UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Liverpool vs FC Midtjylland – tactical preview
The 2020/21 UEFA Champions League began last week, gameweek two has come around only a week later and this week, Liverpool face Danish side FC Midtjylland. FC Midtjylland have earned plaudits from many due to their transfer strategy inspired by the Moneyball theory, owner Matthew Benham, also owner of Brentford has helped them overachieve given their resources and a very impressive way.
Liverpool started their Champions League campaign well having beaten Ajax 1-0 away last week. They overcame an early set back against Sheffield United this season to win 2-1 and will now turn their attention to FC Midtjylland, who they will be expected to beat.
FC Midtjylland lost 4-0 at home to Atalanta last week but bounced back from this by winning 3-2 away at Brondby IF, courtesy of a late Marvin Schwabe own goal.
This tactical analysis will provide a tactical preview on the tactics of both sides, particularly at the blocks and attacking threats of both sides. Video analysis will primarily be used, while statistics will be used when necessary.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Gomez, Robertson; Thiago, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Salah, Firmino, Mane.
The back five is likely to stay the same with Joel Matip and Virgil Van Dijk injured. The midfield could differ depending on the fitness of Thiago. If Thiago were to be unfit, expect Jordan Henderson or Gini Wijnaldum to slot into the pivot role depending on who starts and Curtis Jones potentially start ahead of James Milner. I expect Jurgen Klopp to revert back to the 4-3-3 against FC Midtjylland and although Diego Jota has performed well, the usual front three should start.
However, don’t be surprised if Klopp sticks with the 4-2-3-1, likely to allow him to start Jota and for his side to match up to FC Midtjylland’s 4-2-3-1 to provide Firmino more support in the high block to cover both pivots.
FC Midtjylland (4-2-3-1): Hansen; Paulinho, Scholz, Sviatchenko, Cools; Evander, Onyeka; Dreyer, Sisto, M.Anderson; Kaba.
Brian Priske is likely to stick with his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. The back five may change slightly from the side that lost to Atalanta with Dion Cools starting at the weekend and could retain his place for the visit to Anfield. The double pivot is likely to stay the same. At times, Pione Sisto could drop slightly deeper in defensive situations or he could replace Mikael Anderson out wide with an extra midfielder in the slightly advanced midfield role. Sory Kaba will spearhead the attack.
How will Midtjylland deal with the Liverpool high block?
Liverpool will look to block high as they usually do. This season they have allowed 9.38 passes per defensive action (PPDA), similar to their PPDA last season. The Liverpool attack will look to press the Midtjylland front three in an effective way. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane will press from wide to inside as they press the centre-backs to cut the passing lane to the full-backs. If in a 4-3-3, Roberto Firmino will sit deeper to block the passing lanes to the Midtjylland midfield, if Liverpool play as a 4-2-3-1 then the CAM and ST will cover the Midtjylland pivots.
Midtjylland are likely to stick with their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, with a double pivot and if Liverpool play a 4-3-3, Firmino will have trouble positioning to dissuade passes from the centre-backs to the pivots on his own and will be joined by one of the Liverpool midfield three. The other midfielders will look to cut any other potential passing lanes, to the wingers wide or to the attacking midfielder in a more central position. The defence will also push up with a high line which we have seen teams take advantage of recently, below is how they are likely to set up.
Midtjylland prefer to not play short passes when under pressure in possession, as they only made 14.92 losses per 90 in their defensive third this season, compared to 50.06 losses in the attacking third, as they attempt longer passes that are riskier to lose possession.
It’s likely that Midtjylland will try to surpass the two furthest forward lines of block with longer passes, looking to reach Sory Kaba close to the Liverpool defence, with his back to goal to lay off their pacey deep runners. Alternatively, if the Liverpool defensive line doesn’t drop quickly enough, the longer pass may be of such high weight that it also surpasses the Liverpool defensive line and leads to a foot race between the Midtjylland front three and Liverpool backline. This season, Midtjylland attempted 47.56 long passes per 90.
This is an example of how Everton surpassed the Liverpool attack and midfield blocks, causing the defence problems.
Michael Keane is pressed by Salah from the wide position, his positioning would intercept a low wide pass. Firmino is in the deeper position, to deter passes to the pivots as he is in a position to press Allan or Andre Gomes quickly if they received the pass with Fabinho also in a position to blindside press Gomes and Henderson blocking the passing lane to Richarlison. Michael Keane decided to make a long pass.
The ball is at the top of the visual and the pass leads to a foot race between Joe Gomez and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Gomez did well to drop quickly to be able to compete with Calvert-Lewin.
Calvert-Lewin was able to control the pass and get a shot off. This was effective for Everton against Liverpool and this type of pass which surpassed the forward and midfield blocks, will likely be used by Midtjylland to not get caught out by the Liverpool high block. The pass will more likely be towards the right rather than the left as Fabinho is less agile than Gomez and could struggle to compete in a foot race.
The alternative is a less long pass towards Kaba or the wingers either side of him. This also allows for a more direct, quicker transition from defence to attack. Below, Midtjylland goalkeeper Jasper Hansen is in possession.
The block applied by Atalanta is not high, however, the potential short pass lanes are being watched closely by the Atalanta front three. Hansen doesn’t need to take this risk and goes for a longer pass towards Kaba, the yellow circle shows the ball.
Kaba is able to pin the Atalanta centre-back with his strength so that he is able to win his duel as he backed the centre-back up until the ball fell in front of him. He was then able to transition the ball wide, where Midtjylland like to attack. Kaba won four of his eight aerial duels against Atalanta and will be a threat given that Liverpool have only won 38% of their aerial duels this season and are missing Van Dijk who is very strong aerially.
When Midtjylland are in possession, they will focus their attacks wide. When they have the ball wide they will either try to overload the wide area to transition to a central area within 20/25 yards of the goal to shoot or to cross the ball in, having crossed the ball a significant 21.45 times per 90 this season.
At times, Liverpool have been weak from set piece and crossing situations. Midtjylland are set piece specialists, last season they had an attempt(shot, header, etc.) from 36.4% of their set pieces. To put this into context, Liverpool had an attempt from 14% of their set pieces.
This section has shown how Midtjylland may try to beat the Liverpool high block as they look to generally not take the risk of making short passes from the back and how they will try to be effective when they have possession and from set pieces.
Midtjylland block – Their typical block and how it might change against Liverpool
The Midtjylland block in general is a mid block and not as aggressive and high as Liverpool’s, they have allowed 7.81 PPDA this season, likely to be due to their strong positioning to cut passing lanes. The question is, will Midjylland apply a lower block against Liverpool due to the ability of Liverpool’s players and after seeing how sides such as Sheffield United were able to frustrate Liverpool for a large share of the match.
When out of possession, Midtjylland have applied a mid block in the opposition half, say the opposition centre-backs are in possession, the striker will press onto the centre-back in possession, the attacking midfielder shadowing just behind the striker, close to the Liverpool pivot.
The wingers will look to position between the opposition wide players and central midfielders to try and deter short passes into these areas with the central midfielders looking to position themselves to cut short forward pass lanes. The Midtjylland full-backs also press very high onto the opposition wide players, to limit the ability of the wingers or full-backs to pass or turn forward. Below is how I expect Midtjylland to set up when possession is in the Liverpool defensive third.
The same type of press by the forward line will likely be in place against Liverpool. The Mitdjyland three behind the striker will sit deeper to position in or close to passing lanes to frustrate Liverpool as they limit the ability to pass into these lanes. I expect the pivots to sit deeper to try and restrict the service to the Liverpool front three and reduce the threat of them picking the ball up between the lines by the midfield limiting the distance between them and the defence.
The man-marking of the Midtjylland full-backs on the Liverpool wingers will need to be watched, they could push up even higher onto the Liverpool full-backs as the Midtjylland wingers position more narrow as they also try to restrict more central passes. I expect the full-backs to sit on the Liverpool wingers rather than the full-backs, as this could create even bigger problems from through balls.
How will Liverpool look to break this? In the Liverpool half, Liverpool will look for the midfielders and full-backs to help create overloads in the wide areas of the pitch to transition the ball up the pitch, though, they could hit a dead end a number of times. Midtjylland allow them to hold possession on the outskirts of the Liverpool defensive and midfield third. The next section looks at how they can transition from the midfield third to final third as the Midtjylland block is pushed backwards.
Liverpool key pass to breaking the final third block
Liverpool’s last match against Sheffield United emphasised their weakness against stubborn low/mid blocks. They struggled when Sheffield United limited the space that they can operate in, in the Liverpool attacking third. Liverpool enjoy moving the ball into wide areas and using off the ball runs in the wide space or half space to either create diversions or passes for cut-backs, crosses or shots, depending on whether the ball holder is wide of in the half space.
The Midtjylland block is expected to retreat as Liverpool pass forward and this could lead to them defending stubbornly in their final third to frustrate Liverpool and force them to hold possession in non threatening areas around the outskirts of the pitch.
Thiago Alcantara will be key for Liverpool, if fit, his ability to cut out the middle man and play at a quicker tempo will be essential to unsettling the Midtjlland block as the ball will travel faster than the Midtjylland block shuffling, creating space for the forward players in half spaces and potentially between the lines depending on the distance between the players of the midfield lines. If not, Liverpool will rely on their other central players to keep the ball moving quickly, to then provide service into key areas.
Below, Alexander-Arnold laid off Jordan Henderson and the Liverpool captain does extremely well to provide a high quality cross towards Mane.
It is worth noting the positioning of Alexander-Arnold and Salah. The Liverpool full-backs will occupy wide positions to stretch the Midtjylland block, this can create space in half spaces and in lay offs as it leaves the deeper players in space to provide deep crosses. Salah is in the right half space and this forced Ben Osborn to cover the passing lane to him. If Salah was wider it would have allowed Osborn to press Alexander-Arnold, Lundstram to press Henderson and Ethan Ampadu to cover the left centre-back slot behind Enda Stevens if he decided to go with Salah.
This type of off the ball positioning in the half space can force the Midtjylland players into covering this passing lane, leaving space for others, such as Henderson, who delivered a first time cross to Sadio Mane.
Henderson produced a brilliantly executed cross to break the block. This will be one of the key ways to break the Midtjylland block in the final third as they will look to congest the central areas with the double pivot, CAM dropping back and their wingers looking to position in inward passing lanes. Liverpool will have more joy playing over the top of the block and out wide rather than transitioning centrally through the block, for Liverpool to create key opportunities in the 18-yard box.
Liverpool are well equipped at playing these type of passes to create opportunities in the final third having made 89.81 progressive passes per 90 this season, this type of pass transitions the ball quickly and shows that they can transition much higher up the pitch in one pass(definition of this in opposition half is a pass that travels at least 10 metres forward to a teammate).
This tactical analysis has provided an insight into the type of blocks both teams might implement, touched on Midtjylland’s threat from set pieces and crosses(when they win possession from a direct pass that breaks the Liverpool midfield and attack blocks) and how Liverpool will look to break the Midtjylland block.
Liverpool could struggle early on against Midtjylland, however, the quality of the Liverpool players should help them win. Liverpool will need to be wary of the Midtjylland set piece threat and I expect a 3-1 win to Liverpool.