Manchester City were defeated by Newcastle United at St. James’ Park just a day before title rivals Liverpool faced Leicester. Pep Guardiola’s men actually started the game well with an early goal from Sergio Aguero from an unorthodox assist by Bernardo Silva. Somehow, Rafael Benitez managed his squad brilliantly, allowing them to clinch a precious 2–1 victory.
Knowing they could thus widen the gap to seven points, Liverpool came into this match with high hopes. The home side won their previous two matches against Brighton and Crystal Palace by scoring five goals, thanks to their deadly frontmen led by star man Mohamed Salah. Meanwhile, Leicester City came to Anfield on the back of a string of bad results. Claude Puel’s side had lost all of their previous three games, including a humiliating defeat to League Two side Newport County in the FA Cup.
As expected, Liverpool dominated the majority of the game. Sadio Mane’s goal in the third minute was the first piece of evidence. Unluckily for the Reds, Harry Maguire bagged an equaliser for Leicester late in the first half. Jurgen Klopp’s side tried their utmost to the winner but they failed to do so. The game ended in a draw and Liverpool were only able to widen the gap to five points. This tactical analysis will inform you how the match unfolded.
Liverpool opted for their usual 4–2–3–1. James Milner and Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s absence from this game forced Klopp to play Jordan Henderson at right-back. In the middle of the park, Naby Keita stood alongside Georginio Wijnaldum. Xherdan Shaqiri returned on the right wing to support the deadly trio of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Salah.
Puel set his team up in a 4–4–1–1. Former Manchester United player Jonny Evans played alongside Maguire at the back. Demarai Gray and James Maddison provided the width on both flanks. Up top, Jamie Vardy was supported by Marc Albrighton, who was playing slightly behind him. Kelechi Iheanacho, Shinji Okazaki, and Hamza Choudhury had to start the game on the bench.
Liverpool started the game in brilliant fashion. After a solid minute of possession, Mane found Andrew Robertson empty on the left flank with a simple pass. The Scottish full-back then played the ball into the feet of Firmino. The Brazilian, noticing Mane had already made his run inside the left half-space, smartly flicked the ball into his path. Mane then gave Liverpool a great start by slotting the ball calmly inside the far post to make it 1–0.
Despite conceding an early goal, Leicester opted to play defensively in a 4–4–2. They happily used a compact 4–4–2 when they didn’t have the ball. Going forward, Leicester would opt to use counter-attacks as their main weapon, utilising Gray and Vardy’s deadly pace.
Liverpool were not satisfied with just one goal. They were constantly looking for the second goal but Leicester’s low-block gave them problems. In the first phase of their build-ups, Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip always struggled to distribute the ball forward because they had to face Albrighton and Vardy in front of them. Klopp then tasked one of his midfielders, usually Wijnaldum, to create numerical superiority against Leicester’s frontmen. This resulted in smoother first phase build-ups by Liverpool.
Liverpool also used a quite similar approach to what they had deployed against Crystal Palace in the previous gameweek. They sent their full-backs high on both flanks to provide width. By doing this, Liverpool were hoping for them to send crosses into the box whenever possible.
Klopp’s choice to implement this tactic had other consequences. In the newly-shaped 3–4–3, there were some adjustments to the attackers. Shaqiri was tasked with tucking inside and dropping into midfield from his initial position as a right winger. This filled the vacated area left by the dropping midfielder.
Salah, Firmino, and Mane were instructed to stay close to the defenders, sometimes placing themselves in the channels between the back four. This was so they could receive the ball directly to their feet. When one of them got the ball, they would then combine with his teammates nearby to create chances. Klopp was very aware of his attackers’ ability in tight spaces, hence why he opted to use this approach.
In the 23rd minute, Puel made some changes to his team. Gray, who was initially playing as a right winger, was moved to the left wing. Maddison made way, and move himself behind Vardy. Albrighton then switched to the right flank to complete the adjustments.
Gray was considered to be Leicester’s best dribbler. In his new position, he had to face an emergency right-back in Jordan Henderson. He gave the home side’s captain a lot of problems with his pace and magnificent dribbling. There were some moments when Henderson was misplaced or late to track back; these moments were exploited by Leicester, thus making Gray their main outlet in attacks.
Gray actually possessed less defensive quality than Albrighton. Sometimes the youngster was badly positioned, therefore allowing Henderson to freely receive on the right flank. Whenever Henderson received the ball, he would try to send it into the box with his crosses. Luckily for Leicester the crosses resulted in nothing, as a result of Maguire’s rock-solid performance.
On the opposite side, Robertson’s attacking threats were perhaps the main reason why Albrighton was sent to the right flank. Robertson was very aggressive and very willing to join the attacks. He could even be found inside Leicester’s penalty box to receive crosses at the far post.
The former Aston Villa player possessed a better defensive ability than Gray and Maddison, therefore making him the most logical option for Puel to be his right winger. Albrighton was more disciplined defensively and successfully limited Robertson’s threats because of that trait.
The ‘Slabhead’ played brilliantly in attack and defence. In defence, he was very sound thus making The Foxes almost impenetrable. Maguire won five out of seven duels and made ten clearances in total. His ball distribution was not bad either; all three of his long pass attempts found their targets in this game. Offensively, Maguire was more than good for his team. When names like Vardy and Maddison failed to create anything, Maguire stepped up and score the equaliser for his team with the last kick of the first half.
Apart from Maguire’s outstanding performance, we must give credit to Puel’s choice to utilise dead-ball situations. When his counter-attacks didn’t work in this game, he still has a potent alternative for set-pieces. Puel used Maguire very well in such situations, and his goal was a result from one of the set-piece routines.
Puel would place Maguire at the far post in dead-ball situations. At the far post, Maguire usually only had Henderson to face because Van Dijk was placed more centrally. Maguire’s sheer size gave him the qualitative superiority and allowed him to dominate Henderson in aerial duels.
Besides, when he came from the far post he would be almost undetectable. This happened because he came from the defender’s blind-spot. With his undetectable runs and supreme aerial ability, Maguire was a nightmare for Liverpool’s defence throughout this match.
Surprisingly, Liverpool had no response to this. In the 52nd minute, Leicester got another free-kick in a relatively similar place to the one that led to Maguire’s goal. Again, Klopp’s men allowed Maguire to be completely free at the far post. Maguire came from Henderson and Van Dijk’ blind-spots and both of them somehow did not learn from what had happened just minutes before.
Unfortunately for Leicester, Maddison’s free-kick was a bit too deep, and Maguire was unable to head the ball directly at goal. Instead, Maguire headed the ball across the goalmouth, hoping for one of his teammates to tap the ball in. In fact, the ball arrived at Firmino’s shin and deflected towards Alisson’s goal. Alisson reacted brilliantly by saving the ball with his feet to keep the score even.
Deeper and deeper
Leicester were more cautious in the second half and opted to sit deeper, especially for the last 15 minutes. At times, Leicester even used 6–3–1 defensively in order to nullify Liverpool’s wing-play. In that shape, both full-backs would tuck inside and the wingers would retreat in parallel with the defenders.
Puel sent Choudhury on for Maddison in the 75th minute. As a right winger, the newly-introduced 22-year-old didn’t even cross the halfway line in his cameo performance. Instead, he made one great tackle to deny Mane from creating a dangerous chance late in the game. Then, the French manager added Okazaki for more defensive solidity in the 84th minute.
Once again, Liverpool had it hard against a team with a compact low-block. Klopp made some attacking adjustments from his team’s previous match but they were not enough. The absence of Milner and Alexander-Arnold did limit his team’s ability to create from the right flank. Henderson was not quite the man to fill the job.
Liverpool were also a bit lucky because their defensive failures went unpunished. Especially in dead-ball situations, there were some errors that would have cost the Reds in another match. On the other hand, we must give credit to Puel and his players, who smartly exploited Liverpool’s weaknesses. His defensive approach worked as planned, and his set-piece routines were excellent.
Approaching this weekend, the gap between Liverpool and Manchester City is five points. With 14 league games remaining and Champions League duty for both teams, the title race is far from over. Klopp now has a huge amount of homework to do, namely to improve his team’s ability at both ends. If he fails to do so, Liverpool will always struggle against lesser teams and their title hope could be in danger.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the January issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.