and if not, Diogo Jota should offer an extra special threat when he returns from injury. Liverpool might not win the title this year, but there are certainly several steps they can take to get back on the right track this season.

So there it is! A tactical analysis of where Liverpool have gone wrong this season. Be sure to check out our analysis of Liverpool back when everything was going so swimmingly this season, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…
-> Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)
-> Pep Guardiola – Manchester City – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)
-> Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis


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