UEFA Champions League 2021/22: How Liverpool’s pressing efforts saw off Milan in thrilling opener – tactical analysis
Putting Liverpool and Milan in the same sentence screams exciting football nights. While that final in Istanbul will probably always be remembered as the most epic meeting between the two teams, their UEFA Champions League 2021/22 opener in Group B was as intense as it gets with Milan’s complete turnover in the first half and Liverpool’s composure to get back in the game and win the three points in the end.
The 3-2 result came after a complete dominance by the Reds but also after some very intelligent Milan actions that showed the side’s ability to take advantage of their chances.
An early own goal by Fikayo Tomori set the tone for Liverpool and gave them a boost which resulted in intense attacking actions and winning a penalty kick. A goalkeeper save kept Milan’s hopes high and they got awarded for their patience by scoring two goals in two minutes at the end of the first half.
The Reds didn’t settle and equalized immediately after the break, continuing to play on the front foot until they took the lead again in the 69th minute after a Jordan Henderson strike.
Line-ups and formations
Jürgen Klopp set his team up in the usual 4-3-3 with Alisson on the goal and Andrew Robertson, Joe Gomez, Joël Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold in the backline. Fabinho orchestrated the midfield surrounded by Naby Keïta and Jordan Henderson. The front three consisted of Divock Origi in the centre and Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah on the flanks.
Тhe team were very balanced and used all channels to attack, although they were the most active on the right where Alexander-Arnold supported the offensive actions with his movement.
Stefano Pioli opted for his favoured 4-2-3-1. The ex-Ligue 1 player Mike Maignan covered the goal, while Davide Calabria, Simon Kjær, Fikayo Tomori and Theo Hernández supported him in a four-man defensive line.
Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié supported the team in and out of possession in defensive midfield. Ante Rebić led the attack with the Real Madrid loanee Brahim Díaz in the attacking midfield position again, flanged by Alexis Saelemaekers and Rafael Leão.
Giving away possession and staying deeper than usual resulted in very few positional attacks for Milan, although they managed to break through on a few occasions and scored two goals out of three shots on target.
Liverpool’s pressing efforts
Klopp’s pressing strategy was once again crucial for their performance. The team managed to limit Milan’s movement and successfully controlled their build-up through off the ball movement and anticipation.
Milan were positioned deeper than usual which affected their ball progression as it gave Liverpool a chance to pin them back and control their offensive movement. The Reds made sure to press high but not irresponsibly with Origi pressing on the centre-backs while Jota and Salah were assigned to cover the half-spaces where they can easily intercept any balls to the full-backs, Calabria and Hernández.
This limited Milan’s movement on the sides, which immediately affected their efficiency in attack as Hernández didn’t have enough freedom to go higher up the pitch or cut inside as per usual. It was Keïta and Henderson though that made the difference in the centre by constantly pressuring Bennacer and Kessié who are crucial for the Rossoneri’s build-up.
Liverpool’s movement tested Milan’s creativity and resulted in them losing possession on a few occasions thanks to the Reds’ centre midfield pair. Starting off with a more balanced pressing approach and a PPDA of 9.7, Liverpool jumped into more intense pressing after taking the lead thanks to Tomori’s own goal.
They quickly realised, though, that this is a quite risky approach against Milan, who can exploit spaces well should they have the chance. And that’s exactly what happened when they saw Liverpool’s engagement in pressing the ball carrier with PPDA reaching 4.7 at one point in the first half. The Rossoneri’s creativity and quick actions showed up and caught the opposition off guard and they managed to take advantage of the spaces left by the highly positioned defensive line.
After conceding twice in a couple of minutes, Liverpool approached the second half with increased attention and more balanced pressing which lasted until scoring their third goal, starting to press more intensively after it in an effort to keep the lead.
How Milan reacted
Milan’s pressing efforts weren’t even nearly as organised as their opponents’. They often couldn’t counteract Liverpool’s fluid movement in possession. The forward line often failed in blocking the lanes and in pressing Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, which resulted in Liverpool’s total domination on the flanks. The Reds’ 18 positional attacks through the right side were possible thanks to the full-back’s movement and combinations with Henderson and Salah, which often dragged the Milan players out of position and allowed them space.
Díaz also couldn’t handle Fabinho’s movement centrally. The Brazilian was crucial for Liverpool’s actions in possession and orchestrated the play in the opposition half well, finishing with 92% passing accuracy. He managed to win eight out of his 12 defensive duels and the ineffective pressing by the Milan players allowed him to progress the ball successfully.
In possession, Milan heavily relied on Hernández and his movement on the left as 12 out of 15 of the team’s positional attacks were created through the left flank. He would combine with Tomori, Kessié and Díaz in aim to open the passing lanes and advance the ball. He didn’t have the usual freedom to constantly cut inside and to stay in the opposition half but he did create three of the Rossoneri’s six chances on the goal.
Milan bypassed the press on a few rare occasions thanks to better positioning and spatial awareness which allowed them to switch positions and attack on speed. This managed to break Liverpool’s pressing structures and confuse the players. Despite being 98% efficient when attacking through the central channels, they didn’t stick to that approach.
This allowed them to engage the defenders and open space for Rebic’s movement who moved across.Their inefficiency and lack of movement on the right and centrally though made them rather predictable and helped Liverpool in anticipating their actions.
Liverpool’s dominance in numbers
The key to Liverpool’s successful attacking actions was their constant movement and efficiency in exploiting spaces. Despite the penetrative attacking triangles on the right, the team balanced off and split the build-up responsibilities well, by using all channels. With 60.42% of the possession on average, they created 47 positional attacks.
Even in times when Milan pressed high, Liverpool’s movement off the ball was key and they easily managed to open the passing lanes. Whenever they dragged a player out of position another Liverpool player was ready to occupy this space and help in ball progression. This was the key to their fluidity.
Their constant press and aim to win the ball also resulted in counter-attacking seven times, although Milan’s defenders had composure in their own half and only one of these attacks ended with a shot.
Another indicator of the Reds’ successful positioning and the press is the number of recoveries in the game. They recovered the ball 81 times (29 in the final third and 28 in midfield) with the midfield trio throwing a lot of effort into gaining back possession. For reference, 39 of Milan’s 64 recoveries happened in their own third and only five in the advanced areas.
As our analysis showed, Liverpool’s pressing strategy and aim to win the ball back was key for blocking Milan’s efforts in attack, while their fluidity in possession is what got them on top of their opponents at the end. Milan’s couple of sparks of creativity resulted in scoring twice but their overcommitment to attacking through the left side turned against them, made them predictable and allowed Liverpool to counteract.