Ryan Tank writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League group stage match that ended Spartak Moscow 1-1 Liverpool.
Spartak Moscow: Artyom Rebrov; Andrei Eschenko, Ilya Kutepov, Serdar Tasci, Salvatore Bocchetti, Georgi Jikie; Fernando, Mario Pasalic; Aleksandr Samedov, Ivelin Popov; Luiz Adriano.
Liverpool: Loris Karius, Alexander Arnold, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno; Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Philipe Coutinho; Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino.
Spartak Moscow headed into the match with a lot of injury trouble. Quincy Promes – arguably their best attacker – was confirmed to be unavailable just days before the match. Before the Dutch, Roman Zobnin, Denis Glushakov – the captain -, and Ze Luis had been also confirmed to be out. The injury record and the fact that Spartak are currently ranked 8th, raised the pressure bar on Massimo Carrera. So, the match against Liverpool, for sure, was a real test for Carrera and his troops.
Liverpool on the other hand came in on the back of an important win against Leicester City. But on the night, Liverpool could only manage a draw despite a magnificent attacking display.
The starting formation
Liverpool’s General Set-Up
On the left side, Coutinho was slightly deeper than Can on the right. Coutinho was often found dropping to the half space or flank in both middle-thirds which pushed the full back higher up the pitch. The Brazilian acted as the support for the half space combination among Mane, Moreno, and Firmino. From a deeper position, Coutinho also acted as the first point of the horizontal transition as well as the player who made the laser pass to the last line or switched the ball to the far flank.
From deeper areas, Coutinho ran with the ball diagonally through the half space , and generated three offensive options. The option he picked was Salah.
The Salah option was a constant in Liverpool’s offensive phase. Liverpool applied such a scheme by making a long or ground – pass to the last line, particularly to the widest player on the far side of the last line. Such passes were usually done from the opponent’s middle third. After some rondo on the left side flank, for example, the ball would be played back to the middle third and followed by a long pass to the center with the inverted far forward as the target.
Paired with Coutinho – as the secondary 6 – was Jordan Henderson as the nominal 6. The skipper mostly occupied the central sector of 6. At times, Henderson moved to the half space to help in progressing the ball to the advanced players.
Liverpool’s attacking principle was to generate penetration access through the half space (will be explained later). Salah on the right side and Mane on the left often occupied the half space in the final third. In the second half, after the introduction of Wijnaldum and Sturridge, Liverpool used these two fresh players to attack the right half space.
In their press, Liverpool’s forward trio oriented to Spartak’s defender trio. In the second line, Coutinho and Can marked the opponent’s central midfielder duo. Here in the midfield line, Liverpool could gain the numerical advantage that helped them regain possession on numerous occasions as they managed to kill Spartak’s build up play. With 4-3-3, Liverpool basically gained the numerical superiority in the central sector. This was the case as in their pressing practice. When Can and Coutinho went for Pasalic and Fernando, Henderson acted as the spare. Spartak tried to overcome such situations by narrowing their far wide-10 into the playing block. The problem was it can’t always be done with proper timing. In turn, such deficiency made it easier for Liverpool to regain possession in Spartak’s own half.
Spartak Pressing and Liverpool’s Overloads
Klopp’s Liverpool love to overload the flank and half space. They also display a lot of rotational movements between players to keep the opponent guessing throughout the match. As expected, they displayed these principles again as The Reds performed a fluid offensive play that created a lot of valuable chances. This was one of the best Liverpool performances despite coming out with only a point.
Above represents what was one of the key battles. The attacking movements of Liverpool were set up to capitalize any space created between Spartak’s wide 10 and wide back. Klopp’s boys clearly dominated the play throughout the match. They made it hard for Spartak to develop their build up as Liverpool managed to make use the numerical superiority in central midfield. They also tried to initially play outside of the opponent’s block followed by the interplay in the half space to create access into all the 18-yard area.
As we can see above, it was Salah who occupied the half space. Arnold and Can made a double-occupation on the flank corridor. So, why was this the key battle?
Carrerra set up his players to play with a 5-2-2-1 basic shape. Luiz Adriano, the nominal 9, focused to secure the 10 space right in front of Spartak’s central midfielder duo. His initial duty was to avoid Liverpool from comfortably playing through that space. When Liverpool played it wide and lined up with two 6’s, Adriano would shift wider and get himself as close as possible to Liverpool’s ball near 6. At times, Adriano stayed with the opponent’s far ball 6 as the near ball one was occupied by Spartak’s wide-10. When Spartak developed the press into the higher area, at the appropriate moment, Adriano and the near wide-10 would go to press both Liverpool’s center halves.
As the part of his initial duty, Adriano would stay central and let the ball side wide-10 step up to put a press on Liverpool’s ball carrying center back or full back. This was the situation when the vertical space between two Spartak’s wide-men widened.
Wide-10 onward press resulted in a wide-open space (grey area)
The graphic that shows the key battle was the situation when Spartak’s middle press allowed a vertical hole between two wide-men. As we can see, the wide-10 and wing back stayed compact vertically supported by a good connection between Pasalic and Bocchetti. This all in turn established a strong spatial compactness within the pressing block. Spartak managed to avoid the said hole and blocked the access to the near half space.
Adriano’s movement also provided defensive support. The 9 put Henderson behind his cover shadow as well as made it hard for Matip to step forward thus indirectly easing the defensive task of Popov and Pasalic.
For Liverpool, they actually established an ideal positional structure. The double occupation on the flank stretched Spartak’s horizontal compactness as it dragged the near wide-men to the wing which also meant space created for Salah. In the next action, Matip passed the ball to Arnold who made a diagonal forward pass to Salah. But, Bocchetti was able to intercept it. Jikia recovered the loose ball and passed it to Pasalic, but Liverpool managed to gegenpress and regain possession. This scrimmage continued with Spartak making a break through the far right flank before ending up with a foul by Eschenko to Can.
In the central sector, Firmino was contained by Tasci and Fernando. Particularly, Tasci, who as identified in the other situations, often acted as the secondary-6. Tasci moved forward to cover the six when one of Liverpool’s forward trio occupied the space behind Fernando and Pasalic. Such behaviour often managed to enable Spartak’s back line to intercept to the incoming pass to the said forward, even though in one or two occasions Liverpool almost capitalized.
Liverpool’s half space attack had some different attacking purpose. The occupation on the half space can be used to provide a decoy so the ball carrier (full back on the flank, for instance) generated access to play a forward pass to the center forward who made a run to the advanced flank.
It was also used to create a dummy player in the half space. Liverpool made a double half space occupation in this scheme. The first player let the incoming ball, from the flank, go through him allowing the second player to receive the pass. This was followed by an arch run from the first player to the flank as the second player made a one-touch pass to onrushing first player.
One of the good examples of creating access via half space plan was the shot by Arnold in the 78th minute. Dejan Lovren made a pass to Moreno on the left wing. When Moreno received the pass, Liverpool managed to drag all Spartak’s wide-men to the flank since the near wide-men oriented to Moreno and Coutinho who made the double occupation in the near flank. This double occupation created big space for Firmino in the half space. Firmino received a diagonal pass from Moreno and made a quick short combination with the left back who came into the center through the half space. As Moreno received the return pass and approached the center, Arnold made another diagonal run from the far flank. Moreno noticed this and played a pass to Arnold and the young full back let fly on goal.
In the second half, the introduction of Sturridge and, especially Wijnaldum provided another dimension in Liverpool’s attack. As the Dutchman was more explosive than Can, along with the tiredness among Spartak’s defenders, Liverpool were able to create more promising attacking situations.
Spartak’s Wing Attack and Deep Passes
The progression pattern was simple. Spartak tried to access Liverpool’s third through the wide area. Build up from the back with a highly structured-sophisticated positional play is not the Spartak’s way against Liverpool. Carrera’s tried to build up from the back, but, for (the extreme) comparison, the purpose is not to establish the Pep’s-esque play. Spartak build up was a phase where they were trying to establish a stable structure before progressing it through the wide area. This was a logical decision, as the opposition was a team whose press is their ultimate weapon. Carrera chose the method where he wouldn’t insist his boys to play through Liverpool’s block.
The back three, in the buildup, would go as wide as possible and pushed the wing back forward. The basic formation within Spartak’s build up was 3-2-4-1. One of the simple patterns Spartak did was from the half back, the ball was played to the near 6 that moved to the flank in the space between Liverpool’s full back and wide forward. This would be followed by a short simple pass from the receiving 6 to the wing back near to him. When the wing back receives the ball, the near wide-10 moved forward through the channel between the opponent’s full back and center back to receive the through pass.
The other progression pattern was to generate the space for a deep pass. For example, when the center half carried the ball, two players from the central midfield sector would drop deeper to get closer to the ball carrier. Such a move would drag the opponent’s middle-line to move forward thus creating more space for Adriano, in the last line, to receive the deep pass.
Sometimes, Spartak’s first line also managed to make use of Liverpool’s pressing tendency, as shown below.
Spartak made use of Liverpool’s pressing behaviour. But, even from such a situation, the progression was still difficult because Liverpool’s deep players always managed to make the proper cover
The way Spartak managed to secure the space behind their midfield line was arguably one of their strengths and key in containing Liverpool’s attack. Some valuable interceptions and tackles made by the defensive trio stopped Liverpool form penetrating into more dangerous zones. But, Liverpool, as the post match statistics suggest, were the better side in general. Particularly in the offensive phases, Klopp’s players were able to create way more valuable chances than Spartak did.
In the end, Jurgen Klopp summarized it perfectly, “Liverpool have mastered the art of playing well but not winning”.
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