Jürgen Klopp has been known as an excellent manager for knockout competitions. Until the recent elimination by Atlético Madrid in the Champions League, the German coach had never suffered a defeat in a two-legged knockout tie since his appointment as a Liverpool manager. Despite reaching the European finals three times in a row in his career at Liverpool, the first two of them weren’t that successful. Unai Emery’s triumphant Sevilla had won the UEFA Europa League trophy at St. Jacobs-Park and added the third consecutive gold European medal in their collection. Despite the Reds’ bright first-half performance, in the second half, Emery’s change in tactics turned the tables and made Sevilla deserved winners at the end. In this tactical analysis, I will analyse several tactical aspects of this game, and especially what Liverpool’s problems caused their defeat.
Both teams lined up in initial 4-2-3-1 formation, with all the main players available for both teams.
Liverpool lined-up with the defence of Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Kolo Touré and Alberto Moreno, double pivot in midfield with James Milner and Emre Can, three attacking midfielders with Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana, and the sole striker Daniel Sturridge. Simon Mignolet held his position between the sticks.
Sevilla, on the other hand, had Mariano, Adil Rami, Daniel Carriço and Sergio Escudero in the defence, the midfield of Grzegorz Krychowiak and Steven N’Zonzi, and an attacking group of Vitolo, Éver Banega, Coke and the striker Kevin Gameiro. The Spaniard David Soria got his place in goal, with first choice goalkeeper Sergio Rico remaining on the bench.
Beginning of the game
From the very beginning, Liverpool tried to impose their game on Sevilla: with a lot of transitions, counter-pressing and counter-attacks. So, they opted to play long whenever possible and force Sevilla to do the same. Both teams when dealing with opponent’s pressing chose to play the long balls to their strikers or sometimes just to get the ball out of the game and force the change of possession.
Below you can see two metrics which show the gameplay of both teams in the first 15-20 minutes. One out of four of Liverpool’s passes in the first 15 minutes was a long pass, along with Sevilla’s 21 per cent. That percentage over the course of the match had declined, but it is very hard to find any signs of build-up attempts from both teams at the beginning of the match.
As for the pressing intensity, Emery’s team started out with the remarkable PPDA of three. This means that Liverpool only had three passing exchanges before the Sevillistas made a defensive action (for example, a tackle or a foul). Even though having a lot of transitions wasn’t a bad sign for Klopp’s men, because in his first season he instilled some principles of his philosophy that relied on playing with a lot of transitions, the intense Sevilla’s pressing was surely a surprise for him. I believe Liverpool didn’t want to start the game exactly like that, and James Milner said admitted it in his post-match interview.
Liverpool’s PPDA in the first half ended up on 6.1, practically equaling the 5.9 of Sevilla. The team managed to even out the game after a flimsy start. Applying their own pressure and finding spots in the opponent’s defence to attack through helped Liverpool to turn things around.
The Reds were better in that half overall, and Sturridge’s wonderful finish became the of Liverpool’s indisputable superiority.
In the next section, I will take a look at how Liverpool were playing from the back and how they exploited the narrow Sevilla defence.
Liverpool’s attacking gameplay
As Liverpool got the game under control after a furious start from Sevilla, they started to show some bits of possession football. As initial formations were the same, it caused a lot of individual battles, the way both teams played most of the match only strengthened it. Both teams were using a man-marking system, as it was the most sensible variant. However, it forced players to make decisions regarding their positioning on their own.
Liverpool was beginning the attacks with possession through dropping Emre Can deeper in the defensive line, while Touré and Lovren were positioned as wide centre-backs. As Sevilla had only one striker on the pitch, the attacking midfielder Banega was forced to come higher and try to even out the Liverpool’s numerical superiority.
Sevilla players defended in 4-4-2 formation, which was not rigid and thus was easily transformed, for example in 5-3-2, when one of the defensive midfielders or wingers(Vitolo or Coke) was dropping into the backline.
If both teams have 4-2-3-1 formation, it means that both of them will try to utilize natural numerical superiority of three attacking midfielders over two opponent’s defensive midfielders. So, Liverpool primarily in the first half and Sevilla in the second were successfully exploiting that.
During Liverpool’s possession, Milner or Emre Can were joining the attacking group of players, creating an overload in the Sevilla’s midfield. In case of losing the ball, the counter-pressing was their main weapon to not let Sevilla use that advantage on the other end.
One of the main attacking patterns for Liverpool in this match has been attacking through the right flank, where the left-back Escudero was consistently leaving his position and thus creating huge space on the right. Below you can see that 45% of Liverpool’s attacks at the end of the day were aimed at the right flank. You can also see that both full-backs were positioned very high(#18 and #25) near the halfway line, but the right-back Mariano managed to keep his zone relatively safe, whereas the right flank became the place of constant danger for the Emery side.
Sevilla’s defensive shape was pretty narrow was one of the reasons for Sevilla’s problems down the flanks. Even if the defenders weren’t giving the Liverpool attackers too much space, the wide-positioned full-backs had the time to prepare the cross. Sturridge, the main attacker of Liverpool that season, missed a couple of chances after the well-executed crosses from the right flank.
Sturridge and Firmino were both drifting towards the right flank behind the Escudero, and it caused Sevilla big issues throughout the game. Below you can see an example, Firmino and Sturridge against two Sevilla defenders after Firmino’s good run and Milner’s pass:
Liverpool’s use of wide players, primarily full-backs, caused problems for the Spanish side, but good individual defending and sloppiness of the Liverpool’s attackers kept Sevilla in the game after a good first-half performance from the Reds. In the next section of this analysis, I will look into the things that made the comeback possible and deprived Liverpool of Europa League title.
Liverpool midfield woes
As I previously mentioned, both teams tried to take advantage of the mirror formations by overloading the opposition midfield with their own midfield players. In the first half, Liverpool was the obvious beneficiary, whose Milner and Can managed to successfully help Firmino, Coutinho, and Lallana in the final third while not endangering their own defence. Their counter-pressing was a big help in that regard.
However, in the second half, the Sevilla’s midfield in the likes of Vitolo, Banega, and Coke completely eliminated the opposition double pivot in midfield, resulting in two goals for the Spanish captain.
If the first their goal happened largely to the sloppiness of Liverpool’s defence, the second and winning goals were constructed by Vitolo, Banega, and Coke. All of them were positioned between the lines, exchanged positions frequently, which proved to be a problem for Liverpool.
Below you can see the Sevilla’s build-up before the goal and the obvious overcommitment and mix-up in trying to close down the opponent in space resulted in the huge space in Liverpool’s backline, effectively used by Vitolo and Coke to score the second goal.
The third goal was scored in a similar fashion after Can loose touch and quick counter-attack. Again, Liverpool left Coke completely unmarked at the far post, and he used that chance well, putting the ball past Mignolet’s hands.
The three attacking midfielders shined in the second half, supporting Gameiro, exploiting the space behind the defensive line, exchanging passes like in the second goal. Both Milner and Can, and Liverpool defence as a whole failed to stop their brilliant play. The attacking group of Sevilla midfielders remained on the pitch until the final whistle, but that didn’t stop them from keeping to create havoc in the final third and produce chances.
One of the reasons of the downfall was the fatigue of Liverpool players after a very long season, and that played its part in the inability of marking the Sevilla attackers in the second half as they did it in the first. Midfield pivot wasn’t agile enough to cope with the speed of Sevilla’s attackers, and that, in my opinion, the main reason for the defeat of Klopp’s team.
Jürgen Klopp substituted Origi and Benteke on for Firmino and Lallana, and the last ten minutes of the game Liverpool were playing in 3-4-3 formation, where Coutinho played as a left wing-back and Benteke, Origi, and Sturridge made up the attacking trio.
Sevilla, who remained with the same players apart from Kolodziejczak coming on for Remy and Iborra for Gameiro, managed to kill off the game with collecting every possible foul, corner and throw-in. Liverpool’s focus on playing to the Benteke and Origi with long balls didn’t pay off, as the centre-backs successfully neutralized the danger. Any attempts of progressing down the pitch were stopped either by good defending from Sevilla or the poor decision-making from Liverpool players. They didn’t manage to close the two-goal deficit and come back into the game.
The two consecutive Europa League winners Sevilla built a legacy, became the team with the Europa League five titles, the most in the competition. Despite quite a poor performance in the first half, the future champions showed their character and desire to win with a great display in the next 45 minutes. The defeat showed many Liverpool weaknesses in the defence, midfield and attack. Klopp had already implemented some of the tactical changes that he wanted to implement, but the players didn’t cope with the physical demands of the German coach. It reflected in their transfer policy, with Sadio Mané, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Joël Matip all coming to Liverpool in the summer and overhauling the squad. This meant to be the turning point in Klopp’s reign at Liverpool.