3 losses in 66. Followed by 3 losses in 5. From dreams of seeing their names etched amongst the game’s greatest sides just a couple of weeks ago, Liverpool have since had their dream of invincibility crushed, their quest for the treble shattered and the defence of their Champions League title put under serious peril.
The second and decisive leg of their Round of 16 tie against Atlético Madrid looms large for the European champions, who will be aware that failure to overcome the infallible hurdle that is Diego Simeone’s side will mean that their season will come to a premature end. The sheer speed at which the Reds have virtually wrapped up the Premier League crown will leave a bitter taste in their mouths if they are unable to add to it, even as they are bringing an end to a 3-decade long wait for the title.
That said, it may not be time for just yet Jürgen Klopp to jump in the control room and hit the panic button. With typical German efficiency, he has built a side capable of notching win after win with a machine-like relentlessness. While the machine is looking a little rusty right now, there is no reason why a lick of paint can’t get it running as good as new again. But first, Klopp must address a few fundamental issues.
A TACTICAL CHANGE FOR LIVERPOOL
The Reds had no shots on target in the first leg even though they had 70% possession. Atlético’s players battled and restricted the visitors to very few chances, not allowing their full-backs and forwards to combine or spell danger with a well-drilled 4-4-2. The defending champions struggled to find time and space on the ball and their crosses were dealt with ease by the strong centre-back partnership of Stefan Savić and Felipe.
If Klopp is seeking inspiration, he need not look further than Max Allegri’s Juventus, who reversed a 2-0 deficit against Wednesday’s opponents at this stage last year. The Italians started in the 4-3-3 shape on paper, but they moved one of their midfielders, Emre Can, to a de facto centre-back, which afforded freedom to their full-backs. Their shape changed into a 3-4-3 while in attack. Here is how Liverpool can use the same plan:
Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3
TAA Gomez Van Dijk Robertson
Salah Firmino Mane
Fabinho Gomez Van Dijk
Arnold Henderson Robertson
Salah Firmino Mane
There are multiple benefits of using this strategy against Atlético Madrid, who press and defend in a compact 4-4-2 shape. Firstly, Liverpool can build from the back in a 3v2 against Atlético’s first line of pressure. Last season, Allegri moved Emre Can to the right side of the defense which allowed them to have 4v4 in midfield (two midfielders and both full-backs playing as wide midfielders/wing-backs), while still having players in the box to cause problems to Atlético’s back-four. While Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed the headlines with a historic hat-trick, it was Allegri’s masterclass that allowed Juventus to score from two crosses and a penalty.
Liverpool struggled to find spaces between the lines or create from wide areas in the first leg against the defensive might of Atléti, but the 3-4-3 allows them to create overloads going forward (with full-backs playing as wing-backs) and midfielders joining in attack. Here is how the 3-4-3 will look on the ground against Atlético Madrid’s 4-4-2.
Fabinho Gomez Van Dijk
Arnold Henderson Robertson
(Saul) (Thomas) (Llorente) (Koke)
(Lodi) (Felipe) (Savic) (Vrsaljko)
It is clear that Liverpool have options to create width on both sides of the pitch with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson hugging the touchline, which gives them the opportunity to switch play against Atlético Madrid’s compact 4-4-2. Roberto Firmino can play his usual game, dropping deeper into half-spaces, while Salah and Mané pin Atlético’s back-four. Already a 4v4 in midfield, with Firmino’s deep movement, Liverpool will have a numerical advantage in the middle, which could cause disorganisation among the opposition ranks. Firmino’s selfless work will be very important against the congested setup of the La Liga outfit.
Furthermore, keeping 3v2 at the back will not only aid the build-up, but will also ensure that the Reds have enough bodies to defend against Atlético’s most dangerous weapon – the counter-attack. Multiple teams like Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United, Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli and Unai Emery’s Arsenal have tried and succeeded in attacking Liverpool in the space left by their advanced full-backs. The 3-4-3 helps negate that threat with Fabinho and Van Dijk well-suited to defend in the wide areas. The reason for not playing three proper centre-backs is that Fabinho’s passing is better than the likes of Dejan Lovren and will allow Liverpool to defend and press in their usual 4-3-3 zonal setup without the ball. The slight change of shape in attack could be the trick that helps them pick the lock.
Besides Juventus’s comeback last season, the proof of the 3-4-3 working against Atlético lies in FC Barcelona regularly applying this method against Simeone’s side by dropping Sergio Busquets between the central defenders. This attacking shape also gives Liverpool numbers to apply Klopp’s famous counter-pressing after they lose the ball. It’s an area the Reds normally excel at and keeping constant pressure on Atlético will be critical. Fabinho, the de facto centre-back can even move up to provide additional numbers or passing options when the Reds have sustained periods of possession.
The higher positioning of Liverpool’s full-backs and threat of wide overloads in the 3-4-3 shape will force Atlético to withdraw their wide midfielders, almost to a point that they defend as a back-six. A major benefit of this for the European Champions is that this will decrease the counter-attacking threat of Simeone’s team, whose potential breaks will be starting from very deep. With three players covering the defense, Liverpool can instruct their full-backs, front three and one midfielder to give them numbers in and around the penalty area, something they struggled with in Madrid.
In the shocking loss against Watford, where Liverpool had just one shot on target, Watford also deployed an organized 4-5-1 without the ball. It is no shame that the Reds found it tough to breakdown Atlético Madrid but they have struggled in every game since the winter break, including the two narrow wins against Norwich City and West Ham United. Liverpool’s lack of imagination was also evident against Chelsea and that they must switch things around for the second leg is not up for debate.
Many pundits and fans felt that Liverpool had underestimated Diego Simeone’s side in the first leg, and will have to be even warier for the reverse as Los Rojiblancos have been on the wrong end of a second leg comeback last season from the aforementioned Juventus. They will be hungrier than ever to show that they have learned their lessons from last year.
It is worth noting that Atlético didn’t create many dangerous situations in attack in the first leg, managing just two shots on target. Even their goal had an element of luck and scrappiness about it, as the rebound fell to Saúl Ñíguez. We have such a tendency to look at the result of a game and judge teams but a closer look reveals that Atlético did not offer too much going forward, which is evident from their goal tally of 31 from 27 La Liga games this season. Liverpool are still favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.
LIVERPOOL SHOULD STOP ADDING FUEL TO THE FIRE
After the first-leg in Madrid, left-back Andrew Robertson said, “That (performance is) what (Simeone) is. When you are not playing against him it is probably great to watch. But we have no problem with it. They (Atlético players and staff) celebrated as if they won the tie, but let’s see.”
Virgil van Dijk and Jürgen Klopp echoed this sentiment, saying things like “Welcome to Anfield, this is not over yet”. Liverpool’s frustration was understandable but these are naïve and emotional statements. Simeone’s side already knew they were underestimated by everyone, and already have an ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality. Liverpool should have just accepted the loss and must use the anger as a catalyst to turn the tie around.
Furthermore, Klopp shouldn’t have been surprised by Atlético’s style and approach to this tie. That’s how the Colcheneros have been playing for years and being the European Champions, the Reds should be able to beat them. Simeone’s team outfought and even outthought Liverpool in the first leg so It will be wise of Liverpool to do their talking in the game this time instead of giving more ammunition to Atlético by saying things in the press conference room.
Having completed one of modern football’s greatest comebacks just last season against Barcelona, Liverpool players and staff head into this game with bags of experience. They can also look at Juventus’s comeback last season for the tactics to revive their hopes of back-to-back Champions League trophies. Robertson and Klopp mentioned Anfield, which was admittedly not the most calculated move, but they do have a valid point. Liverpool have never lost a two-legged European tie under Klopp, and for that, they have their fortress to thank.
The 3-4-3 setup will solve the problems that the Reds had in the first leg such as lack of creativity, overloads in wide areas and players between the lines. Atlético Madrid are likely to stay in their own defensive shape for large periods of this game. It goes without saying that football matches are not won on the tactics board. Liverpool will have to put in an almighty shift and backed by discipline, efficiency in front of goal and with a slight tweak in their attacking shape can complete another famous European comeback.
Written by Hammad Pervez
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