“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”
Looking back on the match between Southampton and Liverpool in March 2014 is like looking back on the current sides’ teenage years, spooling through their albums of Facebook photos. So much youth, so much possibility. So many Southampton players about to be picked off by bigger clubs…
This was a battle between a Pochettino who still used a translator to speak to the press, and a Brendan Rodgers chasing a Premier League title, both wanting to play with intensity.
The opening of the match was high-paced and transition-filled. For the first half hour, the two sides were rarely in their nominal starting formations, always in some stage of the process of pressing or recovering.
The seeds of what we’re seeing in the Premier League, and around Europe, today are visibile in this match. While both sides applied pressure across the pitch, the pressing was less co-ordinated than we’d see from current day Liverpool or Poch – often a single man press to the ball carrier, though close team-mates would cover passing options or squeeze the space in the immediate area depending on the situation.
While the pressing was less co-ordinated, it often didn’t matter, as the players were less used to it and less able to cope. At one point, Jay Rodriguez just had to look at Glen Johnson from ten yards away for him to pass the ball back to Mignolet.
The Dust settles, Formations emerge from through the mist
Liverpool were a dual threat in attacking transitions; their midfield able to sweep up the pitch, leaving the back 4 to deal with the defending, or just to play it long for Suarez and Sturridge. Bitey and Breaksalot were a useful part of Liverpool’s system here, not only providing an attacking outlet but immediately putting Southampton’s centre-backs under pressure to prevent the south coast side getting on the front foot.
Defensively, they were horizontally compact, and when Southampton switched, they were prepared for it, as the below sequence in the 14-15th minute – just before their first goal – shows. (hover/click on image for caption).
Their first goal, despite the focus so often on systems, came from individual skill and luck. Suarez dropped into the hole to receive a throw-in, rolling his defender and, after the ball took brief foray to the pinball table, Suarez shot a loose ball first time into the bottom right hand corner.
An unlucky break and coping fairly well in the game, Southampton didn’t change much, if anything, after the goal. As the grip of transitions on the game weakened slightly, Southampton’s full-backs were able to push up a little more. In possession, the side could use their front 3 fluidly, or their full-backs as wingers in a situational 253.
Though the front 3 were able to find handy pockets of space through their fluidity (Lallana particularly, though his decision making could be frustrating), it generally pushed Lambert to a wide position. Lambert isn’t strictly a 2-dimensional target man whose preferred foot is his head, but he was visibly uncomfortable out there and the trio never really clicked during the game.
Occasionally, Davis (or, in the second half, his replacement Gaston Ramirez) would provide a wider option in midfield, possibly a side effect of their defensive positioning, which could change from their usual 443 to a 442.
Liverpool’s general shape – when they weren’t pumping long balls for Suarez and Sturridge – was a tug at the threads of time, unerringly familiar to their modern day Klopp iteration. There was less rotation amongst them, but Coutinho and, to a lesser extent, Suarez continually provided links between midfield and attack. Allen and Henderson would also sometimes take their place around the forward line, the 6, by and large, swarming the centre of the pitch in Southampton’s half.
During this time, their defensive insurance was essentially their back 5, the waves of Southampton counter-attacks being broken on the narrowly compact rocky outcrop of Skrtel-Agger et al.
You can see, with the view of hindsight now available, where it all went wrong for Liverpool the following year. Allowing Southampton so much space to break into in midfield was not ideal, but with the yin and yang of Gerrard’s lack of legs but excellent vision and technique there weren’t a lot of other options.
When Suarez left, the full-backs were likely pushed forwards a little more to try and accommodate the weakened attack, leaving the centre-backs exposed as was seen so often. Though 4 of the midfield/attacking 6 (well, 3, if Sturridge still counts as a Liverpool starter) have changed, the side on show here is very much an ancestor to Klopp’s side.
The game spreads
Good chances were rare in the game, though both sides got their best of the first half through long-ish ball methods. Aside from their goal, Liverpool’s came from a long ball from Allen, the ball breaking to him deep in his half following a Southampton throw-in. Arced beautifully, it floated down from the right wing into the right halfspace, Sturridge with daylight between himself and the chasing Lovren, but Fonte – breaking his neck, probably more than once, to get track the speed of the move – was able to poke behind the square ball to Suarez (which could have been a little better).
For Southampton, it came from a cross from Davis on the right. Lallana, initially standing on the tucked in Flanagan, underlapped Lambert as the big man chested the ball down, Lallana’s shot forcing a good, strong-handed save from Mignolet.
As the first half merged into the second, much was the same. Southampton’s full-backs seemed a little more restrained, the backline a little deeper to try and protect against the threat that Liverpool had on the long ball.
Not that I’m at a level to be questioning Pochettino, but it was odd that Southampton continued to pressure Liverpool quite high up the pitch while also having such a relatively deep back line. While the high pressure prevented Liverpool from fully utilising the possession they had, when they did manage to get through the press/pressure, they had acres of space in midfield to flood into. It has to be said that Liverpool never truly dominated, so perhaps Pochettino was doing the best he could with what he had.
The boring third act
Just before the hour mark, Coutinho came off for a young (well, younger than he is now) Raheem Sterling, in what was more or less a like-for-like swap tactically. It would be a cliche to say that the effect was immediate, Sterling scoring roughly a minute or so after he came on, as Coutinho would have scored the exact same goal if he’d still been on the pitch.
Gerrard played a through ball between Lovren and Shaw, Suarez wonderfully rolling the centre-back and, once at the byline, pulling back to Sterling about ten yards out.
2-0 down, Pochettino pushed his full-backs up again, but in truth it didn’t add much more bite to the attack. In fact, there were times when Southampton seemed reluctant to use them; with Liverpool so horizontally compact, the full-backs provided a possibly outlet to switch the play, but they were ignored on a few occasions.
Liverpool were now content to sit back more, and both sides were tired after their intense opening. The game ambled along, largely now about the talent gap between the sides more than tactics, until Suarez broke again in added time and drew a foul from Fonte inside the box. Gerrard slotted away to make it 3-0.
One tweet summary: Klopp-esque Liverpool (tho w/ conservative FBs) use speed + strength of Suarez to beat Southampton, set up well but lacking quality up front
FT: Southampton 0 – Liverpool 3 (Suarez 16′, Sterling 58, Gerrard (p) 95′)