Sixteen years have been a long wait for all the Leeds United fans to see their beloved Peacocks where they belong. Despite the fact that the visitors lost, there is no doubt the fans would be happy after Saturday evening’s display at the famous Anfield. Not many have come here to the Reds’ Den and taken the fight to Jurgen Klopp in the past few years. Marcelo Bielsa and his men almost did it right.
A tactical battle was promised, and it was delivered. Let’s take a detailed look at the game from a tactical point of view.
Liverpool stuck to their usual 4-3-3 formation with Brazilian stopper Alisson starting in goal. Joe Gomez was preferred to Joel Matip alongside the mammoth Virgil Van Dijk. Full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold played their usual overlapping role on each flanks.
It was an interesting but intelligent choice to play Nabi Keita ahead of Fabinho in the 3-man midfield by Klopp as he tried to match the physical strength of Bielsa’s side. Henderson and Wijnaldum started alongside Keita. Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah – the untouchables of the Reds’ squad – made sure that there was enough firepower in the Liverpool attack.
Leeds’ man-to-man marking was perfectly exploited in the crucial moments by Klopp’s men. As Mane and Salah tried to squeeze into the half-spaces, they made space for Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to make the overlapping runs on either flanks. In the late end of the second-half, the full-backs were even seen making the inside runs in the half-spaces as the two forwards pulled the Leeds’ setup wide.
Talking about the defensive line, Liverpool played a fairly high line which reflected the confidence built-in by the team of taking that extra bit of risk. This even back-fired multiple times as two of Leeds’ goals came from overhead crosses into the deeper areas of the pitch where Liverpool were outnumbered.
Leeds started the game with the 4-1-4-1 formation but there were glimpses of the team transitioning to a 3-3-1-3 Bielsa Special. Young keeper Illan Meslier started in goal and was fabulous in his distribution throughout the game. Robin Koch and Pascal Struijk were the centre-back duo as the sole pivot Kalvin Phillips repeatedly dropped into the middle of Koch and Struijk to turn it into a 3-man backline. This wasn’t a surprise though as it helped the Lilywhites to nullify Roberto Firmino’s impact using the versatility of Kalvin Phillips.
As Phillips dissolved in the defensive line, Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich played the two pivots in the centre of the park, having a box-to-box responsibility rather than a creative one. Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas played most of their 90 minutes as wing-backs supporting the attack through the flanks.
Jack Harrison and Helder Costa made sure that they would make the best of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold playing higher up the pitch as the Leeds’ wider-positioned players took the game to the Reds, cutting back inside multiple times to create problems for Van Dijk and co.
Patrick Bamford, who was given the nod ahead of new signing Rodrigo, was the lone striker upfront. But rather than ending up a lonely figure chasing the ball between the two Liverpool centre-backs Bamford almost played a false-nine helping his team offensively as well as defensively.
Liverpool were very clever to identify that Leeds were using the one-to-one marking system and use it to their advantage. The Reds occasionally crowded a particular part of the pitch deploying more men to that very area. This attracted pressure from the Leeds’ counterparts and ended up creating space in the middle..
In this very attack, Firmino and Wijnaldum maintain a compact positioning on the left flank. Fabinho takes the only central Leeds United player out of the attack as he moves further away from the middle of the pitch. This creates ample space for either of Henderson and Salah in the centre of the pitch to either take a chance from distance or setup a goal for their team-mates.
Liverpool have been so dominant with their pressing abilities for the past two seasons, they have been hardly challenged by any other English team when they are building from the back. Today, they had a taste of their own medicine.
Leeds created an overload in the Liverpool penalty box whenever they recovered the ball just outside the final third. On every such occasion, there were so many Leeds players running into the box, Liverpool seemed outnumbered at the back.
During this phase of play, even though Helder Costa couldn’t get enough power on the ball to squeeze it through the gaps between Van Dijk and Robertson, there were five Leeds players waiting for an opportunity to strike. This even helped them a few moments later in the game as they scored an equalizer to make it 3-3 using this same overload technique with almost five men in the opposition penalty area.
Like Bielsa, Jurgen Klopp too employed a one-to-one man-marking as the game progressed. While Robertson, Van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold intelligently marked their respective opposition player in addition to maintaining their disciplined positions, Joe Gomez was the link amongst the back-four..
The English International repeatedly became a bait of the Leeds dynamic formation. As Mateusz Klich kept shifting between an attacking midfielder role and a deep lying playmaker, Gomez was forced to follow him into exceptionally higher areas on the pitch, leaving huge gaps in the Liverpool back-line.
This cost the Premier League Champions a goal too as Bamford was released by an overhead cross and he lunged on a Van Dijk error to open his Premier League scoring account.
The Championship winners last season were shambolic in defending set-pieces and corner routines and repeatedly made fundamental mistakes in the box. During the first 30 minutes, they failed to man-mark Liverpool’s main targets during corner kicks which cost them two goals. In the later stages of the fixture, they over-committed to certain opposition players leaving too much space in the box for an open shot on goal.
Overall, for a neutral viewer, the tie was an absolute cracker with more than decent amount of fireworks at either end of the pitch. It revealed the fact that the Champions of England – Liverpool – can also be given a fair share of problems at Anfield. Also, it was a proper homecoming for Leeds United in the Premier League with their performance being an open warning to all the other English top-flight sides.
WRITTEN BY GUNJOURNO