Last year, in the season they became champions, Liverpool created the most pressure situations in the final third among all teams in the Premier League.
They caught the highest number of players offside. And their goalkeeper, Alisson Becker, ventured outside the penalty area the most, shining in his role of ‘sweeper-keeper’.
All of this was largely linked to a strategy that manager Jurgen Klopp employed: the high defensive line.
Four games into the new season, the EPL champions’ high-risk, high-reward tactic is being talked about once again. On the opening weekend, Marcelo Bielsa’s newly-promoted Leeds United gave Liverpool a mighty scare by finding gaps in their high defence line. Arsenal too, exploited the same weakness, but the Reds managed to remain undefeated.
Eventually, on Sunday, Liverpool ran out of luck. No one could have foreseen a 7-2 hammering for them at last season’s strugglers Aston Villa, but a larger trend is emerging of their defence leaking goals by playing higher up the field than usual.
“Being a defender and having played that position myself, this team plays a lot higher up the pitch,” former Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports.
“But I think you go back to the first game – conceding goals. Started conceding goals at the restart at the end of last season… I think you can really look at that and ask: Is it a freak or more of a trend that’s been happening over the last 10-15 games?”
The high line
It isn’t a told-you-so moment as such because Carragher, and several other pundits, had praised Liverpool’s strategy last season. But that’s the thing with this tactic: when it works, it’s fascinating to watch; but when it doesn’t, it often leads to embarrassing situations.
Liverpool aren’t the first team to employ a high defensive line. It’s a common strategy deployed by top sides in world football. The differences are usually in the finer details brought about by a manager and an individual player.
This is a style of play that sees a team push up when not in possession, and close down the spaces for the opposition to construct a move. It requires a high degree of technical abilities.
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How it operates
In Liverpool’s case, when a team wins possession back from them, Klopp’s aggressive gegenpress comes into play to get the ball back. However, when the opposition team begins the play, Liverpool’s high defensive line begins operating.
There are three layers. The first is the primary press, which is the responsibility of the front three, assisted by a midfielder. The idea is to close down the opponents and choke their passing lines so that they can restrict the game to a specific part of the pitch, build pressure and force mistakes.
For Liverpool, one of the influential players in this role is Sadio Mane, who is relentless in his pressing game compared to the other two forwards, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah who are less aggressive. Liverpool pressed their opponents in this part of the field more than any other team in the Premier League last season.
If the opponents find their way out of this press, the fullbacks and midfielders come into play, depending on the match situation. Their job is to block a through ball and put pressure in a way that the ball is played either backwards or sideways.
If the second line of defence is also breached, then the controversial high line is in focus. The defenders, in such a scenario, are more often than not positioned at the half-way line. The purpose of that is to make sure the ball stays in the opponent’s half and reduce the passing options as the forwards can be caught off-side if the timing of the pass, and the run, isn’t perfect.
Last season, Liverpool had 141 off-side calls in their favour, more than any other side in the league (second-best were West Ham United, with fewer than 100). It showed that the defence, led by Dutchman Virgil van Dijk, was operating in coordination. Van Dijk and his partner in the centre of the defence, Joe Gomez, have an impressive ability to track down their man if beaten. Both have long strides and are quick, which helps them in recovering the ball if it goes past them.
In the worst case, they are bailed out by Alisson, one of the best keepers currently in the world. Alisson sometimes plays so high up the pitch that he can pass off as a centre back himself. But he has made so many crucial interventions that it gives the Liverpool players the confidence to play the high line, knowing their backs are covered.
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Reward and risk
The obvious reward of this strategy is you have the opposition playing the way you want. They are also prone to making more mistakes because of the incessant pressure, and since the ball is largely in the opponent’s half, the chances of conceding a goal automatically reduce.
But there is a huge risk if you don’t have the players to pull this strategy off successfully or stumble upon a team that figures out ways to bypass the high defensive line. In the Champions League last season, Belgian side Genk posed questions for Van Dijk & Co. by constantly lobbing balls over the midfield to get beyond the Liverpool back-line.
Leeds, in this season’s opening match, found ways to go past the high line and scored three goals, putting the Liverpool defence under further scrutiny and last week, Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette twice snuck past the Liverpool defence to go one-on-one with Alisson but could not beat him.
On Sunday against Aston Villa, Liverpool were without Mane, who is infected with Covid-19, and an injured Alisson, which meant that at the front and at the back, they did not have their key men to execute this strategy.
That Liverpool have conceded a third of goals compared to the entire title-winning campaign in just the first four games of this season proves there are defensive problems – stemming perhaps from the lack of a pre-season, and less time between matches.
Conceding seven goals to Aston Villa is freakish, more a result of their pig-headedness to not resort to a more conservative defensive strategy, and limiting damage, after going down by three or four goals.
But the fact that they did not ditch their trademark style even in such a situation shows that despite the debate around it, Liverpool are likely to stick to their philosophy going forward.
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