The first half of this Premier League season could be seen as a roaring success for both sides. Liverpool had only dropped two points in their first 19 games and added the FIFA Club World Cup to their trophy case for the first time. Sheffield United will also look back on the autumn with pride, as Chris Wilder’s side sat just one point behind the Europa League spots, defying any pre-season predictions that they would struggle after gaining promotion.

Jürgen Klopp’s side were comfortable 2-0 winners in this match, with an early goal from Mohamed Salah and a second-half strike from Sadio Mané enough to earn the Reds another victory. Sheffield United dug in and made it difficult for their opponents, but ultimately could do little to prevent the home side winning their 11th consecutive Premier League game at Anfield this season.

This tactical analysis will look at the tactics that each side employed in this Premier League fixture, and will serve as analysis to see how Liverpool were able to break down Sheffield United’s stubborn defence, to earn all three points.

Lineups

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics

As usual, Liverpool lined up in a 4-3-3 formation. There was one change for the home side from their win over Wolves earlier in the week. Naby Keïta was injured during the warm-up, meaning James Milner took his place in midfield, alongside Georginio Wijnaldum and captain Jordan Henderson. With Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip still injured, Joe Gomez started alongside Virgil Van Dijk in the centre of defence, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Roberston the full-backs.

The front three consisted of Roberto Firmino in the centre, alongside Salah on the right and Mané on the left. For the visiting side, John Lundstram returned to midfield following an ankle injury, lining up next to Oliver Norwood and John Fleck. The three central defenders were Jack O’Connell, John Egan and Chris Basham, with the wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens. David McGoldrick was back in the starting eleven, leading the line alongside top scorer Lyss Mousset.

Liverpool’s multiple methods of attack

Liverpool’s attacking play has been completely reinvigorated since Klopp’s arrival in 2015. They aren’t quite as gung-ho as they were during the early days of his tenure, as he has focused on finding a balance for the team, as seen by the purchase of Van Dijk, Alisson Becker in goal and Fabinho in midfield. However, they still remain a potent attacking threat. This is because they have multiple ways to move the ball forward and cause problems.

With the game only a few minutes old, the ball was worked back to Van Dijk, who then hit it long to the left flank, where Robertson had advanced beyond Mané into the left-wing position.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Salah began his run soon as the ball was played to Robertson

As in most games, Liverpool looked to overload teams on the flanks, with the full-backs pushing forward to essentially form an attacking front-five. The covering defender Baldock slipped, so the Scottish left-back had time to take a touch, look up, and play a perfectly weighted pass into the on-rushing Salah.

The Egyptian often starts his runs wide, before running into central areas.  Long ball football used to be derided, but as all of Liverpool’s central defenders have the ability to play these accurate long passes, it is a useful attacking option as it enabled them to beat the opposition’s press.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Lovren with a similarly accurate long forward pass

In the match against Everton earlier in the season, Lovren attempted a similar pass towards Divock Origi. There it was also successful, by-passing their rival’s attack and midfield, leading directly to a goal.

Another option the team from Merseyside have is when Firmino drops deeper to help link the play between the midfield and attack. With him going into these positions, it causes defenders problems – follow him and it leaves gaps for Salah/ Mané to run in to, or leave him which gives Liverpool an extra man in midfield so they can dominate the ball in these central areas.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Firmino looking for the ball in his own half

In this example, the Brazilian forward had dropped right back into his own half, which left a gap in the centre further up the pitch. Once he played the ball out wide to Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Mane both made runs to the opposite sides of the pitch from where they’d started. Doing this dragged the defenders across, leaving more gaps for the midfielders and full-backs to move into.  So, it was Mané who picks the ball up on the right, before passing it to the Egyptian, who forced a good save from the Sheffield United keeper.

The second goal came from a swift counter-attack, following a corner for Chris Wilder’s side. Alisson quickly rolled the ball out to Robertson, who passed it down the line into Mané.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
The ball moved forward very quickly into dangerous positions

A quick one-two with Salah saw the Senegalese striker with just the keeper to beat, despite four defenders being in the box attempted to stop the attack.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Despite a crowded box, the ball still finds its way to Mané

Despite a good save from Dean Henderson, Mané was able to tap in the rebound to secure his team the three points. Between Alisson releasing the ball and Mané scoring was only eleven seconds, which shows the speed they can counter at. Breaking at such speed denies the opposition the time to get back properly into their defensive shape, making them vulnerable so soon after they were themselves attacking.

So, this demonstrates that Liverpool were able to create chances and hurt teams in a number of different ways. By not limiting to just one method of attack (long accurate passes, Firmino dropping deep to link play, quick counter-attacks) they were never predictable and kept their opponents guessing.

Sheffield United’s struggles to get out

Despite going behind in only the fourth minute, Chris Wilder’s side did not panic. In fact, straight from the re-start, they put the Liverpool backline under pressure, creating a good chance for Lundstrum.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Lundstrum able to sprint past Wijnaldum to the edge of the box

Norwood sprayed the ball out to the left-hand channel towards McGoldrick, and while he didn’t win the ball, he put enough pressure on Alexander-Arnold to head it straight up in the air. While the Irishman has yet to score in the Premier League this season, he works hard across the whole frontline, using his physicality to menace the opposition.

Mousset then flicked it on for the midfielder to take a touch, move into the box, before hitting it just wide of the post. With three goals already this season, he has proved to be a key player for the newly promoted team, bursting forward from midfield at the opportune moment to catch defences unawares.

As the half progressed, the away side engineered a move that found space down the left. All 12 of their effective attacks came down this flank; clearly Wilder had identified Alexander-Arnold as the weak spot defensively.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Stevens in great space

With Robertson charging across the box trying to win the ball, it left Stevens with plenty of space to receive the pass from Mousset. Unfortunately for the away side, the move broke down with a poor pass straight to the goalkeeper, and a golden opportunity was wasted.

The side from Yorkshire did not create many clear-cut chances after this. Because they were frequently out of possession (they had only 26% of the ball) they often were defending deep in their own half. Their wing-backs who usually push up much further up the pitch were forced back, unable to advance as much as they’d have liked.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Baldock’s (2) average position well inside his own half, whereas Stevens (3) was only slightly higher

Not only were the wing-backs deeper than they would have liked, but McGoldrick often would have to drop into his own half to try and win the ball back.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Sheffield United win the ball back but had no outlet further forward

After regaining possession, McGoldrick played the ball back to Baldock. But because all 10 of the outfield players were in Liverpool’s half, they have no real way of getting it out and relieving pressure. The ball over the top intended for either of the strikers went straight back to Van Dijk, and the home side looked to build another attack again. Liverpool’s tactic was to have the defenders pushed up to the halfway line, condensing the area their opponents could play in.

Even when Sheffield United were able to get players into the opposition half, the threat was quickly snuffed out.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Move breaks down with Liverpool gaining back possession

Stevens had ran from well inside his own half to receive the ball in the final third, looking to create something from wide areas. However, yet again it came to nothing, as Gomez was able to outmuscle him and calmly play the ball out of defence. Wilder has only played a 3-5-2/ 5-3-2 variant this season, which has offered protection in the centre of defence and additional width when going forward. But when the whole team was forced back like they were in this game, the formation proved ineffective when they had such little possession.

Milner or Henderson dropping in between/alongside the two centre-backs

Even after the second goal had been scored and the game won, Liverpool didn’t let up, with both full-backs still pushing on to create chances.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Alexander-Arnold and Robertson still moving forward, Henderson drops back

Even though the away side weren’t threatening much by this stage, Klopp had clearly instructed one of his midfielders to drop in between the two centre-backs to provide extra cover. In the above image, Henderson is further back than Van Dijk, closing the gap between him and Gomez.

He is also capable of playing accurate passes from deep, so knowing he wouldn’t be followed into these areas by the opposing strikers, he could have an extra few seconds to look up and make a decision before playing out from the back.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics
Henderson this time to the left of the centre-backs

A few minutes later the captain dropped in to the left of the defenders, with the full-backs again still higher up the pitch. This effectively made the formation a 3-4-3, leaving them temporarily a man short in midfield, but more solid at the back. It also meant they could safely play it around the backline and hold on to possession, as by this point the strikers were not aggressively pressing them.

Premier League 2019/20: Liverpool vs Sheffield – tactical analysis tactics

In this example, both Henderson and Milner have dropped back, after Van Dijk had made a rare foray into midfield. What this shows is that Klopp’s men really do work as a team unit, working hard covering for players when they move forward with the ball. Liverpool were supposed to struggle without Fabinho, who out of all their midfielders was the only recognised defensive player.

In reality, they have hardly missed the Brazilian, winning all their games in the league since his injury. Henderson and Milner both have the attributes to play as the deepest midfielder, so you imagine they should cope until Fabinho’s return.

Conclusion

This fixture was seen as a potential banana skin for the league leaders, with Sheffield United being strong away from home all season. However, this analysis shows that Liverpool did not have any real difficulty in overcoming the side from Yorkshire. Klopp’s various attacking tactics meant they constantly had a different way to move the ball forward, then also had instructed the midfielders to drop into defence to cover for teammates. Wilder’s tactical analysis of this game will show on the rare occasions they moved forward they struggled to create clear chances – though this will likely improve against lesser opposition.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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Graham Hollingsworth