Daniel Wong tactically analyses Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Southampton, Klopp’s Premier League debut at Anfield against the experience Ronald Koeman.
Southampton earned a deserved point after providing a solid and disciplined away performance at Anfield as Jurgen Klopp still awaits his first Liverpool victory. With a focus on Southampton’s defensive shape and set up, which restricted Liverpool to one goal, courtesy of their £32.5 million Belgian, the Saints showed once again why they had conceded just three goals in their away performances prior to their Anfield visit.
Liverpool: Mignolet; Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Clyne; Can, Lucas, Milner; Coutinho, Lallana; Origi (4-3-2-1)
Southampton: Stekelenburg; Bertrand, van Dijk, Fonte, Cedric; Clasie, Wanyama; Tadic, Mane, Davis; Pelle (4-2-3-1)
Liverpool 1-1 Southampton
Jurgen Klopp opted to field the exact same team that played against Rubin Kazan, bar the replacement of Joe Allen by Lucas, who clearly has a huge role to play in the German’s side. Just as many observed in Klopp’s Dortmund side, Moreno and Clyne were given the license to bomb up the wings, while Liverpool’s defenders and midfielders showed a willingness to go direct, although this strategy did not work as well until Benteke came on in the second half. Meanwhile, Coutinho and Lallana would try to find holes in the Southampton defence and attempt to exploit them. However, off the ball Liverpool worked extremely hard once again, with high pressing starting with Origi, Coutinho, and Lallana, and it showed as Liverpool cancelled out Southampton’s efforts in the first half.
Ronald Koeman set up his team to attack on the counter, and with the exceptions of Tadic and Pelle, the rest of the team selection was set up to be defensively solid. Like Liverpool, the Saints worked extremely hard in the first half, preventing Liverpool from posing any real danger on their goal until Benteke came on. While in possession, Southampton were unafraid to play from the back, and they were mostly capable of doing so, with the option of sending the ball direct to Pelle if they were unable to play out of Liverpool’s high press. Pelle and Mane worked brilliantly together, utilizing Mane’s free role in the centre of the field and the fluidity of Southampton’s attacking midfield. Amazingly, every time Southampton did attack, it was usually a meagre four Southampton players in an attack, yet they still looked capable of posing a threat towards Liverpool’s goal.
Off the ball, Wanyama and Clasie played a man-marking role in the defensive midfield on Coutinho and Lallana, while also showing great football-IQ to cover gaps and break up attacks. The countless times Wanyama broke up Liverpool counter-attacks and attacks shows why he is one of the premier league’s best defensive midfielders. Southampton was more adventurous in the second half, and abandoning their disciplined shape resulted in goals, both for and against, but secured a vital point in doing so.
Southampton’s defensive solidity
Keeping in mind that Coutinho and Lallana live off space in between lines, Origi still being an extremely raw striker (and posing little to no threat on goal in every game he has played this season for the Reds), and Liverpool’s poor shooting record, Southampton adopted a deep 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 when Liverpool had possession in the centre of the pitch, and when the ball was deeper in Southampton’s half or on a flank. By staying compact and restricting space, Liverpool was consistently forced to play the ball wide, or to recycle possession closer to the half-way line. Wanyama and Clasie would follow Coutinho and Lallana’s movement, and since Coutinho and Lallana rarely occupied the same area, one would be able to cover and press for the other.
The midfield four would be willing to drop deep to follow runs (mostly from Coutinho, Lallana, and Milner), relying on their goalkeeper and Liverpool’s poor shooting to restrict chances, though Davis, Tadic, and Mane were all willing to close players down or stay with their men when Liverpool did have the ball, and did so more evidently when Wanyama or Clasie had dropped deeper to follow runs.
Southampton would only apply an aggressive press immediately when they lost the ball, or when they were defending in their own half and if Liverpool was passing the ball around in the centre of the field – particularly Lucas, Skrtel, and Milner. It is also interesting to note that Southampton were willing to leave Moreno relatively alone, and it appears it was right to do so, with Moreno showing from last season his inability to take players on, his sole reliance on his left foot, and his wayward shooting.
They would focus on congesting the field, and when the ball was switched over, they would all converge on him and his passing lanes, forcing the Spaniard into a poor pass, or pass back to Liverpool’s defensive midfield or defence, upon which Mane, Pelle, Davis, and Tadic would apply a press again. Furthermore, they showed a willingness to move higher up the field with their press once Moreno had received the ball, and this worked extremely effectively, bar one or two lapses in concentration in the first half.
This was not without its faults though, and there were a few half-chances and attacking threats resulting from a lapse in concentration, with Tadic and Bertrand guilty on a few occasions. Wanyama and Clasie were so focussed on following Coutinho and Lallana that they occasionally forgot to follow Milner, while Lallana occasionally found some luck in running into gaps between van Dijk and Bertrand. When Tadic didn’t press, Bertrand would pressure higher up the field, and if van Dijk and the rest of the back four, and Clasie or Wanyama did not shift over, half chances appeared. Another issue was the compactness of their banks of four – to constrict the field Southampton ended up leaving Moreno or Clyne in acres of space depending on whichever side of the pitch the ball was on, which allowed Liverpool to switch the play to the other flank, though the Saints did shift over with pace to limit the extent of the danger.
This approach changed in the second half with the introduction of Christian Benteke, who posed a greater threat through his aerial prowess, and Southampton’s later shift to focus on attacking. Benteke offered a powerful box presence and was a target for direct passes, which forced Fonte and van Dijk further and further back, and with the surprise introduction of Juanmi for Clasie (and later Gaston Ramirez for Steven Davis) Southampton lost their tight defensive solidarity. The tight banks of four previously seen, vanished and was replaced by a focus on getting the ball higher up the pitch and pressing, which led to them conceding their fourth away goal of the season via Benteke.
Southampton in possession
Knowing well that Liverpool would attempt to congest the centre of the pitch and force the ball into flank before pressing, Southampton pass the ball amongst their centre backs and wait for Origi and the Liverpool midfield to begin applying the press, where they either tried to pass out of, or would go direct to Pelle or Mane, who would run into the space vacated by the Liverpool pressers. Mane and Pelle’s physicality was heavily relied on to constantly get the ball into the Liverpool half. Once possession was established in the attacking third, Pelle would either drop deep to play one-twos and link up with the wingers, or would remain in the box on the back of the furthest centre back, while Mane (given a free role in the centre on the day) would constantly look to run into the space created by Pelle.
With Tadic, Mane, and Davis all possessing decent footwork, movement, and crossing, the four attackers were able to consistently look threatening in the first half virtually on their own. Amidst all of this, Wanyama would sit and act as the anchorman the whole match, and was extremely vital in breaking up virtually every counter-attack Liverpool threw at them.
With the introduction of Juanmi, Mane, and Gaston Ramirez, Mane was moved to the left side of Southampton’s attack, and Southampton focussed on simply getting the ball into the Liverpool area, relying on the aerial ability of Pelle and quick overlaps from Cedric and Bertrand to pump the ball into the box. By pushing the Liverpool midfield and defence deeper and deeper into their box, Cedric and Bertrand found lots of love in all areas of the flank, the latter of which drew the (rather silly) foul, which resulted in their equalizer.
Brief goal analysis
On Benteke’s goal, Liverpool worked the ball in a similar fashion that they did in the first half, switching the play after Southampton formed their shape. Mane is forced to pressure Clyne hard, knowing he has to prevent the cross into Benteke. When the ball is played back to Milner, Juanmi doesn’t close Milner down, unwilling to leave Lucas. Furthermore, Bertrand is afraid to close Milner down and leave a huge area of open space, as is Mane (having just pressed Clyne). With the rest of the Southampton defence inside their own penalty area, confusion ensues, which gifts Milner a precious few seconds to pick out a cross, which is headed in brilliantly by the big Belgian. Having defended so well all match, it is unfortunate that their rare lapse in work rate and concentration resulted in them conceding.
Southampton’s goal resulted from a silly gift of a free kick by James Milner, who was foolishly intent on leaving a mark on Bertrand. While it would be nice to analyse this goal, it would be wishful thinking to believe that Southampton outthought Liverpool in their set plays. Apart from losing three straight aerial duels in the free kick, Liverpool’s marking was absolutely shambolic, with van Dijk and Mane both completely unmarked. Ironically, it was James Milner’s lack of marking that saw the final touch from Mane end up in the back of the net. The Liverpool captain had absolutely no clue where Mane was, and Liverpool conceded what ended up being the last goal of the match.
When Southampton remained tight and compact, Liverpool rarely found opportunities to get the ball anywhere near the penalty area, instead cycling the ball around their midfield and defence. While occasionally finding gaps, players were closed down almost immediately, and Coutinho and Lallana rarely found space and ended up dropping deep to receive the ball. Liverpool looked much more threatening when Benteke and Firmino came on. Benteke pushed the Southampton defence back, while Firmino brought the Brazilian flair and inside play that had been lacking the whole match. Origi and Coutinho have been massively disappointing for Liverpool, and Klopp will surely be wondering how he can get the best out of the diminutive Brazilian and the young Belgian, who looks lost in the attack.
Meanwhile, the same problems Rodgers struggled to cope with remain – Liverpool’s defence looks shaky defending long balls, set piece defending remains a difficulty, and they are constantly unable to break down organized sides. It’s not as if Southampton parked the bus – they were simply too organized and compact for Liverpool to deal with. And as mentioned previously, mistakes and lapses in Southampton’s organization did exist – they just weren’t exploited, nor did Liverpool do anything to recreate those situations. But looking at Klopp’s record at Dortmund, given time, the German should get Liverpool firing.
Southampton on the other hand continue to impress, despite losing many of their stars over the last few years. With Mane’s consistently good performances (bar his sending off) and Wanyama’s defensively commanding midfield presence, it isn’t too hard to imagine it will be another difficult summer for the Saints. The match could have finished 0-0 had Southampton stuck to their original game plan, but they decided to be more adventurous and although they conceded and equalized only due to a poorly defended free kick, they gave a solid all round performance fully deserving of a point.
Written by Daniel Wong
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