Liverpool have started the season with a convincing 3-0 victory in their opening game, with Virgil Van Dijk returning and performing well. Last season, the Reds had to handle their injury crisis, but eventually, it caught up to them. A third-place finish for the Reds was flattering, given the circumstances.
However, this season, many expect to see a more consistent Liverpool side and their attack back to its effective ways. Like many top managers, Klopp evolves and constantly looks to implement new ideas to break down his opposition.
This tactical analysis will look at their opening game against Norwich City specifically to see if we can notice any new patterns and what principles have remained from Liverpool's previous seasons under the German manager. Also, the Football Manager 2021 replication tactic.
Liverpool used their typical 4-3-3 formation which we expected. So in terms of the team shape on a team-sheet, nothing has changed for the new season.
Liverpool lined up with Alisson in goal, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Tsimikas played as the full-backs (Andrew Robertson out with injury). James Milner was positioned as the pivot of the midfield that had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita ahead of Milner. The front-three for Liverpool saw Mohammed Salah and Saido Mane in their typical wide positions, with Diego Jota getting the nod ahead of Roberto Firmino.
Average positions map from WhoScored.com
At times, Liverpool's attacking shape during the game resembled more of a 2-1-4-3 that saw both full-backs push up to the midfield unit alongside Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita. Although, this unit was hardly ever vertical as we saw many positional rotations, especially with Alexander-Arnold, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mohammed Salah. We saw scenarios where Trent Alexander-Arnold underlapped Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain overlapped Trent, which pulled defenders out of position, and Mo Salah could exploit gaps both wide and in the channels.
As Liverpool broke here, Trent Alexander-Arnold, who started out wide, made a run inside whilst Salah, who was in a narrow position, went wide. This movement creates a more significant gap between the two defenders, and the wide defender also has to keep an eye on Salah running wide, which pulls the defence apart.
The 4-3-3 formation was fluid that had players roaming and interchanging, making Liverpool unpredictable and difficult to withstand. Norwich City had a difficult time tracking players when Liverpool transitioned from their creative to penetrating phase.
When Liverpool played out from defence, the central defenders circulated the ball to open up and a passing lane to a full-back. The full-backs saw a lot of the ball; Kostas Tsimikas had 82 touches, which was the 2nd most for Liverpool whilst receiving the ball the 4th most (42 times). Trent Alexander-Arnold had 68 touches and received the ball from his teammates 32 times. The full-backs are heavily involved because Liverpool tended to build up with a wider shape, which opened up the central channels. Norwich set-up in a 4-5-1 when Liverpool patiently built out from the back.
When Liverpool could not work the ball as they hoped, they were not afraid of utilising their Ball-Playing defender Virgil Van-Dijk who would then attempt to break Norwich down with a long diagonal pass. Van-Dijk ended this game by attempting 23 long passes on the pitch, even more than the opposition goalkeeper Tim Krul (22). The Dutch defender also had an excellent success rate with these longer passes, completing 19 out of the 23 resulting in 82.6% success.
After 18 seconds of patient possession, Virgil Van-Dijk decided to go long to break Norwich down after spotting a wide run from Sadio Mané. This was one of a few successful long pass attempts from Van-Dijk which proved to be effective.
Liverpool looked to have kept their patient approach during the early stages of building up as last season, but having Virgil Van-Dijk back will play a considerable role during defensive situations and how Liverpool breaks teams down and gets the ball to their dangerous front three.
Naby Keita did much roaming during the build-phase and came deep to collect the ball, more than Oxlade-Chamberlain, and also had the responsibility to occupy the central pivot space if James Milner moved alongside or between Van-Dijk and Joel Matip. Just like their attack - positional rotations.
Building from the back, Liverpool mostly had a 4-1 shape if Norwich were in their 4-1-4-1, but Liverpool's 4-1 shape was not positionally disciplined. It could be James Milner in the pivot space, or it could be Keita, and if it were Keita, then Milner would have dropped in defence which would have allowed Trent Alexander-Arnold to get further up the pitch or Tsimikas. If Norwich engaged higher with more bodies, then Liverpool would react by having a second midfielder drop deeper, creating a 4-2 shape.
Attacking Principles & What's New?
In attack, Liverpool also used the wider areas to create their chances, and Trent Alexander-Arnold created the most shot-creating actions with 5. The full-backs play a crucial role for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool.
Using the full-back in the wider area is how they scored their first goal against Norwich. After patient build-up from the back, James Millner played the ball out wide to Alexander-Arnold, who had acres of space. After slowly progressing with the ball to assess his options, he fizzes in a pass to Mo' Salah, who miss controlled the ball, but after a slice of good fortune, the ball fell into Diogo Jota's path, and he smashed home the opener.
This goal also highlights that Liverpool do not just use the wider areas purely to cross the ball into the box. They are also effective at working the ball into the box from these wider areas. Trent undoubtedly has a great cross, and Liverpool does utilise that strength on top of working to find different routes and avenues to work the ball into the box from the flanks.
Liverpool against Norwich had full-backs making inside or underlapping runs. Is this new? This worked with their positional rotations, and full-backs inside movements meant that a player had to be wide to create the space for the full-back to run into.
Above are examples of Liverpool's full-backs (not exclusively) making underlapping runs, and this played a part in their chance creation as it created space in vital areas between the defenders. If the player making the run is found, he can drive towards the byline to play a pass across the goal or pull it back to a teammate, resulting in a clear scoring chance. Given how effective this was against Norwich in disorganising their defence, I do not see Klopp ditching the underlaps anytime soon. Trent liked moving inside previously. That seemed to stifle some attacks in previous seasons, however, against Norwich it was effective.
In their transition to attack, Liverpool move with pace and will certainly continue with their counter-attacking approach after winning the ball - it is what they are great. Previously when Firmino started games, he drops deep into the midfield whilst Salah or Mane (or both) make runs behind Firmino. In previous seasons, this could form a diamond 4-4-2 with Firmino on top of the midfield diamond, and Mane and Salah very central they could have average positions as a front two.
With Diogo Jota starting in Liverpool's opening game, the front 3 shared the responsibility of dropping to collect the ball and was usually decided by where the ball was. If Liverpool were on a quick counter on the left, then Mane or Jota would drop deep to help with the transition. On the right, it would be Salah or Jota.
Below are shots of how Liverpool scored their third goal against Norwich, which started as a Liverpool counter-attack. By this time, Roberto Firmino entered had the field for Diogo Jota but the same approach. Firmino was the one who started this move out on the left, so he dropped whilst the two others made their counter moves.
To summarise their attack. Liverpool like to attack with pace, use the wider channels, rotate positions and counter after winning possession. There were some intriguing underlaps, so that is certainly something to keep an eye out for.
Defensively, we expect to see a typical Liverpool side out of possession. Press high, prevent the goalkeeper from distributing efficiently and look to win the ball back soon after losing it.
Liverpool force the opponents outside, and when they press wide, they form defensive triangles or diamonds depending on how many players the opponents have in that wide area. Forcing the opponents outside can result in the opponents playing backwards or making mistakes if the press is set up well because if they pass the ball centrally, Liverpool will pounce and can counter, but also the touchline is an extra defender as the player in possession can not play the ball wide.
Last season, the full-backs became more reserved as Liverpool had injuries, so they altered their defensive principles. However, with Virgil Van-Dijk back and Joel Matip fully fit, that extra solidarity is not needed, and the full-backs can be aggressive again like they were in their opening game.
As Liverpool force their opponent's out wide, Liverpool's full-backs do well in pushing up and engaging with the opponent wider players and use the opponent's pass out wide as their pressing trigger.
In this scenario, it forced the central defender in possession to pass it back, allowing Liverpool to push their defensive line higher. As the ball is worked back eventually to Tim Krul (Norwich goalkeeper), he had little option but to kick the ball long as the attacking players pressed and closed down his passing options. Liverpool then recovered possession.
They also deploy a man-marking system of a sort, higher up the pitch, making it difficult for the attacking team to find the right passing option. This aggressive approach off-the-ball puts pressure on the opponents and forces errors in possession so Liverpool can use their deadly counter-attacks.
But, unfortunately, that wraps up this Jurgen Klopp tactical analysis. In terms of shape and overall approach, not much has changed to maybe two seasons ago. Last season, they were rocked with injuries that forced many personnel changes and were forced to alter their tactics. We may see subtle tactical changes, slight improvements, and intriguing set-ups to break down sturdy defences this season.