Monday 21 October 2019

Aidan O'Hara: 'Ole removing United shackles gives Klopp's men the chance to open up'

It’s a stretch to think Lukaku or Mata will have the defensive capability to help Shaw cope with Salah. Photo: Reuters
It’s a stretch to think Lukaku or Mata will have the defensive capability to help Shaw cope with Salah. Photo: Reuters
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

There was something fitting that the final player to be name-checked by him as Manchester United manager was one that would barely sell a single United shirt or create any ripples on social media had he been snapped up by them a couple of seasons ago.

"I get tired just looking at Andy Robertson," said Mourinho after the 3-1 defeat at Anfield in December in what proved to be his final match in charge. "He makes a 100-metre sprint every minute." As every sprinter will tell you, however, it's a lot easier to build up a head of steam when there's absolutely nothing in front of you.

In Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool have players whose direct running creates a perfect attacking platform when combined with the movement and abilities of the players in front of them.

In a traditional 4-3-3 formation which Jurgen Klopp tends to favour, the three forward players are usually responsible for their own third of the pitch if the pitch is divided in three lengthways.

At Manchester City, for example, Raheem Sterling will occupy the right third closest to the touchline, Leroy Sane does the same on the other side and Sergio Aguero looks after the middle section.

Conundrum For City's opponents, this creates a conundrum of deciding whether to mark the wingers closely which stretches the defence across the entire width of the pitch and creates gaps to be exploited inside, or to stay compact which gives Sane, Sterling or their replacements the chance to pick up the ball in space and run at them.

At City, both players have licence to cut in from the central position but it's extremely rare to find all three in one of the wide thirds of the pitch. For Liverpool's opponents like Bayern Munich last Tuesday and Manchester United tomorrow, they have to cope with the opposite problem.

Because they failed to score, Liverpool's attacking performance came in for some criticism after the Bayern stalemate but this was a classic example of outcome-based rather than performance-based analysis. On several occasions, unlike, for example, Liverpool's stifled performance against West Ham, Bayern were opened up by the full-backs thanks to a well-executed tactic of Klopp's which compresses space in order to create space. The only thing that went wrong was the wrong option being taken at the finish.

Unlike City's front three, Liverpool's trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah tends to play a little bit narrower, creating space for the likes of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to exploit with several typical examples coming against Munich.

After 17 minutes of the first half, Liverpool had a throw-in with, as you would expect, Salah as an option down the line and Firmino dropping short; however, the key to this particular move is Mane, who drifts into the central position.

Once he does this, the Bayern full-back Joshua Kimmich has a choice of whether to pass Mane on or stay with him and once he chooses the latter option, the trap is set.

In figure 1a, Liverpool's front three are circled; however, in the bottom right of picture lurks Robertson with the entirety of the left side of Bayern's half in front of him and Kimmich with his back to him.

With one pass after the throw-in, Liverpool find Mane who drives at Kimmich but, for reasons best known to himself, goes it alone (figure 1b) and the chance peters out.

Five minutes later, the Liverpool front three, in figure 2a, are all close to each other (highlighted) and, again, Mane has dragged Kimmich from a right-back position into the centre of the defence creating a massive overlap for Robertson to run into.

This time, it's Naby Keita in possession but, because of the pace at which he drives at the Bayern defence, it's impossible for Robertson to catch up and allows Kimmich to alter his body position (circled in figure 2b), meaning that when he eventually passes to Robertson, the German defender can close him down.

In the second half, Bayern adjusted slightly with Serge Gnabry dropping deeper in his right midfield role to counter Robertson when Liverpool had the ball on the opposite side. However, Klopp's tactics still allowed Alexander-Arnold to profit when Kingsley Coman switched off.

In Figure 3a, Firmino (circled) has dropped deep to receive a throw-in with Mane and Salah ahead of him in a tight triangle. But once the throw-in is taken to Jordan Henderson, he switches play to Alexander-Arnold who drives past Coman and creates an attacking opportunity.

Like Mane and Keita in the first half, however, Alexander-Arnold takes the wrong option by crossing the ball deep when (figure 3b), he has a simple pass to Firmino which would have created a 3 v 3 scenario very close to the Bayern box. Again, it was the execution, rather than the tactic, which let Liverpool down.

Significantly, in all cases of attack, Liverpool have only committed four or five players into the box, meaning that if the attack breaks down they shouldn't be susceptible to the type of counter-attacks United have produced since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge.

Occupy With everybody fit, Solskjaer would almost certainly start both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial on the wings who would have the pace to stay with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold while the three central midfielders of both teams occupy each other.

With both likely to miss out, it could mean a re-adjustment in personnel and formation to United's excellent display against Chelsea last Monday because while Marcus Rashford has the speed to track Robertson, it's a stretch to think Romelu Lukaku or Juan Mata will have to defensive capability to help Luke Shaw cope with Salah while simultaneously watching Alexander-Arnold's marauding runs.

Salah hasn't scored in three games against United but, on each occasion, has been marked by Ashley Young meaning that every time Salah cuts onto his favoured left foot from the right wing, he is also going onto Young's stronger side.

Since Solskjaer took charge, however, Young has mostly been deployed at right-back and Klopp will be confident that Mane can exploit Young's occasional ability to switch off - much like he did to a far better player in Kimmich - while Shaw's apparent reincarnation will be tested by Salah.

Until their victory in December, no Liverpool player had scored from open play in the previous four league meetings against Mourinho's United but, once that dam burst, so too did Mourinho's hopes of survival.

Solskjaer has since taken off the shackles but, if he maintains the same approach, Klopp will be confident that, just like against Bayern, Liverpool will create plenty of chances. The only question, this time, is can they execute?

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