The big question for everyone in Shropshire this weekend was whether their Shrewsbury Town side, currently sitting in 16th place in League One, could manage to hold their own or possibly even advance to the FA Cup fifth round, with Premier League leaders Liverpool in town. This tactical analysis will show how the Shrews’ first-half tactics helped the Reds to have a relatively easy time, but how in the second half, Shrewsbury changed their playing style, which allowed them to play much better and force the replay at Anfield. The analysis will also show how bringing on one player, Jason Cummings, who got both home goals, made the difference for them.
Shrewsbury Town used their usual wing-back formation for this one, making only one change from their last match, a 2-2 draw at Highbury Stadium against Fleetwood Town. Dave Edwards was put on the bench, with manager Sam Ricketts opting to bring in Sean Goss to add to his central midfield options instead, alongside Josh Laurent and Ollie Norburn. Liverpool made 11 changes, naming an entirely new team from their last match against Wolves. Croatia defender Dejan Lovren captained the team. Naby Keita, Roberto Firmino, Mohammad Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Trent Alexander-Arnold were all named on the bench, just in case.
Liverpool’s first-half play
Liverpool used the space well in this match and made Shrewsbury’s front two work hard throughout the first half. The Reds’ defence were constantly stretched right across the pitch, and this meant that Shrewsbury didn’t get much of the ball in the first half.
The image below shows how Liverpool managed to create situations whereby the Shrewsbury front two, Shaun Whalley and Callum Lang, were constantly caught in holes between the Liverpool players and had no support from their teammates simply because Liverpool didn’t let them have any.
This was very clever from the Reds because Shrewsbury had set up with a formation that clearly allowed them to counter-attack when they could. However, by forcing Whalley and Lang into these traps, there was no hope of a Shrewsbury counter, because they didn’t have any players in key positions to enable them to do so.
In attack, Liverpool did the same thing: created space for themselves. They poured players into the attacks to the extent that, when Shrewsbury had the ball and were trying to pass their way out, they simply couldn’t. The image below shows how Liverpool could have pressed and cut off the Shrews’ options in many different ways, and then the way they did choose.
Whilst this is not necessarily the most important point to make, it does help to explain why Liverpool were the team on top in the first half. It also shows how it can be the little details that enable a team to take control, and why sometimes doing the basics helps a lot.
Shrewsbury Town’s first-half difficulties
As far as Shrewsbury were concerned, the first point to make is that they set up in a slightly odd formation, given who they were playing. A front two is not the best way to stop their attacks, and it didn’t help them, as it meant the two Liverpool full-backs, Neco Williams and Yasser Larouci, were given far too much room on the wings to get up and down the pitch.
However, it is understandable why Shrewsbury did this. Their 3-5-2 formation used wing backs, and the obvious intention from Shrews boss Sam Ricketts was to try and get those two players as far up the pitch as possible, to press back Williams and Larouci, and ensure that Liverpool lost those two assets in their attacks.
However, in the first half, this wasn’t happening, and that was a key part of what allowed Liverpool to hold their lead, and why Shrewsbury were unable to play as they had perhaps set out to do.
One positive for Shrewsbury Town was that they were organised, but almost too organised. This sounds like a silly thing to say, but if you see below, you can see the problem they had.
The five defenders have all lined up in a straight line, and this is actually quite easy to attack against. If you defend like this, then there is space in behind you, and this is exactly what Liverpool found. Consequently, they flooded their attacks with players, as they always do, and it helped them.
The other thing that teams playing Liverpool need to do is to press them and cut off their options. It’s not easy, but Shrewsbury weren’t doing either of those in the first half. What that meant is that Liverpool could have the freedom of the pitch to play the ball around, not afraid of being closed down, and also each Reds player knew that they would be able to make their desired passes, without being challenged. If Shrewsbury had cut these options off, the individual Liverpool players would have become isolated, and that would have meant they would have been easy pickings for the Shrews’ attackers.
Shrewsbury Town’s second-half strengths
In the second half, things changed though. Shrewsbury’s two wing-backs, Donald Love and Scott Golbourne, both began to play much higher up the pitch, and began to get closer to Williams and Larouci. This gave Liverpool something else to think about, and the tide began to turn.
The strikers also split apart, to play on the outside of the defence, rather than together in the middle of the pitch, and that allowed Shrewsbury to create options when attacking. To explain, the image below shows how, with Liverpool’s full-backs caught up the field, the two centre backs, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, have been isolated by Shaun Whalley and Callum Lang.
When defending, Whalley and Lang again worked together to cut down the options. You can see below how they each marked two Liverpool defenders each, and this was very clever from them. It forced Liverpool goalkeeper Adrian to clear the ball long, rather than playing it short to the defence, and allowing them to carry the ball forward. When the ball landed in the midfield area from the goal kicks, that was where Shrewsbury Town won the battles.
The other thing that Shrewsbury altered for the second half was their defensive line. In the first half, if you remember, it was straight and easy to see the space behind the run into for Liverpool. Now, they played a diagonal line, as seen below.
The obvious change for Liverpool with this is that they can no longer find and get into the spaces behind. You can see Curtis Jones stuck between two defenders, unable to get onto the ball, and that highlights this point. It didn’t matter how many Liverpool players joined the attack – they couldn’t get through.
Finally, a couple of notable mentions for the Shrews. Midfielder Josh Laurent was undoubtedly man of the match, but the player who made the difference for Shrewsbury Town was substitute Jason Cummings. This isn’t just because he scored both goals for the home side, but also because of his movement once he had come on.
Firstly, he added what had been missing. In the first half, they were playing in front of the Liverpool defence and didn’t trouble it too much. Cummings got in amongst the defenders and caused them problems throughout the second half. From Liverpool’s point of view, they now had to be more careful about playing out from the back.
He also ran from the striker’s position into the midfield, as seen below. This dragged Liverpool players with him, and created the space in behind for his teammates, namely Josh Laurent in this example, to run into, and this was exactly how Shrewsbury won their penalty in fact.
The final thing Cummings added was energy. Suddenly, Liverpool no longer had time to play out from the back, and had to rush their clearances. This again meant that Shrewsbury could win the ball in the air from the midfield positions, and move it forward. The substitution of Callum Lang for Jason Cummings was therefore incredibly important in turning the tide of the match in favour of Shrewsbury.
This was a game of two halves, in every meaning of that. Liverpool had control of the first half, Shrewsbury had control of the second. Given that, a draw was probably a fair result, so that was perhaps of some comfort to both managers. However, when the replay comes around, Liverpool, who have already said they will not use first team players or Jurgen Klopp in it, will need to be aware of the influence of Josh Laurent and Jason Cummings, and Shrewsbury Town will know that, if they can get their wing-backs forward, they can dominate the match and take control from the start, rather than the middle of the game like they did in this one.