A familiar fault reared its head as Liverpool once again failed to capitalise on their opportunities and consequently squandered the chance to win. Nonetheless, there was plenty to be pleased with in the performance: Mourinho’s typically deep line was unable to prevent the creation of a couple of big opportunities, and United’s erstwhile prolific attack never really looked like troubling the hosts’ back line. These plus points are both endemic of a change of tactical approach that has the potential to make Liverpool unstoppable.
The new tactic is in many ways a subtle change, but it could serve to dramatically improve results. Out of possession, things are much the same: Klopp has his players pressing high, looking to hustle the opposition into a mistake. This was very effective against United, who were forced to simply put the ball out of play on multiple occasions. The change has come in the approach when Liverpool do have the ball. Previously, attacks have been as frenetic as the turnovers in possession through which they were instigated; in other words, the plan was to nick the ball and then descend upon the goal as quickly and directly as possible. This worked to destructive effect against teams who left gaps to be exploited at the point of turnover, but opponents were increasingly opting to sit very deep against Liverpool so as to negate this risk. In response to this, Klopp has got his team playing much more patiently in the build-up phase. The only way to consistently break low blocks is intricate passing sequences – recently, these have become a much more regular feature. The idea is that teams can no longer feel safe sitting back: if they do so, the likes of Coutinho and Firmino will find a way through with their playmaking talents. This is good in and of itself, but what gives it the potential to be so effective is the fact that the attack still possesses the capability to launch explosive counter-attacks. Teams will be in trouble when they step up and in trouble when they sit deep – once the players are fully adjusted to the new method, there will be no simple way of stopping them.
In some ways, it is strange that this tweak to the system hasn’t come sooner: patient passing when in possession and aggressive pressing off-the-ball are a natural mix. When the opponent is only rarely afforded the ball, their natural tendency is to take more risks when they get it – they wish to capitalise on the fact they are actually in possession by turning that possession into a scoring chance. This risk-taking leaves them more vulnerable to the press: this allows a gap to be exploited at the turnover if it exists, and if it does not then the side playing the possession-based game nonetheless have the ball back. Thus the system serves as a potential way of creating chances, but also as a way of limiting chances for the opponent: given Liverpool’s defensive woes of late, any help they can derive from their tactical setup is welcome. To put it simply, the opposition cannot score if they don’t have the ball – the principle is basic, but the ramifications are significant. All the while Liverpool are moving the ball around, looking for an opening, they are simultaneously relieving the defence of all pressure; they may be called upon as ball-players, but this is one aspect of the game in which Matip and Lovren are fairly accomplished. As such, the new system being employed is working towards improving things at both ends of the pitch.
Why, then, did Liverpool still fail to pick up a win against United? There are two principle reasons. The first is that the adaptation to the new style is a work in progress: the team cannot be expected to transform into Guardiola’s Barcelona overnight, and the incision and fluidity of the passing therefore still left something to be desired at times. After a full season of being stumped by the deep line, it would be unrealistic to demand that the players immediately work out how to consistently unlock it. The second reason is that, even when the chances were cleverly carved out, they were not taken. Emre Can and Joel Matip missed the biggest opportunities of the match, with Mo Salah also failing to turn home from close range. This has been a big problem of late, and can also in part be attributed to Klopp’s tweak of the system. Under the old methods, nearly all of the chances created were 2v1s (or similar) by virtue of the way in which they came about: everyone charged forwards off the back of the press, overwhelming defences and creating easy scoring situations where the ball could just be passed home. Now, whilst some of the chances being made are still clear-cut, the goalkeeper cannot be taken out of the equation completely: faced with beating him, the players are struggling. Admittedly David De Gea is something of an exceptional case – he is one of the best keepers in the world, and his stop to deny Matip was extraordinary. Nonetheless, the problem applies more generally: Liverpool have to get better at burying their chances if they wish to reap the full rewards that the change in style has to offer.
All in all, though, the draw was more encouraging than it was frustrating. There are clear signs that Klopp’s amended tactical vision is starting to be understood and implemented, and when this comes to full fruition it will be fantastic.
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