Two complete opposites came up in the congested Christmas fixture list, as Liverpool in great form sitting at the top of the table look to create a bigger gap between 1st and 2nd place. Their game against Tottenham two weeks ago showed their not to be forgotten in the title race, with such an important result. With their extensive injury list and rocky start, Klopp’s men were finally looking sharper however Van Djik is most certainly a big miss in defence.
On the other side of the coin, West Brom are in 19th with only 1 win in the Premier League this campaign. The sacking of Slaven Bilic, 2 games ago for Sam Allardyce looks to be a disloyal yet a rational choice to save the clubs season, with ‘Big Sam’s’ track record of never being relegated from the Premier League. Allardyce’s pragmatic-defensive style of play certainly doesn’t look easy on the eyes but it produces results, results which are ultimately the thing that defines you in football. For those that are fond of Italian football, Catenaccio certainly hasn’t died just yet – the evidence can be seen in this fixture as West Brom look to re-kindle their season at Anfield!
Liverpool still without heavy-hitters Thiago and VVD, they line-up in their usual 4-3-3. Jurgen Klopp a huge advocate on counter-pressing and transitional football looks for his team to win the ball high up the pitch and be tireless in their ethic up and down. You will never see a Liverpool player catching their breath, ever. In this system the full-backs TAA and Robertson look to get extremely high to create width for the team, stretching the oppositions defence and when on the ball are direct with crosses and passes. Off the ball they need to worry less about defence as Henderson, Wjnaldum and Jones sit more firmly in there central positions looking to be aggressive to; 1st, 2nd balls and being dominant in the air. On the ball they hold their positions and look to circulate the ball into wider positions or into Firmino.
Firmino the ‘false #9’ is aggressive with his pressing off the ball and is usually the 1st defender to shape a pressing trap against the opposition. Liverpool in possession he’ll tend to leave his #9 duties and move to a #10 role and finding gaps between the lines as central midfielders constantly check their shoulders to see where he is. If the centre-backs decide to press Firmino into midfield this leaves the gaps in behind for Mane and Salah to run in behind and finish as inside forwards, something they both excel at.
West Brom on paper set-up as a 4-5-1, off the ball this looked more of a 4-6-0 with Aherne-Grant the striker of the team moving to a LCM/LM position to close down TAA. West Brom played an extremely low block with the defensive line behind the box and the midfield line leaving no gaps with barely a 2 metre difference between the lines. Diangana #11 and Robinson #7 would leave their roles of RM and LM and dropped deeper off the ball to create a back 6, knowing how wide Liverpool’s full-backs get this was needed to stop the chance creation from out wide. The central midfielders in Gallagher, Phillips and Sawyers would shuffle across making sure the middle wasn’t available. When Henderson at #4 decided to dribble forwards one of the CMs they’d come out and press him and ensured it was shape towards the outside, making the middle unavailable. When space was found between the lines towards Firmino or Jones, one of the centre backs would step out to win the ball. Sam Johnstone in goal had to be aerially dominant to Liverpool’s early crosses, making claims and launching big kicks upfield.
In possession, West Brom looked to exploit dead ball situations in goal-kicks and throws to launch their attacks. Long goal-kicks with the hope of knockdowns to fashion out chances is where West Brom looked to build an attack. Set-pieces and corners are a forte for Sam Allardyce and is formidable at exploiting zonal marking, something Liverpool use.
Liverpool’s dinked balls make it1-0.
In the first half West Brom sat in deep with their 4-6-0/4-5-1, blocking central areas and made it tough to attack the wings. Salah and Mane had hardly any vertical space to run into and Firmino could hardly work between the lines because of how close West Brom operated. If a gap did form Ajayi and O’Shea were aggressive when Firmino tried to receive and would often come out, not worrying about the half-space gaps because of how tight Furlong and Gibbs were to prevent Mane and Salah receiving. Out wide the wingers tracked Robertson and TAA. This gave Liverpool a chance to dominate possession and try and find the free space, with Henderson, Fabinho and Matip all in acres of space to play. Due to West Brom’s superiority out wide, Liverpool would shift 3 or 4 players into wide areas to create a combination leading to a dangerous cross from either LB/RB. Due to the bodies, West Brom had in the box it made for lots of clearances, which added up to a total of 30 clearances between the back 4!
To make use of how available Liverpool’s CBs and DM were they began to create earlier crosses and ‘dinked/chipped balls’ in behind the West Brom defence. A consistent amount of these ‘dinked balls’ would cause the West Brom back 6 to drop even further and would cause 1 of 2 things as shown on the pictures; A) a gap to form between the lines allowing Firmino and Jones to progress the ball, Henderson could’ve disguised a ‘dinked-ball’ here to play to feet. B) The midfield line drops closer to the defensive line which creates a gap around the edge of the box, which can lead to a clear longshot or chance creation for example here, Fabinho lets fire. More so ‘B’ occurred and it led to shots from Wijnaldum and Henderson but both not strong in this field struggled to convert especially with how crowded the box was, something Big Sam would’ve wanted. Furthermore when these dinked-curved balls came in, it was important for them to be fizzed in hard to take advantage of Salah and Mane’s quick movement, which is exactly how their first came with Matip providing exactly this ball at a good angle in the right half-space. C shows how distorted both West Brom’s defence and midfield lines are from heavy lots of heavy pressure, creating gaps which Mane exploited.
Liverpool had some success with the dinked balls, but thought cautiously as long balls bring a risk of a counter attack if not played precisely but at this moment West Brom were striker-less giving Liverpool more chances to get these balls in. Liverpool’s chance creation in the middle often comes through counter-pressing situations as Klopp says “counter-pressing is the best number 10 in the world” however this is with the expectation your opponent transitions from defence to attack. During deep pressure in the 1st half, West Brom would clear their lines and would not aim for anyone, if Liverpool did win the ball high West Brom stayed in their defensive state making them very difficult to break down in the middle. This is where Allardyce wanted to keep Liverpool, which worked and can be seen on the diagram, showing the majority of Liverpool’s attacks came down the middle. Eventually after the 30 minute mark 1-0 down, West Brom would press asymmetrically. If the ball was Liverpool’s right side, West Brom’s left sides players would trigger a press whilst the right sided players stayed in their defensive positions for cover.
The 2nd half – A new West Brom
For the second half West Brom lined up in the 4-5-1 formation, with Callum Robinson looking to get in behind to make a 4-4-2 on the transition. As the Baggies sat slightly higher and looked to press Liverpool in the midfield, they began to recover the ball more but either looked to combine with their frontman Ahearne-Grant with 3rd man run combinations or would play for a throw on the right hand side. As you can see from the metric, this is where West Brom attacked the most assuming to make use of Callum Robinson’s off the ball and crossing ability. This would therefore slow the game down to a pace Liverpool don’t play, with lots of standing and marking for dead-ball situations.
As mentioned, Liverpool’s main threat of attack through the middle is ‘counter-pressing’ and with West Brom stepping into a more attacking role it left these spaces however every time these opportunities arose however Kevin Friend called fouls consistently. It happened twice with Henderson, twice with Firmino, Mane once and Rhys Williams where Klopp lost it and took his frustration with the referee seeing him out on a yellow himself. As you can see from the fouls data below, 3 of these fouls were most definitely in counter pressing areas . Whether it was West Brom tactically winning these fouls (Connor Gallagher winning 3 fouls) or Kevin Friend wanted to cool the game it certainly had an effect on Liverpool’s attacking phase of play… slowing their game down even more. Obviously West Brom enjoyed these moments and made use of them by getting everyone into Liverpool’s half and fashioning their own chance via a long-ball. With this opportunity to counter-press Liverpool did have a disadvantage as now they had to play their ‘dinked-balls’ cautiously as Grant was next to Liverpool’s centre backs ready to create a counter attack. This situation almost lead to a goal 71 minutes in but Allisson made a good save as Grant singled out young Rhys Williams in a 1v1.
Once Mattheus Pereira came on, West Brom began to enjoy a few more dead-ball situations as the Midlands side would initiate a man-to-man press in the final 3rd. These situations came from 2 goal kicks towards the end of the game. As spoken about West Brom use these long kicks to create their route upfield and were aggressive in the midfield to win 1st and 2nd balls. Interesting to note, this is something Liverpool are extremely strong at but lost out in 1 or 2 of these battles, potentially due to the stop-start nature of the second half. A game they don’t want to play.
As 2 goal kicks out to West Brom’s right side led to a duel then West Brom winning the 1st and 2nd ball. The 1st corner, Ajayi missed by a whisker. A few minutes after a quick short corner led to a 1-2 allowing Liverpool’s line to step up (something they always do) and leaving Ajayi free for a header. 1-1. Big Sam is back.