Football Features

Liverpool’s ‘long-pass’ trait to counter RB Leipzig’s high press?

By Ben Green

Published: 17:31, 16 February 2021

With Liverpool’s Premier League title defence up in smoke and their involvement in domestic cup competitions non-existent, this Champions League clash against RB Leipzig is arguably Jurgen Klopp’s biggest game of the season.

Football is a funny old sport; just a few months ago Liverpool were in clover and riding the crest of a wave, but they are not in Kansas anymore, surrendering the Premier League title (according to Klopp himself) with a whimper and winless at ‘Fortress Anfield’ in five games — this is truly unprecedented territory for the German.

Following Klopp’s title-concession, Liverpool are now fighting on just one front: the Champions League. As a result, this round-of-16 showdown a sink-or-swim contest for the Reds, and they are clear favourites (2/5) with Sky Bet to make it to the quarter-finals. This is in keeping their 15/2 odds to win the Champions League outright, with only by Manchester City (11/4) and Bayern Munich (3/1) at shorter odds.

Julian Nagelsmann is the bright new spark on the block from Germany’s illustrious managerial conveyor belt, but Klopp remains a world-class tactician and could yet turn things around. So, what can we expect from Liverpool in Budapest?

Relevant Sky Bet odds for RB Leipzig vs Liverpool

  • Liverpool to win 13/10
  • RB Leipzig to win 19/10
  • Draw 13/5
  • Mohamed Salah to score and Liverpool win 7/4
  • Yussuf Poulsen to score and RB Leipzig win 7/2

All odds stated in this article are accurate at the time of publication (17:30, 16/02/2021). You have to be 18+ to gamble. BeGambleAware

Same shape, different personnel

Liverpool’s injury issues have been well-chronicled this campaign. Defensively, the physio room at the AXA Training Centre has resembled Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing, with the excessive comings and goings preventing Klopp from sustaining any form of consistency in his backline.

To put the injury crisis into perspective: Liverpool have trialled 13 different centre-back combinations in the Premier League this term. Despite this, Klopp has not looked to deviate from his tried-and-tested set-up, instead remaining consistent with a high-octane 4-3-3.

Although Klopp has cultivated a reputation for relentless counter-pressing at Anfield, his side have slowly started to resemble a more balanced and flexible unit, controlling games with more authority and enjoying a greater share of possession; the acquisition of Thiago in the summer is emblematic of this subtle shift.

Since the start of 2017/18, Liverpool’s average possession in the Premier League has incrementally increased year-on-year. The shift from 60.77% possession in 2017/18 to 63.77% in 2020/21 is not a particularly eye-catching increase, but it highlights a move away from an over-reliance on pressing, and a nod to improved ball retention.

A battle of the flanks

Stylistically little separates Liverpool from Leipzig. Both clubs are deeply entrenched in the German school of pressing, stretch the play as much as possible, and utilise the flanks with inexorable zeal. The visual below illustrates Liverpool’s main route to the final third, with wide play key to their attacking transitions.

The attacking tendencies of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have of course been the hallmark of Klopp’s success on Merseyside, with the latter almost redefining the role as a pseudo-playmaker at right-back.

“He can take the position of right-back to another level,” Cafu said of Alexander-Arnold.

“I think we’ve started changing the narrative, the way people view full backs.”

And so, where the Reds play with overlapping full-backs, Leipzig deploy high-pressing wing-backs. There is an emphasis, likewise, in Saxony to stretch the turf and play down the channels, hugging the touchline and creating space. Get reading for a byline battle like no other.

The ‘diagonal’ a perfect platform for Davies?

The Jordan Henderson-Ozan Kabak centre-back partnership was the latest to be tested by Klopp at the weekend, but they too were unable to stop the rot and ameliorate the symptoms of Liverpool’s porous propensities this term, surrendering a 1-0 lead at Leicester with an epic seven-minute capitulation.

So, the German may be tempted to roll the dice once more. Ben Davies, signed in January from Preston, was absent at the King Power on Saturday owing to a slight knock, but he took part in the training session on Sunday and could make his debut on Tuesday (Craig David would be proud), having been added to Liverpool’s Champions League squad.

Defensively Davies was a sturdy and resolute component of Preston’s backline in the Championship, but stylistically he fits the archetype of a Klopp centre-back. Liverpool are renowned for playing diagonal balls towards the flanks and over the top, utilising the runs of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

In the Champions League this season they have attempted 409 long passes, the fourth-best return for that particular metric, bettered only by Sevilla (427), Club Brugge (428) and Midtjylland (451). Davies, for his part, completed 268 long-passes from the start of last season to the time he signed for Liverpool, which placed him in the Championship’s top five for that stat among centre-backs.

So, the pair could fit like a hand to a glove. Whether it’s Davies or any other centre-back, Nagelsmann must be wary of Liverpool’s diagonal passes when the likes of Mane and Salah are zipping about the turf.