How Premier League champions Liverpool got caught into their own off-side trap

Written by Mihir Vasavda

October 6, 2020 3:17:55 am

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, gestures after Aston Villa’s Ross Barkley scores his side’s fifth goal during the Premier League match. (AP Photo)

While no one could have foreseen a 7-2 hammering for Liverpool at the hands of Aston Villa, a larger trend is emerging of their defence leaking goals by playing higher up the field than usual.

Employing a high defensive line is a common strategy used by several top sides in world football. This is a style of play that sees a team push up when not in possession and close down the spaces for the opposition to construct a move.

It requires a high degree of technical abilities as game awareness for the team with possession to beat this high-press style.

How it operates

In Liverpool’s case, when a team wins possession back from them, Jurgen Klopp’s aggressive gegenpress comes into play to get the ball back. However, when the opposition team begins the play, Liverpool’s high defensive line begins operating.

There are three layers. In the first, the front three, assisted by a midfielder, close down the opponents and choke their passing lines so that they can restrict the game to a specific part of the pitch, build pressure and force mistakes.

For Liverpool, one of the influential players in this role is Sadio Mane, who is relentless in his pressing game compared to the other two forwards, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah who are less aggressive. Last season, Liverpool forwards pressed their opponents in this part of the field more than any other team in the Premier League.

If the opponents find their way out of this press, the fullbacks and midfielders come into play, depending on the match situation. Their job is to block a through ball and put pressure in a way that the ball is played either backwards or sideways.

The controversial high line comes into focus when the second line of defence is breached. The defenders, in such a scenario, are more often than not positioned around the half-way line. The purpose is to make sure the ball stays in the opponent’s half and reduce the passing options by laying an offside trap.

Last season, the Virgil van Dijk-led defence caught their opponents offside 141 times, more than any other side in the league. If a player manages to beat this trap as well, Liverpool are bailed out by goalkeeper Alisson, who sometimes plays so high up the pitch that he can pass of as a centre back.

Reward and risk

The obvious reward of this strategy is you have the opposition playing the way you want. They are also prone to making more mistakes because of the incessant pressure and since the ball is largely in the opponent’s half, the chances of conceding a goal automatically reduce.

But there is a huge risk if you don’t have the players to pull this strategy off successfully or stumble upon a team that figures out ways to bypass the high defensive line. In the Champions League last season, Belgian side Genk posed questions for Van Dijk & Co. by constantly lobbing balls over the midfield to get beyond the Liverpool back-line.

Leeds, in this season’s opening match, found ways to go past the high line and scored three goals and last week, Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette twice snuck past the Liverpool defence to go one-on-one with Alisson.

On Sunday against Aston Villa, Liverpool were without Mane, who is infected with Covid-19, and an injured Alisson, which meant that at the front and at the back, they did not have their key men to execute this strategy.

Conceding seven goals to Aston Villa is freakish, more a result of their pig-headedness to not resort to a more conservative defensive strategy, and limiting damage, after going down by three or four goals. But the fact that they did not ditch their trademark style even in such a situation shows that despite the debate around it, Liverpool are likely to stick to their philosophy going forward.

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