In the midst of an otherwise perfect season, the 2-0 defeat away to Napoli in the first matchday of this seasons Champions League was jarring for this Liverpool side. Napoli were stubborn defensively and intelligent tactically and in the end, a close game was decided by a dubious penalty and a late goal. Given that Liverpool are the current champions of the competition this was a less than ideal start and it threw their home tie against Red Bull(RB) Salzburg into sharp focus.
Domestically Liverpool still have a 100% record and they currently sit at the top of the Premier League table with space to spare. With that said, however, performances from the Merseyside club have failed to impress at times. Their last match at the weekend was a case in point as Liverpool struggled to break down a stubborn and resolute Sheffield United side, in the end, a goalkeeper error handed the three points to Liverpool. With expectations having been raised by last seasons Champions League win there was a sense that this match took on huge importance for Jurgen Klopp and his coaching staff.
Here though is the problem, RB Salzburg are not an opponent to take lightly! Having qualified automatically the Austrian champions are in the group stages of the Champions League for the first time but they are by no means inexperienced when it comes to European football. Last season they reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League and the year before they had gone one step further and got to the semi-final. This season they are under new management with the American coach Jesse Marsch having taken over from Marco Rose who moved in the summer to Borussia Monchengladbach. Marsch is an interesting coach who has been in the Red Bull system for some time having originally worked as head coach of New York Red Bulls before working last season as the assistant to Ralf Rangnick at RB Leipzig. He favours high-intensity vertical football and bears many similarities in terms of his game model to Jurgen Klopp.
In this tactical analysis, we will try to make sense of the 4-3 win for the home side.
The biggest piece of team news for the home side was the knock picked up by central defender Joel Matip in that win over Sheffield United at the weekend. His place was easily filled as the young England central defender Joe Gomez slotted in beside Virgil van Dijk. In the midfield, many, myself included, expected to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain given a start but Klopp continued with what is emerging as his safest midfield with Fabinho operating as the ‘6’ and Giorginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson playing as the ‘8’s.
Liverpool enjoyed the majority of possession of the ball throughout the match. The 4-3-3 became a 4-2-3-1 in the 64th minute when Divock Origi came on in place of Wijnaldum. This saw Sadio Mane moved to a central role while Roberto Firmino dropped back to occupy the ’10’ position. For large parts of the match, Liverpool were able to occupy the wide areas and the positioning of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson was key.
There were two significant pieces of team news for RB Salzburg with their star forward Erling Haland failing to fully recover from a virus and only being fit enough to take his place on the bench. He was joined there by the Brazilian defender Andre Ramalho who had played in every match so far. He was replaced by the French defender Jerome Onguene as Marsch looked to inject more speed into the back line.
The pass map for RB Salzburg was slightly stranger. This more strung out map is a result of the vertical passing movements from the Austrian side in possession but it is also due to the early decision from Jesse Marsch to switch systems.
So far this season we have seen Marsch favour a 4-2-2-2 shape, a variant of the 4-4-2 with the two wide midfielders taking positions higher and more narrow to form almost a box in the midfield. We have also seen a 3-5-2 used in two league matches. In this match, we saw Marsch change the structure in the 30th minute to a diamond in midfield with the Japanese midfielder Takumi Minamino moving higher to connect with the strikers.
Liverpool fullbacks free
Both in the 4-2-2-2 and in the 4-1-2-1-2 system we saw the same issue from the visitors as their fullbacks were isolated against the Liverpool wide forwards and the fullbacks who would move high whenever Liverpool were in possession. With Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah looking to move inside to the half-space or even the central areas the fullbacks for RB Salzburg were then left with a dilemma, do they follow the forward players inside or do they allow them to drift into space? This dilemma was further enhanced when Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson progressed to high areas whenever the opportunity presented itself. In the opening stages of this match, these fullbacks very much operated as playmakers as the ball constantly progressed through them into the final third.
We see an example of this above as Liverpool have reset the play and started a second phase of the attack with the ball travelling from the right-hand side across to the left. As Wijnaldum received the ball the vertical passing option allowed him to shift the ball quickly to Sadio Mane. With the forward taking possession of the ball in the half-space and with Andy Robertson having progressed outside of the ball to provide width we immediately see the right-back for the Austrian side isolated.
These positions allowed Liverpool to attack the final third and penetrate the penalty area in a variety of different ways with through balls or crosses from wide being options.
Here is another example of this from the first half of the match. As the ball is played outside to Andy Robertson high on the left side we see this position mirrored by Trent Alexander-Arnold over on the right-hand flank. It is common for sides to commit their fullbacks to a high line on the ball side of the attack but expect the player on the opposite side to retain a deeper position in order to defend against the counter-attack. In this match, however, because the RB Salzburg fullbacks were being pinned back by the movement of the wide forwards we saw both Liverpool fullbacks continuously looking to provide width to the attack, in the first half at least. We see the positions taken up by Mane and Salah in the above example as well as the spacing of those playing in central areas. These allowed the ball to progress safely and securely as Liverpool dominated the majority of the early stages.
Marsch makes the first move
You could, of course, argue that the American coach had to changes something as his side were already 2-0 down but in the 30th minute RB Salzburg switched to the diamond in midfield. Zlatko Junuzovic acted as the ‘6’ and the pivot at the base of the midfield with Enock Mwepu and Dominik Szoboszlai acting as the ‘8’s at the side of the diamond. Most importantly we saw Takumi Minamoto move from his position as one of the advanced midfielders to playing as a genuine ’10’. This positional switch saw the Japanese midfielder positioned intelligently between the lines where he was able to make the most of the constant vertical transitions from his side.
One of the key tactical aspects of this match was the absolute devotion that the Austrian side had to launching quick vertical attacks in transition. They showed little interest in playing possession football and instead looked to stretch the Liverpool defensive block wherever possible.
Here we see the new shape from RB Salzburg when out of possession. With Junuzovic taking up a position just in front of the defensive line he is shielding them from the passes into the feet of the Liverpool front three. The two ‘8’s would then look to press and cut passing lanes and the front three would be prepared to attack in moments of transition.
What is remarkable about this change is that they had not used this system at all this season.
These pockets of space that Takumi Minamino would occupy became the platforms from which RB Salzburg would get back into this game. You can see above that with the RB Salzburg right-back, Kristensen, in possession there is a closer option looking to receive the ball. Instead, the Danish fullback plays beyond that to find Minamino who is demanding the ball. These positions then led to the Austrian side attacking in numbers and looking to create overloads to break through the Liverpool defensive block.
RB Salzburg attack in numbers
To come back from 3-0 down to get back to even terms away at this Liverpool side is no mean feat. You got the definite sense at times that the Liverpool players were shocked by the level of intensity from the Austrian side as they flooded forward at every opportunity in order to find a way back into the game. They were relentless in their attacking movements but no not mistake this effort for a lack of quality in the final third.
With Erling Haland only fit to come on in the second half we saw the aforementioned Takumi Minamoto and Hee-chan Hwang steal the spotlight for the away side with some fantastic pieces of interplay that cut through a normally excellent defensive block for Liverpool.
In this example, we see RB Salzburg streaming forward with the ball having been won in their own half and quickly played into the attacking area for the South Korean forward Hwang to chase. With Fabinho having been pulled out of position as he looked to join the attack we see Jordan Henderson as the deepest midfielder for Liverpool and he was attracted over towards the ball. This, in turn, opened the space for Minamino to sprint forward to offer a vertical passing option once again.
At 3-1 down and 10 minutes into the second half, we saw RB Salzburg constantly probe looking for an opportunity to play through Liverpool to create more goalscoring chances. They began to commit more and more men forward in an attempt to overload the Liverpool defence. Whenever the ball moved outside into dangerous areas the two forwards would be joined by Minamino and Szoboszlai as they streamed forward.
We have come to expect that under Jurgen Klopp this Liverpool side will press high and hard regardless of the opposition. Indeed, in the opening half an hour this was a clear characteristic of this match as the Austrian side were suffocated and turned the ball over under the waves of Liverpool pressure. As the game wore on though and when Liverpool took their foot off the accelerator at 3-0 up we saw that tide start to turn as RB Salzburg showed that they were equally capable of pressing the ball and forcing mistakes and rushed passes from their opponents. Indeed, Jesse Marsch is a coach very much in the mould of Klopp in this respect.
We see this press in action in the example above. Liverpool are looking to progress forward and a loose touch is pressed ferociously by three players as they look to win the ball back as close to the Liverpool goal as they possibly can. These positions and this pressing would often act as the starting point for another quick attacking transition from the Austrians as they looked to catch Liverpool out of position.
Once again here we see the number of players that RB Salzburg were willing to commit in high areas to prevent Liverpool from progressing the ball cleanly from the back. As the home side are looking to play out from a goal kick we see options and passing lanes taken away from the man in possession as the visitors press high and hard in order to force Liverpool to either give the ball away or make a mistake.
In the ned and despite the best efforts of the visiting side we still saw Liverpool run out as 4-3 winners on the night. They displayed some fantastic finishing and took the chances that they were able to create. It is rare however for the European Champions to be tested to this extent at home. RB Salzburg were relentless and refused to take a step back at any point, even when 3-0 down, and there can be no doubt that this result has made the rest of Europe sit up and take notice.
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