Southampton came away from Anfield with a well-deserved 3 points after a fantastic team performance which saw Liverpool end their 12-game Premier League unbeaten run stretching back 6 months to March 16th, when Liverpool lost 3-1 to – you guessed it – Southampton.
The surprise in the starting line-up was the inclusion of all four senior centre-backs, with Kolo Toure at right back over Andre Wisdom and Martin Kelly, while Sakho got the nod ahead of Jose Enrique, who had a slight injury, at left back. Southampton had Wanyama and Schneiderlin in the central roles, with Osvaldo behind Rickie Lambert and Lallana and Jay Rodriguez on the flanks.
Liverpool Back Four
Liverpool got off to a jittery start, with Mamadou Sakho, Daniel Agger and Simon Mignolet all guilty of hesitant decision-making in the opening stages. Kolo Toure, at full back, only went on to complete 66% of his passes, and Martin Skrtel was eventually taken off to accommodate Toure back into the right centre-back spot. Despite the slightly unexpected back four, the line up was actually very logical elsewhere. There were suggestions that Henderson could feature through the middle as the runner and third central midfielder, however he simply stuck to the role from his previous 4 appearances this season on the right hand side. Moses kept his starting spot on the left, while Coutinho’s absence opened up a spot for Iago Aspas centrally, playing in and around Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge was typically coming deep to receive and then turning, while Aspas stretched the play high, so they ‘dovetailed’ in this sense, because Sturridge’s starting position was high on the centre-backs, while Aspas began deeper and closer to the midfield.
The loss of Philippe Coutinho affected Liverpool in more ways than one. With Luis Suarez still out of the side, there was a distinct lack of innovation and creativity, which is an easy observation to make, but it also caused a lack of fluidity going forwards. If Coutinho/Suarez take up intelligent positions to receive, or makes an intelligent movement with the ball, it automatically gives the surrounding players the initiative to go and occupy or vacate a space of their own to accommodate them.
In previous articles we have talked about the Brazilian dropping deep to receive ahead of the play, which allows Gerrard and sometimes Lucas to drift forwards, provides an extra body in the middle of the pitch to retain possession, and also presents a zone of uncertainty between the defensive and midfield line as he picks his times to drift in and out.
Instead with Aspas higher up behind Sturridge, we had that same zone of open space, except that it wasn’t a threat because there was no Liverpool player to take advantage of it. Balls into Aspas had further to travel, and for a player still settling into the Premier League it was difficult for him to grasp the game in such an important position. He only completed 65% of his passes, overwhelmed in the central areas, and perhaps better off out on the right with more space and time to make decisions.
This lack of nouse and quality in the middle really hurt Liverpool and also prevented them from getting back into the game upon going behind. Rodgers changed things at half-time, and reasoned whether a ‘runner’ in Jordan Henderson through the middle would have been more effective? A third midfielder to retain possession more, also with the ability to run in behind Sturridge, and the added bonus of disrupting the ball retention of Southampton.
Sterling came onto the right, and Henderson moved central, but what effect did this have? I got the opinion of Tom Dent, a coach with Follo FK in Norway (Twitter: @denty24), who observed this about Liverpool’s failure to recognise opportunities to hurt Southampton:
‘Osvaldo is not a worker, or clever enough to understand that there is a space void, and this meant that one of Gerrard, Aspas, or even Henderson could have drifted into this space and occupied, which could have left Wanyama in a 2v1 situation. However Liverpool were too concerned about the prevention of them imposing their style of football, and kept trying to do it without a huge amount of success.’
This was reflected firstly by Rodgers chosen substitutions, choosing to use Henderson as a runner/destroyer, rather than encouraging the central players to overload Wanyama. Also, statistics showed that Liverpool only won possession back in the attacking third twice and six times overall, supporting the idea that there was little to gain by stopping Southampton from playing. Liverpool actually won the possession battle with 55.3%, however, when Liverpool did push forward, there were occasions when Southampton were able to play into areas behind Gerrard and Lucas far too easily upon winning possession.
Pochettino used a high press, making it very difficult for Liverpool to build from back’. It was a clever tactic from Pochettino, using a waved press to force a long, central ball where their ball-winners Fonte, Lovren, Schneiderlin and Wanyama could easily overpower Aspas and Sturridge in the air. Below you can see the first stage of the press:
The striker shows the split centre backs wide, while the middle three stay within pressing distance of the defensive midfielders and full backs, Wanyama and Schneiderlin prevent an easy ball into the middle, while at the same time tempting a short pass into feet which they can then press at high intensity.
If Liverpool played the ball into the full backs, Dent explained how the ‘wave press’ continued:
‘Lallana and Rodriguez pressed the centre-backs who had split from goal kicks. The full backs covered behind as a second defender while Osvaldo drifted to that side to screen balls into the Liverpool central midfielders. If they beat this block, Wanyama and Schneiderlin would cover across together, one to cover the space left by the high full back, then one as a second defender for anything that went inside. While this occurred, the team reorganised its shape. Lallana and Rodriguez covered spaces in the middle, but there was always a two in the middle.’
So this was a day to forget for Liverpool and a fantastic tactical battle between Rodgers and Pochettino, with many interesting and developing topics within both teams. Rodgers will be concerned with how his team can bounce back from the defeat, while Pochettino will continue to develop the impressive strategy he has used to dominate games with the players at his disposal.