League leaders Liverpool hosted Brighton at Anfield in a Premier League clash on Saturday, 30th November 2019. This matched Jurgen Klopp up against Graham Potter, who was fresh from signing a new 6-year contract with the seagulls earlier last week.
In relation to both teams form, hosts Liverpool had a 1-1 draw against Napoli in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday. Brighton, however, had the week off after being defeated 2-0 at home by a clinical Leicester City side the previous Saturday. Graham Potter’s side would have been eager to put in a good performance at Anfield, with his side relishing dangerously close to the relegation zone. Conversely, Jurgen Klopp would have been buoyed by last year’s champions, Manchester City, playing out a 2-2 draw away to Newcastle shortly before kick-off at Anfield. The German was certainly raring to pounce after City’s late mishap at St. James’.
As many would have expected, Liverpool lined up in a 4-3-3 shape with the deadly trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino leading the line. With Fabinho being ruled out through both injury and suspension, Jordan Henderson deputised as the deepest Liverpool midfielder with Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in front as the two 8’s.
Brighton were lined up in a very festive Christmas tree-like 4-3-2-1 defensive shape with Yves Bissouma and Pascal Gross acting as the narrow wingers with youngster Aaron Connolly leading the line for Albion.
Brighton’s Unique Defensive Organisation
Brighton’s Christmas tree-like formation is evident in the image shown above, and Graham Potter did not set Brighton out like this as it was aesthetically pleasing to look at, it involved some key tactical principles that made it difficult for Liverpool to build up their attacks. Firstly, the wide 8’s (highlighted in blue) positioned themselves in relation to LFC’s full-backs. Propper and Mooy would often shuttle across and stay tight LFC’s full-backs when they received possession, therefore making it difficult for Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to play quick vertical passes to Mane or Salah. Secondly, Mooy and Propper were enabled to be aggressive towards LFC’s full-backs as Brighton’s wide forwards (Bissouma and Gross) positioned themselves in the half-spaces and a lot narrower than Mooy and Propper, who were behind them. When in their defensive organisation, Brighton’s forwards would use their cover shadow to block any passes into the half-spaces, which prevented from Liverpool playing vertically into those areas. This nullified one of Liverpool’s key principles of play, being able to play vertically into the path of the front 3 who would utilise their excellent 1v1 abilities and pace against the opposition defenders.
The positioning of Albion’s wide forwards gave them easy access to the Liverpool midfielders who would shift over to the wide areas to assist with their build-up as shown above. Here, Robertson turns back to try and find Wijnaldum, however he is closely marshalled by Pascal Gross. Robertson’s only option is then to pass back to Van Dijk. This meant Liverpool couldn’t progress the ball as easily as they would have liked in the wide areas. This is also something sides like Sheffield Utd and Manchester United have done against Liverpool previously, highlighting Liverpool’s dependency on their full-backs during their build-up play in their rather narrow 4-3-3 formation.
The importance of set-pieces
Despite their proactive and promising approach, Albion found themselves 2-0 down midway through the first half via two quick-fire headers from Virgil van Dijk.
An image of the first goal is shown above. In this situation, Van Dijk quickly loses the Brighton centre back, Webster, who is too flat-footed. The Brighton defender pictured closest (Stephens), is occupied by both Firmino and Lovren who make runs in the defender’s sight as well as on his blindside. This left Van Dijk free to head over Ryan and into the net.
Shortly after the 1st goal, Van Dijk found himself on the scoresheet again, this time from a corner kick. Here (above), Salah’s crucial small movement to the near post drags both Brighton defenders with him and opens a large amount of space behind them. Van Dijk is again quick to lose his man and ploughs into the open space left by Salah and was there to head home.
Brighton’s “box build-up” explained
It’s unusual for a Liverpool side to have less possession at Anfield, never mind to a team to a team in the bottom half of the premier league. So how exactly did Brighton achieve this feat and play through Liverpool’s world-renowned press so consistently? They used a system what some call a “box build-up”, this involves having two deep midfielders in to help with ball progression, which creates a box-like shape with the central defenders.
When analysing Brighton’s “box build-up” style, it is interesting to see Brighton’s two 6’s, Propper and Stephens, placed in between Liverpool’s front 3. This left Liverpool’s 2 central midfielders with a conundrum; to follow and stay tight to Brighton’s two deep midfielders or to stay more reserved and protect the half-spaces. Wijnaldum and Oxlade Chamberlain waited for the right situations to press Brighton’s central players, using pressing triggers such as having their back to goal or a misplaced/ heavy touch by one of Brighton’s two 6’s. As Propper and Stephens were relatively calm and composed in possession, Liverpool’s midfielders remained more conservative in their pressing actions which led to Brighton enjoying lengthy spells of ball possession.
Although Brighton did enjoy large spells of possession which frustrated the Liverpool supporters, Brighton struggled to penetrate the Liverpool defence once they bypassed Liverpool’s press. With Graham Potter opting for players like Bissouma in the attacking positions, a more defensive-minded player, it was evident throughout the game as Brighton found themselves in promising positions, but most players would like the ball to feet instead of running beyond the Liverpool defence. This changed slightly once Liverpool went down to 10 men after goalkeeper Alisson was dismissed for a deliberate handball. Potter tried to capitalise on the 1 man advantage by bringing on players who were more likely to penetrate Liverpool, namely Leandro Trossard and Neal Maupay. However, Liverpool hung on for a vital 3 points in their 8th 2-1 win of the season. It was nice to see a unique approach from Brighton and Graham Potter will take great pride in how his side played at the home of the European champions.
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