Why Liverpool & Klopp failed against Man City & five Premier League tactical lessons
The Reds took too long to devise a suitable game plan against Pep Guardiola’s side, while Chelsea’s need for a new playmaker was highlighted
The title race is back on thanks to Leroy Sane’s winning goal for Manchester City against Liverpool on Thursday night, in what was a fascinating battle between two of the world’s best coaches.
There were plenty of things to talk about after the match at the Etihad Stadium, and yet the Arsenal and Chelsea games were arguably even more revealing, showing the tactical problems emerging for both Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery.
Here, Goal looks at five points you might not have noticed during the midweek action…
Pep Guardiola’s team put in arguably their best defensive performance since his arrival at the club. His front five held their nerve in a high block, pressing the ball superbly but also leaving the centre-back alone, preventing Liverpool’s midfield from gaining any real control of the game.
However, Liverpool should have worked out an alternative strategy much sooner than they did.
Jordan Henderson does not have the technical ability to receive the ball against such a crowded City press, and yet Liverpool persistently tried to pass around their hosts rather than look for a longer out-ball. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane could have done more to affect play (rather than wait for their midfielders to solve the problems), while Roberto Firmino should have dropped deeper to help Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Liverpool’s goal was the only time in which they successfully outmanoeuvred the City press to create space in the final third. It was also the only time Mane dropped and tucked inside, turning a City midfielder deep inside his own half.
By the time the Reds equalised Jurgen Klopp had brought Fabinho on, which turned the game in their favour thanks to the Brazilian’s sweeping long diagonal passes. However, the visitors should have attempted this much sooner; given that Dejan Lovren is poor on the ball, it made sense for the full-backs to pull wide and make themselves available for longer passes than go straight over the top of City’s blockade.
Hesitancy – to take risks with longer passes, to change things tactically – cost Liverpool the game.
After the 0-0 draw with Chelsea, Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl praised the “good mixture” of defensive styles used by his team at Stamford Bridge, and indeed their seamless transition between periods of high pressing and sitting deep was testament to the new manager’s tactical coaching.
Saints look organised, disciplined, and hungry, suggesting they have what it takes to avoid the drop this season. Their 3-4-2-1 allowed the two inside forwards, Nathan Redmond and Stuart Armstrong, to push on and press the Chelsea defence, a big feature of the opening 20 minutes when Saints bombed around the pitch, refusing to let the hosts settle into a rhythm.
It set the tone for the match: Southampton’s wing-backs stepped up to prevent Eden Hazard from turning on the ball, while their high energy levels ensured they could counter-attack on occasion (particularly after Shane Long replaced Danny Ings, the Irishman holding up the ball with greater dexterity). To sit back for 90 minutes would have allowed Chelsea to gradually move through the gears and grind out a win.
But the visitors read the pattern of the game superbly and were happy to drop into a 5-4-1 when appropriate. Chelsea’s rigidity certainly helped, and yet credit goes to Hasenhuttl for his defensive strategy; their shape meant Hazard was triple marked by the right wing-back, right sided centre-back, and right central midfielder, all without Southampton losing balance in the centre of the park.
Chelsea are nullified too easily these days, and that’s because Maurizio Sarri’s tactics are predictable; not only do they always line up in a 4-3-3 (with the same roles for every position each week), no player is given the freedom to roam out of their role. It’s all too static, piling pressure onto Eden Hazard to produce some magic from the left.
The solution, judging by their performance against Southampton, is to sign a new left-sided central midfielder and a right winger. Ross Barkley is unable to take a game by the scruff of the neck, instead drifting around the left half-space and only occasionally showing for the ball. Chelsea need this role to be filled by a genuine playmaker, a Christian Eriksen-type who will persistently confound his opponents with his movement and incisive one-touch passing.
If they cannot introduce fluidity in this position, then perhaps it should come from the right. The Blues were at their most dangerous when Willian darted infield and began to link with Barkley and Hazard as a No.10 – and yet he only did this two or three times. The 4-3-3 formation does not have space for an out-and-out No.10, which is why, traditionally, one of the wingers is inverted into this space.
Chelsea need to enter the transfer market. Right now, it’s all too easy to track the runs, to hold a defensive shape and to make them look flat.
In each of West Ham’s last six matches they have won every game in which they held the minority of possession, while they failed to win (losing two, drawing one) each time they held the majority.
This run of form highlights why Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-4-2 formation is only suitable when West Ham are able to play on the counter-attack; if holding the ball for long periods, there simply is not enough cover on the flanks.
Pablo Zabaleta and Aaron Cresswell held very high starting positions throughout their 2-2 draw with Brighton, Felipe Anderson and Robert Snodgrass rarely tracked back, and with only two central midfielders there was not a spare man to shift out wide and provide cover. Altogether this made the Hammers highly vulnerable to breaks down the wings, which is exactly what happened to earn Brighton the two corners from which they scored.
Alarmingly, just two minutes after the second goal, Brighton’s left-back Bernardo went clean through on goal and should have scored. All he had to do to get into that position was jog unchallenged down the left and beat a panic-stricken Zabaleta.
The 4-1 win over Fulham flattered an Arsenal side that could easily have gone 2-0 down at the Emirates, and once again it was Unai Emery’s tactical mistakes in the first half that set the tone for a clumsy performance by the hosts.
The 3-4-3 system was too flat, meaning Arsenal struggled to connect the midfield with the attack; the absence of a linking No.10 forcing them to pass in a U-shape down the flanks – despite central midfield being Fulham’s most vulnerable zone of the pitch.
Their completed passes map (below) shows the remarkable extent to which Arsenal simply avoided central attacking midfield. Alex Iwobi drifted too far out to the left, making him an impossible target for Granit Xhaka or Matteo Guendouzi, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang played on the shoulder of the last defender even though the Gunners were not attempting balls over the top.
It was all far too disconnected, improving slightly in the second period when Emery switched to a 4-3-3; the third body in central midfield briefly helped sew things together.
But it also gave Fulham greater success on the counter. Facing a back four, suddenly the visitors could play a more direct game, feeding Aboubakar Kamara once Claudio Ranieri changed to a 4-4-2. All in all, it was a sloppy, awkward 90 minutes for Arsenal – and a clear sign that life without Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey – who scored the crucial third goal from the No.10 space four minutes after coming on – could be tough for Arsenal.
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