Just as an attacker is instinctively attracted towards the ball, a defender is attracted towards a striker. During the attacking phase, we use this to drag the defenders out of position and create space. However, coaches frequently neglect this when they coach defensive phase.
On all levels from youth to the elite, we see defenders tracking the attacker on a run into depth, behind the back line. In this video, I’ve tried to explain when this shouldn’t happen and why it is a liability for a team when it does happen.
The best players aren’t only those who can dribble at speed or those that score goals. Some players can do that, but all players have to think quickly. All other conditions being equal, the ability to make a right decision in a split second is what makes the difference between the top, and an average, player on all levels.
While offensive phase has a tendency to get more creative and free of strict rules as we progress further up the pitch, the defensive phase is its mirror picture. It gets more structured and bound with rules as the opposition gets closer to our goal.
The defender needs to be aware of his position, the ball, his teammates and the opposition. It is difficult to track all that at the same time, and communication becomes a fundamental part of the game.
The “bastard” free kick and amazing penalty save from Mignolet put a stamp on the most interesting Premier League clash of the week which ended the nightmare Liverpool was experiencing this month.
Chelsea came to Anfield at the worst moment for the hosts who barely won against a fourth division team this year. Even for that they needed second leg replay. Liverpool had lost three consecutive games, dropped out of two cups in three days and had to face the best team in country.
However, Liverpool had already beaten Chelsea this season and the good news was that Sadio Mané finally returned from the African Cup of Nations and the whole squad was fit to play. Chelsea, on the other hand, had few problems before the match. All players fit, excellent form this year with only a loss against Tottenham. While Liverpool had a lot to lose in this match, Chelsea could take it calmly, keep tight at the back and wait for their chance and that is exactly what they did.
They sat back leaving Liverpool with the ball and little idea how to break down the defense.
If we look at the same image from the Liverpool perspective we see the general idea Liverpool uses in their attacking third. Forwards (red lines) constantly change places. Coutinho is dropping back while Firmino and Lallana are more flexible and take turns in dropping deeper and making forward runs. In this instance it is Lallana who starts from deeper position and makes a run behind the defense.
Midfielders (blue lines) operate under broadly similar principle. Henderson plays as a holding midfielder while Wijnaldum and Can are making turns in forward runs from deep. In this instance, it is Can who breaks behind the Chelsea midfield line.
Above we see the Liverpool positions and a passing map that reveals James Milner as a link between the defense and the midfield. If you keep in mind the Chelsea formation that is quite a reasonable choice as down the flanks Liverpool has natural man advantage. However, once the ball gets to the central area, to Coutinho and Jordan Henderson, links between players perish.
If you get back to the second image, you see why as well. Eight Chelsea players are behind the ball and three most advanced Liverpool players are cut off between them. The only space Liverpool has is in wide areas and Chelsea is happy to concede in order to keep the middle of the pitch sealed off.
Note also the positioning of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard who are both high up the pitch not participating effectively in the defensive phase at the moment.
While Liverpool did well without the ball, closing Chelsea down and forcing mistakes and clearances, they had a lot of trouble getting in the goal scoring position.
However, after conceding that free kick, Liverpool was playing quicker, with more will and desire but didn’t substantialy change their approach. They were always looking to get into scoring position by outplaying packed middle.
The second half didn’t see a significant change from Chelsea but Liverpool made an important addition to their attempts to penetrate the defense.
Liverpool recognized a weak spot in the zone defended by Moses and Azpilicueta. There was not only a potential height advantage when Can made his forward runs in the area, but also a weak link when Liverpool would overload the right flank and quickly shift the ball to the other side – behind the back of Moses.
This move was performed four or five times and each time it was more dangerous than anything Liverpool did in the first half.
Once Liverpool equalized the match went into the realm of will and work rate and both teams were on brink of scoring. Chelsea kept the pressure on counter attack with great help from Kante who managed 16 successful tackles (of total 29) in a match that sprung quick counter attacks. Liverpool, on the other hand found confidence after scoring and kept pushing.
Image above expresses the expected goals from created chances. You can see that, despite everything, the hosts created much more than Chelsea with 1.44 goals against 0.3 (penalty not included). Numbers tell us that, on average game, Liverpool would certainly score a goal from created chances while Chelsea would need three matches to get lucky enough and convert one of their chances into a goal.
However, football isn’t statistics only and the situation on the pitch is heavily affected by the result. In the end, Chelsea got what they wanted while Liverpool will be happy to have avoided the fourth defeat in a row.
This analysis was first published at soccerspecific, a coaching education platform with the mission of creating and sharing the highest quality of coaching information in order to positively impact player development around the world.
Before the match, United had a great string of six straight wins in the league and haven’t lost a game since end of October. With a win over their Merseyside rivals they could close the gap to two points and possibly even sneak into the top four. Playing at their home ground they clearly had to take the risk and go for it.
Sitting in second spot, five points behind Chelsea, Liverpool was in better position but had to maintain the pressure on The Blues while keeping the distance from Tottenham that was two points behind. Certainly a difficult task ahead of big rival match that was made even harder without the best goalscorer, Sadio Mane, who was away with Cameroon squad. Additionally, Liverpool still didn’t win this year drawing league games against Sunderland and the FA Cup game against Plymouth while they have lost against Southampton in the League Cup.
While both teams started quite cautiously, Liverpool looked particularly vulnerable. Man United was set out determined to impede their ability to transition from defence to the middle third. Whenever Mignolet had the ball Herrera was joining Ibrahimović in closing down passing options while the whole squad went high up the pitch to man mark Liverpool players.
In case Liverpool was able to get into the middle third, a combination of man and zonal marking was employed to cut out the passing options. Above we see the situation where Klavan is able to get on the ball fairly high. However, positioning of Man United players meant he really had only two passing choices. A back pass to goalkeeper that would trigger high pressing or a long ball towards rather small forward line. As only Origi has the ability to tame high balls these usually ended up with Man United retaking the possession.
The key in above situations was the positioning of three central midfielders who man mark Liverpool players thus cutting off the possibility of a pass in the central area. Ibrahimović is keeping the horizontal pass to Lovren impossible while Valencia is marking Milner (both out of the picture). The role of the Mkhitaryan is crucial. He needs the ability to make the right decision while choosing between the following:
a) press the ball carrier forcing a rushed clearance or even snatching the ball off the defender
b) stay within formation and cover his man (Milner)
Obviously in this situation Mkhitaryan has chosen to close down on Klavan which produced a chain reaction as Milner had to be picked up by Valencia and whole defensive line needed to shift to cover for this move if the pressing was to be successful.
However, Man United pressing proved to be well synchronized throughout the match. Particularly in the opening half hour Liverpool had difficulties to get out of the defensive zone in an organized manner.
Map shown above marks the forward passes from both teams up to 28th minute of the match. You can see both teams had similar numbers (47 successful out of 77 for Liverpool and 46 out of 74 for Man United). However, Liverpool had majority of those passes initiated in their own defensive zone. United, on the other hand, managed to get higher up the pitch before going for a forward pass during this period of game. It is safe to say a good team pressing Man United has shown directly contributed to this and made Liverpool virtually ineffective in the first 30 minutes of the game. Liverpool was able to threaten United only via set pieces and, luckily enough, they got a penalty after Pogba made a crucial mistake in 28th minute.
This, however, didn’t change the overall shape of the game. United has continued to attack predominantly down the left hand side as you can see in the above “forward passes” image. Whether it was a deliberate attempt to exploit young Alexander-Arnold in the right back spot remains unclear. In any case, United often tried to unsettle the visiting team by overloading that side as Mkhitaryan cut inside.
While Carrick was playing his standard holding midfielder role, he was making sure he stayed behind the ball together with two center backs. Herrera and Pogba were altering themselves in forward runs but United found it difficult to get into scoring positions during set attacks.
Above you see a typical situation where United is attacking LFC’s set up defence. Herrera is painfully isolated in the center midfield while his team mates are far too advanced up the pitch. The screenshot also speaks to how defensive and cautious Liverpool was in this match especially after they got a lead. While Man United overloads the left side of the pitch, Valencia is the only outlet on the right. When Herrera managed to get into the offensive position, he was completely cut off as well as Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Martial. This was mainly due to hard defensive work from Liverpool which fell back into 4-5-1 formation when defending.
While Liverpool found it difficult to get on the ball and play their game, they relied on counter attacks but weren’t really successful doing so. Ironically, it was United that created more and better chances off the counter attacks during the first half. Pogba and Mkhitaryan had both good opportunities after Liverpool handed over the ball in the middle third but failed to convert.
Despite the change in the half time (Rooney for Carrick and slight formation alteration from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1) when United went more attacking the things on the pitch changed very little. United was still able to threaten only when they managed to dispossess Liverpool and launch a counter attack. Ibrahimović was crucial in those counter attacks as once the ball was won in the middle, his team mates were looking for him to hold on it. United used well Milner’s offensive stance and Ibrahimović often changed the point of attack down the right flank for on rushing Valencia but they failed to score.
Significant changes came in the 60th minute. As Jurgen Klopp introduced Coutinho Liverpool was finally able to hold the ball in the central midfield area and get into counter attack. On the other side, United was losing patience relying more and more on the crosses. Mata didn’t provide the creative spark Mourinho was hoping for and in 75th minute he went all about crosses. Darmian left the field and was substituted with Marouane Fellaini. As a consequence, Mkhitaryan went to left full back, Rooney was moved from CAM position to left wing and Fellaini went up with Ibrahimović.
This only meant that in last 15 minutes of the game Liverpool had more control with Coutinho on the pitch while the hosts tried to lump the ball forward to two tall players from deep and from flanks. United failed to create anything substantial and the plan clearly didn’t work until it actually worked.
To conclude, for the major part of the match United managed to tame the visitors with great closing down and pressing. However, they weren’t able to break down their defence through the combination play. Liverpool rarely looked so ineffective on the offensive as in the first half of the game but as nerves started to play with United in the second half, they have managed to pick themselves up and will be disappointed to have lost two points so late in the match.
This analysis was first published at soccerspecific, a coaching education platform with the mission of creating and sharing the highest quality of coaching information in order to positively impact player development around the world.
Opening of new main stand at Anfield Road and record attendance since 70s was a perfect stage for Liverpool clash with holding champions Leicester. Both teams had a shaky start to the season and found themselves in the wrong half of the table before the game. This fact made an already important match even bigger as both managers wanted to get on track and catch up with top teams.
Claudio Ranieri plugged the hole that opened when Nampalys Mendy got injured with Daneiel Amartey. Surprisingly, he omitted striker Islam Slimani who was signed for 30M. Luckily, Kasper Schmeichel recovered from hernia injury and was back to form a line up that won the Premiership last season. Without Kante obviously.
Although there is nothing new in way how Leicester plays this season, high tempo direct football with lots of long balls to Vardy, Klopp decided to replace injured Dejan Lovren (and Ragnar Klavan) with rather small Lucas Leiva in center of defence to cope with those high balls. Additionally, he also left out Moreno, probably to give him a rest after a tough spell he went through in recent matches. His replacement, though, was another surprise. A formidable and versatile midfielder James Milner but a player who probably can’t remember when he played left back last time. Despite a gamble with Milner, Klopp’s judgement proved to be very sound as intelligent professional Milner did his job to the highest level despite being up against Riyad Mahrez.
Above you can see How disciplined and well positioned Leicester is in defensive phase. It is their strength from last season. However, there is a dire mistake in their positioning even if they seem to be as compact as ever. Notice the ball in the feet of Lucas Leiva, he is already in the left half space and Okazaki fails to close him down to give his team mates time to shift to the left. A quick ball to Millner finds Leicester compact defence on wrong foot.
This calls for a quick, chaotic, shift from Simpson who goes to close down Milner. However, as Sturridge is keeping Morgan occupied, this gives precious window of split second for Firmino to run into the gap between Simpson and Morgan. Another key player here is Milner who can execute a perfect right footed curled pass into space for Firmino that would be extremely difficult for left footed player and Liverpool breaks the dead lock in 14th minute.
From then on, Liverpool has all the confidence and although Leicester isn’t playing poor, Liverpool is simply brilliant moving on and off the ball.
Above you can see Wijnaldum in possession and despite Leicester being set up in good defensive block, Liverpool midfielder still has time and space to safely pass the ball towards one of his open team mates. If you take a closer look at positioning of Liverpool players you can see they are set up to break the opposition by quickly passing through them while Clyne is keeping change of point of attack as an option. This is normally not enough to break such a formidable defence. However, off ball movement of home team combined with flair made it possible for Liverpool to completely dominate the first half.
It wasn’t only offensive phase where Liverpool excelled in a match against holding champions. The way they played without the ball was as much important for control of the game since they prevented any threat to their own goal.
Above you can see a chart of forward passes Leicester has made in first half. Only 47 percent of those found their target and literally none of them was into the dangerous positions. The problem Leicester has, and will have throughout the season if they don’t change something significantly, is they have no plan “B”. Direct, high tempo passing to Mahrez and Vardy can work as long as the defence manages to keep the clean sheet and opposition keeps attacking. Once Liverpool established complete control of the match Ranieri’s side had obvious trouble getting into any kind of scoring position. It took a poor touch from Lucas Leiva, a horrible sideways pass to Mignolet, to get Leicester back into the game and give them courage they could still do something.
The second half saw much more engaged Leicester that was closing down well but as time passed and they committed more men forward Liverpool was always more dangerous from counter attacks and in the end they punished the guests twice more to see out the match. While Leicester has serious problem in lack of different approach to their normal long ball, Liverpoo has shown the glimpses of a team they could and will be by the end of the season. At this phase they still remind of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle of mid 90s when they were chasing title by outscoring their opponents. As Newcastle back then, Liverpool at the moment is joy to watch when they are on the ball. However, they still lack consistency to keep their defensive game for 90 minutes but since they don’t need to chase European glory, they will surely have time to work on that as well.
No doubt Arsenal and Liverpool played a match of the season at the Emirates on Sunday. It remains to be seen how long this title will hold, however. Season opener is always a tricky affair as no one wants to lose, luckily, both teams went for a win and the match didn’t disappoint.
Arsene Wenger had some tough time deciding the starting line up as he was missing six players. Welbeck, Mertersacker and Gabriel were injured while Oezil, Giroud and Koscielny are still not in shape after EURO. In defence he had little to chose and new signing Rob Holding made a début paired with unproven Calum Chambers. Only real surprise was on left wing where another unproven player, Alex Iwobi, took place ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain in the starting line up. All in all, Wenger was forced to pick severely weakened central defender pairing while deliberately sidelineing Oxlade-Chamberlaine.
Similar problems in defence had Juergen Klopp who was missing new signing Joel Matip due to injury while Mammadou Sakho was out of squad for breaching the discipline during the pre-season. Last year’s starters James Milner and Daniel Sturridge were also missing. However, unlike Wenger, Klopp did his shopping during the summer and had new signings Ragnar Klavan, Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane to replace injured players. By the end of the match it will prove decisive as all players that made a début for Liverpool proved crucial for victory over Arsenal.
As expected, both teams opted for high pressing game from early on. You can see above four Arsenal players locking down six Liverpool players which lead to a lot of problems for visiting team. At times Liverpool had trouble getting out of their defensive zone having to rely on long clearances more than Klopp had hoped for. This might be the reason Wenger went for Iwobi instead of Oxlade-Chamberlain as Nigerian is much harder worker thus more useful chasing down opposition defence. Whole lock down on above screenshot is down to Alberto Moreno who is way too central congesting the space and making it easier for Walcott to mark himself and Klavan. As this is not bad enough, his poor positioning clogs the midfield as Wijnaldum is directly affected by Moreno’s positioning so he is restricted to occupy more central position as well.
Wijnaldum’s role, as well as Henderson’s is to drop deeper when Liverpool is pressed high and help them establish numerical advantage to transition the ball from defensive into middle third. Whole Klopp’s idea gets destroyed by poor positioning from left back.
While high pressing triggers Wijnaldum’s and Henderson’s runs deep, deeper opposition triggers forward runs from full backs as you can see above. Liverpool has a solid base of two centre backs and two midfielders who create a box to control the transition into middle half of the pitch with numerical advantage. While width is achieved by pushing the full backs high, wingers Coutinho and Mane get into central positions to occupy the centre backs. This image also tells an important role Firmino plays for Klopp. He has relatively free role to roam left and right.
As match progressed in deeper in the first half Arsenal scored after Henderson lost the ball deep into his half to Alex Iwobi who assisted Walcott. Five minutes after the goal were best football Arsenal offered in the match with crisp passing and quick runs from central players, particularly Aaron Ramsey. However, Liverpool regained their composure and put their foot on the game rather quickly. After a masterful free kick in the injury time they were back and second half looked very promising.
Although Liverpool pressed high in first half, they did it with even more energy after the second half had begun. Only four minutes into the second half comes the moment Klopp will be especially happy about. As you can see in picture above, Liverpool positioning in attacking third is very much same as in second still shot, albeit on the left side of the pitch this time. Free roaming Firmino changes places with Coutinho and passes him a ball from left into the central area. Coquelin and Elmeny fail to close him down and Chambers is forced to leave the defensive line opening space behind. Skilful pass finds Wijnaldum who exploits that space and Liverpool is through. Subsequent cross from Wijnaldum finds his partner in midfield and Lallana who scores with great finish.
Although skills to pull the move off are down to players, the move itself is conceived and done by Klopp on training pitch. At that point Liverpool stole the ball from Arsenal and controlled the game completely. While Arsenal tried to get back with more pressing Klopp’s team employed more direct balls and threatened even further. Quarter of an hour later they were three goals clear of hosts and it looked like the match was over.
Despite the fact Arsenal managed to get two goals back, Liverpool wasn’t really in danger of letting points go. Well, it was, but not from well executed team play by Arsenal. In conclusion, Liverpool showed they play as a team more than Arsenal does at this early stage. Also, the quality of players Klopp brought in, compared to those Wenger could muster together, was too much for London team.