December is an incredibly busy month for teams in the Premier League with a lot of fixtures on different stages. This is no different for league leaders Liverpool who played against relegation-threatened Watford. The Merseyside side is hoping to claim their first title in 30 years and they had to deal with Watford in this game at Anfield. This tactical analysis will show how Liverpool fared against a struggling Watford side.

Liverpool really needed the win to stay ahead of the chasing pack rather comfortably, just before they would travel to Qatar for the FIFA Club World Cup. Watford made no illusions, but a win would prove to be vital in their battle against relegation.

In this analysis, we will look at three tactical trends during this particular game between Liverpool and Watford. We will look at Watford’s defensive set up, followed by the attacking style of play of Liverpool and how Watford managed to frustrate Liverpool’s game. Lastly, we will look at how Liverpool utilised the counter-attacks with their quick transition from defence to attack, using their tactics.

Line-ups

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Liverpool vs Watford line-ups. Credit: Wyscout.

Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool played this game in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a double pivot of Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson, who played in front of the four-man defence. They were the first defensive line but also joined the attack when going forward. The attacking midfielders were Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri, with Mohamed Salah as the sole striker. The formation changed in the 88th minute when Firmino was taken off and Origi came into the squad. Liverpool’s formation turned from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3 formation with Origi and Mane as wingers.

Watford’s new manager Nigel Pearson fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation as well with Hughes and Capoue acting as the double pivot. The attacking threat should come from Gerard Deulofeu, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Ismaïla Sarr. Troy Deeney was the sole striker on the Watford side, which was hoping to pain Liverpool in this Premier League match.

Watford’s defensive 4-2-3-1

With Liverpool being one of the topsides in Europe, it is only natural that Watford needed to defend a lot in this game. Nigel Pearson came in as the new manager and had to sort out the defence, to get away with something up North in England. The formation was a 4-2-3-1 with the four-man defence supported by a defensive block of Will Hughes and Étienne Capoue.

The team not only relied on their defensive shape, but this defensive shape was also what characterised their style of play.

In the build-up phase and the transition phase from defensive phase to the attacking phase, the team would line up with four defenders and the two defensive midfielders just in front of them. In the image below you can see how they positioned themselves in the 4-2-3-1 formation.

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Watford’s 4-2-3-1 formation with Hughes-Capoue as the double pivot. Credit: Wyscout.

Goalkeeper Forster often opted for the long ball forward which meant that the 4-2-3-1 formation moved forward and the four-man defence stood high up on their own half. The defensive block of Hughes-Capoue moved up with the four attacking players of Liverpool and could provide assistance to the Watford attacking players.

When Liverpool had the ball on their own half after they recovered the ball or Watford lost it, the Watford 4-2-3-1 formation moved up on the pitch in order to press Liverpool on their own half. They did that with their attacking midfield trio in order to disturb the build-up of the Liverpool side.

In doing so, their shape changed slightly and it formed a 4-4-2 formation. In the image below you can see how the 4-4-2 moved in the transition from attack to defence, focussed on the trio of Deulofeu-Deeney-Doucouré.

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When Liverpool had the ball on their own half and the transition from attack to defence started for Watford, their shape would change into a 4-4-2 with Sarr and Deulofeu dropping down to assist Hughes and Capoue. Credit: Wyscout.

In the image above there are five players concerned with avoiding Liverpool to move up on the pitch. Deeney, Deulofeu and Doucouré are occupied with the central defenders Van Dijk and Gomez, and the defensive block Wijnaldum-Henderson. They left space open on the flanks and with Milner en Alexander-Arnold as wing-backs, this was a risky choice from the Watford manager.

This lead to the following situations where the midfield four of Watford needed to be on their best to prevent an attack from the flanks.

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Watford’s four-man midfield played in front of their defence and tries to break Liverpool’s build-up. Credit: Wyscout.

The four-man defensive midfield moved as a unit towards the area where the ball was. In this example, the ball moved to the full-back Milner and the trio of Watford, moved to him.

Defensive shape when Liverpool attacks

The shape of Watford had to change when Liverpool exploited their swift counter-attacking football, which we will touch upon later. Liverpool came in storming with Salah and their attacking midfield trio and this caused problems for Watford at the back.

With four attacking players on Watford’s half they were 4v4 in these type of situations and with the risk of the full-backs coming up, the situation looked dire. The way Watford tackled this, was to make sure that the midfield of Sarr-Hughes-Capoue would drop down and got into position to stop the dangerous attacking players of Liverpool.

In the image below you can see how these situations played out in the time of a counter-attack by Liverpool.

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Liverpool attacks with their four attacking players against four defenders of Watford. The three-man midfield drops down to assist in defence, making sure it is a 7v4 situation rather than a 4v4. Credit: Wyscout.

The advantage in numbers helped Watford when there was a quick counter-attack by Liverpool, as you can see above. But when Liverpool could attack through a build-up this situation clearly changed. With more players on the half of Watford, Liverpool could be more dangerous.

What Watford tried to do, was not in the way how they thought they could defend most efficiently, but they thought in the number of players. In the image below you can see that they brought in numbers to defend against Liverpool in the final third.

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When Liverpool was attacking high on the Watford half, Watford had 9 players defending in and around the box. Credit: Wyscout.

Watford had to make sure everyone was back to defend against Liverpool. Liverpool had 6 players coming forward and Watford needed every players, to withhold Liverpool from creating a chance. Only Deeney stayed up front, waiting for the counter-attack.

Liverpool’s attacking build-up from the back

Liverpool played at home on Anfield and like so many games before this one, tried to assert dominance with their attacking style of play. In this analysis, we will look closely to the role of the central defenders in the build-up and attacking phase of the game.

The central defenders from Liverpool in this game were Van Dijk and Gomez. Their passing was instrumental in their style of build-up. If we look at the data of the passing by the pair we can see the following. Gomez had 37 passes forward of which 26 reached a teammate, a percentage of 70%. For Van Dijk, this was 25 forward passes and 19 passes were completed, which is a percentage of 76%.

As said above, the central defenders were vital in the way they started the attacks and they made sure they could move up on their own half and look for passes forward. In the image below you can see how the position is of the central defenders when they made their pass forward.

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Gomez and Van Dijk move up on their own half in order to look for passing opportunities. Credit: Wyscout.

The moment either of the central defenders moves forward with the ball, there is movement from the full-backs and the defensive block of Wijnaldum-Henderson. When Van Dijk or Gomez moves up, Milner and Alexander-Arnold stay on the same line. This made them available to receive the pass from the central defenders.

At the same time, it was the defensive block that dropped down or not moved forward with the full-backs. Wijnaldum and Henderson did that in order to be available to receive the pass, just like the full-backs did. In the image below you can see that this gives Liverpool’s central defenders, different options going forward.

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Gomez has different options: Alexander-Arnold to his right, but also Henderson and Wijnaldum are available to receive the pass. Credit: Wyscout.

In the image above, Gomez has plenty of options going to progress the attack. He could choose between Alexander-Arnold, Henderson or Wijnaldum. He also could look to his left and pass the ball to Van Dijk. Watford allowed this kind of passing but were sure to press them when they wanted to move forward, as we will look into in the next part of this tactical analysis.

Watford’s high press frustrating Liverpool

Liverpool had the freedom to pass the ball around between the defenders and the low block of Wijnaldum-Henderson, but Watford did not allow the ball to progress easily. They managed to do that with pressing by the attacking players.

When Liverpool moved up the pitch, Deeney and the attacking midfield trio managed to press Liverpool. Three of the four players pressed Liverpool on the flank that the ball was at that particular moment of the game. In the image below you can see how this manifested itself.

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Watford attacking players pressing Liverpool’s defence. Credit: Wyscout.

The press by these four attacking players is made possible by the movement of the defensive block of Watford. If the attacking players move forward, the defensive midfield duo steps in and take over their man in the marking. In this way, they could do the pressing while not being out passed by the Liverpool defenders.

The Liverpool players felt the press from Watford and resorted to the safer options of passing: passing back to the central defenders or even the keeper. As soon as the Liverpool moved back to their own goal, Watford followed through with their press and managed to force Liverpool into decisions.

In the image below you can see how it looks when Watford follow through with their press.

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Watford follow through with their press and Deeney and Doucoureé press the central duo Gomez-Van Dijk. Meanwhile, 4 Watford players mark the Liverpool full-back, the dropping Firmino and defensive midfield duo. Credit: Wyscout.

Watford move forward with their press and make sure that the central duo Gomez-Van Dijk has only one option going forward: play the long ball. Deeney and Doucouré press the central defenders, while Sarr, Hughes, Deulofeu and Capoue mark the four Liverpool players who would be an option to pass the ball to.

Liverpool struggled to get through by passing the ball from the back in order to reach their attacking players. Passing from the centre back to the full-back and then moving up, did not work due to the press by Watford. The ball would circulate between the four-man defence and Wijnaldum-Henderson but failed to reach any of the four attacking players by this passing style of play.

Liverpool resorted to long balls from the goalkeeper or the central defenders because the passing style of play would not work. This change in tactics needed a different approach from Liverpool, as the attacking players should win aerial duels in the opponents’ final third. In the image below you can see how this looked on the pitch.

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Gomez played the long ball to Salah, who would have to win the ball from Cathcart or Kabasele. the four-man defence stood strong against this Liverpool attack. Credit: Wyscout.

Liverpool’s only option in this phase of the game was to play the ball long, because of the press by Watford. This is exactly what Watford wanted because the four-man defence often was superior against Salah, Mane or Shaqiri in the air – especially against Salah. If you look at the numbers, Salah only won 3 of his 17 offensive duels which is 18%.  Kabasele won 6 out of 8 duels (75%) and Cathcart 10 out of 11 duels (91%). Salah was no match in an offensive duel.

In the image below you can see what helped Watford proceed ofter they won the ball in the defence after a long ball. Their defensive block on the midfield played closely to the four-man defence and could distribute the passes tot he attacking players from this position.

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Watford regain possession of the ball and their defensive block has more space to progress. This is possible because the attacking trio of Mane-Salah-Shaqiri is out of position. Credit: Wyscout.

The ball was played into the final third, by Gomez and Van Dijk, but their pass completion of long balls is not convincing. 5 of 11 (45%) passes by Gomez and 7 of 12 (58%) passes by Van Dijk.

After Watford won the duel, Mane-Salah-Shaqiri were out of position in midfield. This made it easier for Capoue and Hughes to move forward and pick a pass to play to the attacking players. This resulted in a frustrating time for the Liverpool attacker, as the defensive shape of four defenders and two defensive midfielders proved to be effective against Liverpool.

Liverpool strong in counter-attacking football

Liverpool did not play its finest game and would definitely need to step up to win bigger games, but they still won this game. How did they do that? Well, they executed the counter-attacking style of play. They needed to that with pace, so they could prevent Watford to get numbers in and around the box.

The counter-attacks are a weapon with what they can pose a threat to their opponents’ goal and create big chances. Although they had 3 counter-attacks in this game, the counter-attack leading to the 1-0 was characteristic for this style of play.

In the 37th minute, Liverpool clear a Watford corner and the ball is eventually brought forward by Firmino. In doing so he manages to get the ball on the Watford half and the pace of the attacking Liverpool players means that this is instantly dangerous.

Salah, Mane and Shaqiri all move forward, either chasing the ball or getting in the right position to receive it, while all the players in defence try to keep up and close the defensive line. In the image below you can see how this looks in the transition from defence to attack.

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Salah, Mane and Shaqiri are making runs toward the Watford goal in this counter-attack started by Firmino. The rest of Liverpool’s defence move up the pitch to support them. Credit: Wyscout.

Watford trail back in numbers in order to restore the damage already done and make sure that Liverpool cannot create a chance from this counter-attack, but the pace by the attacking players of Liverpool is an extreme advantage in this situations, as you can see in the image below.

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Mane passes the ball to Salah, who is just in front of the Watford defender. Mane, Firmino and Shaqiri are full speed ahead to assist Salah in this attack. Credit: Wyscout.

The trio behind Salah never seized their pace and made their way forward, as Salah got on the right foot. In the case of a pass or a tackle, they would react to that and make sure Liverpool could capitalise on this opportunity.

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Salah cuts inside and scores the 1-0. Credit: Wyscout.

Salah’s individual skill saw him top of this duel and he cut inside and had an opportunity to shoot on goal, which he did successfully. He scored the 1-0 with a right-foot finish and Liverpool proved to be efficient on their goalscoring opportunities.

Conclusion

On paper, this would seem like a very business-like victory for Liverpool, but they had to work hard to get his win. Watford defended well against Liverpool positional attacks and their high pressing gave Liverpool difficulties at the back. In the end, it was the individual quality and high pace counter-attacking football that gave Liverpool the edge over Watford, as this tactical analysis has shown.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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Marc Lamberts