Thom Ollig writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League match that ended Stoke 1-2 Liverpool.
Champions League is not just about money, but also prestige. For Liverpool in particular a Champions League spot means a completely different influence on the transfer market, with possibilities to both tie up the absolute top players in Europe, but also keeping hold of key players as Coutinho for example. Prerequisites to fulfill and build on their reputation.
After the Merseyside Derby against Everton, Liverpool are with seven games left not only blessed with having only the Premier League to focus on, but they are also done with the top-seven teams. Due to this two facts among the one that Liverpool currently find themselves in third spot, the Reds are in everything but a bad position when it comes to securing the Champions League spot for next season.
On the other hand, Stoke are not playing for a spot in the Champions League, but rather in the Premier League, and although the Potters currently find themselves in a safe position, eight points clear to Swansea in 18th place, an away game at Britannia Stadium is never an easy game, regardless of what team is visiting.
Stoke (4-4-2): 33. Grant – 8. Glen Johnson 17. Shawcross 15. Martins Indi 3. Pieters – 22. Shaqiri 20. Cameron 4. Allen 10. Arnautovic – 19. Walters 9. Berahino
Substitutes: Allen → Adam (27), Walters → Whelan (68), Adam → Sobhi (81).
Liverpool (3-4-3): 22. Mignolet – 6. Lovren 32. Matip 17. Klavan – 66. Alexander-Arnold 23. Can 7. Milner 2. Clyne – 5. Wijnaldum 27. Origi 58. Woodburn
Substitutes: Woodburn → Firmino (45), Alexander-Arnold → Coutinho (45), Origi → Sturridge (68).
The inability to put pressure on solid Stoke
Klopp did not form his usual 4-3-3 this game, and started as mentioned instead with a three man backline, in a 3-4-3. This was their primary formation, but Liverpool adapted their formation throughout the game, mostly as they defended, and then primarily in a 3-5-1-1 with Wijnaldum sinking into the central midfield, and Can stepping into a “balance role” between the lines. This shape was compact and therefore difficult for Stoke to penetrate, as Liverpool with their three man backline had a numerical advantage against Berahino and Walters, and also due to their balance player Can were able to easily overload the flanks, to support their wingbacks against the individually skilled Shaqiri and Arnautovic.
Compactness is not the same thing as pressure though, and in this game we were to witness that, as Liverpool due to Woodburn and Origi’s lack of defensive runs had a difficult half winning the ball back once they had lost it. Mostly in the first half, it took Stoke to make a scoring attempt for Liverpool to win the ball, because otherwise Stoke did not have that much of a problem keeping hold of the ball. All due to the lack of defensive support from Woodburn and primarily Origi. Also a proof of how important the strikers are for a team’s defending-conditions.
Putting pressure on Stoke while defending was not the biggest issue Liverpool had in the first half though, but rather putting pressure on Stoke’s goal. Because of how Liverpool formed their defending shape and how low they tended to sink, the Reds were able to as mentioned stick compact both horizontally and vertically, but were then unable to put any particular pressure on Stoke’s goal.
Although Woodburn and Origi were positioned high up the pitch while defending, they had a hard time threatening Stoke, as the home side neutralized them by pushing up high with their flexible and fast centre backs, to stay compact between the lines. Woodburn alone with Origi were not enough to both draw Stoke out of position to create space for one another, and penetrate it at the same time. This lack of offensive threat made Liverpool look very weak, and Stoke comfortable enough to put an very aggressive pressure on Liverpool whilst defending.
Liverpool punished as wingbacks try to support with offensive runs
As Liverpool had no threat on the flanks other than the wingbacks Clyne and Arnold, Shaqiri and Arnautovic were able to stick higher up the pitch and not prioritize the defending that much. As the three man backline of Liverpool already had two strikers to take care of, Clyne and Arnold were unable to make any offensive runs and put that kind of pressure on their centre backs.
As the three points were what Liverpool went for this game, they had to put more offensive pressure on Stoke, and the nearer we came to the half time whistle, the more offensive runs we saw from Clyne and Arnold. The wingbacks started to compensate each other in a more flexible way to be able to take this runs. While one fullback took the offensive run, the other one created a four man backline with the remaining three centre backs, to overcome the otherwise numerical advantage Stoke would be getting.
Instead of a 3v4 scenario, Liverpool instead now found themselves in a 4v4 scenario and were able to put more pressure on the flanks on Stoke. A 4v4 scenario was still a risk though, since one defensive mistake, would be an immediate threat to the goal of Liverpool. This was confirmed many times throughout the first half of the game, but especially in the goal by Walters.
The crucial substitutes turn the game around for Liverpool
After a disappointing first half from Liverpool’s point of view, a half without any real threat to Stoke, Klopp decided to make two substitutions coming into the second half. The youngsters Woodburn and Arnold went out, and in came Firmino and Coutinho. Klopp decided to ignore the balance role completely, and instead play a more continuous 3-4-3. Milner moved out onto the left hand side as wing back, Clyne took Arnold’s place as wingback on the right hand side, Can pushed up into a more offensive role in the central midfield alongside Wijnaldum. The substitutes Firmino and Coutinho created a three man partnership with Origi up top.
With these substitutes, Liverpool first of all got better individual qualities on the pitch, qualities that can turn around any 1-0 disadvantage, against any team.
Second of all, Liverpool had two offensive midfielders, instead of one. Midfielders that by their occasional occupation of Stoke’s wingbacks, forced support from the wingers Arnautovic and Shaqiri.
Last but not least, the three man partnership plus Can (who made many vertical runs) up front meant that Liverpool destroyed most of Stoke’s opportunities to put an aggressive pressure against Liverpool and rule the game, as most of Stoke’s players were occupied.
To summarize, Liverpool did not only put more general pressure on Stoke’s goal, but also neutralized their offensive threat and aggressive pressure by pushing back the wingers and occupying more Stoke players. This along with the fact that Stoke had the lead, made them almost completely focus on their defending. Hughes therefore decided to substitute Whelan for Walters, and put him in, just as Can in the first half, a balance role between the lines, to give the midfield more permanent support against Liverpool’s continuous overloads in the last third. Hughes would surely be regretting this substitution though, since Stoke just 5 minutes later found themselves not only even with Liverpool, but also behind, as the two substitutes Coutinho and Firmino made sure they had been worth bringing on.
Although Liverpool before this game had won the last six out of seven games between the two teams, they seemed to be the next in the list of club’s dropping points at Britannia stadium, as Walters scored his seventh goal against them. But although the first half went as it did, Klopp would not be giving up that easily, and showed it by bringing on Firmino and Coutinho. In the end it proved to be three massive points for Liverpool, points that make them keep hold onto their third place in the league.
Stoke on the other hand, continue their bad form as this was their fourth loss in a row. Although the relegation zone is eight points and 5 teams behind them, Stoke and Hughes have a lot to think about.
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