The chance for one of two clubs to advance to the English Football League Cup semi-finals was on the table for Aston Villa and Liverpool on Tuesday, 17 December 2019 at Villa Park. Dean Smith’s Villa have been struggling in the English Premier League this season and is in 17th place currently. They are looking to move to the next round of the EFL as they did in the 2012-13 season. The last major trophy Villa won was the EFL cup in the 1995-96 season. They faced a very young Liverpool side due to the World Club Cup competition being played within 24 hours of this match. Neil Critchley, Liverpool’s U-23 manager, will be managing the team of future stars for this match while Jürgen Klopp was with the full team in Qatar.
Both teams came out in a 4-3-3 formation with Liverpool starting young players at every position. Critchley has seen most of these players for the past few years as he has coached the U-18 and is the current U-23 coach. Players like Harvey Elliott playing up front on the right and Sep van der Berg working in front of the keeper Caoimhín Odhrán Kelleher looked very positive for Liverpool.
Dean Smith looked to players like Trézéguet and Jota Peleteiro to replace Anwar El Ghazi and Jack Grealish on the widths. These positions have been key to how Villa wanted to play. They were the ones Villa depended on to control the offensive game when they had the ball. Douglas Luiz and Ezri Konsa held down the middle of the field in the holding defensive and centre-back spots respectively.
Liverpool off to a good start
Liverpool’s good positioning and youthful excitement showed from the opening whistle. The young players showed a style the fans were used to seeing. This high energy and hard-pressing style of play that Liverpool teams have under Klopp were apparent early. The Pressing intensity (PPDA) was 10.9 in the first half and 18.7 in the second. Showing that the young players came out with a lot of intensity but coming back from a 4-0 first half of play with a little less energy.
The organization in the pressing style was good early but fell way off as they progressed through the game. As you can see in the picture below the Liverpool forward and midfield units had an organized shape to limit players runs between lines and into dangerous space. The players were very disciplined in their unit’s movements and shape.
Players showed the ability to move the ball around and through the lines of Villa rather easily. Elliot was really a standout for Liverpool in these movements. His ability to run off the shoulder of his defensive player to occupy dangerous space allowed Liverpool an outlet to get the ball forward and move the whole team forward in a controlled manner. He never outran his support.
As you can see in the set of pictures below, of a single attacking movement, how he used the runs of others to help create opportunities for himself to impact the game. This also showed in 46% of the attacks came down his flank. Not only did he have the opening chance on goal, but he also created problems for Villa with his movement and creativity. With a pass accuracy of 87% and winning 67% of his duels, Liverpool needed to find additional ways to get him on the ball.
As the young player’s confidence began to grow in the early movements of the first half other players began to see more of the ball. Herbie Kane being a beneficiary of this play and recording five shots on the night. This was most of all the Liverpool players. Villa was scrambling to hold the youngsters back and out of the net. Two great saves by Villa keeper Orjan Nyland in the first eight minutes kept the scoreline 0 – 0. The lack of Villa pressure on the ball allowed some creative moments for Liverpool’s players which resulted in opportunities for the visitors.
As you can see below how Villa’s pressure on the ball is only to delay the player on the ball and not to win the ball back. This allowed Liverpool to control the tempo of the game with the types of passes they played.
Villa committed to their tactics
Dean Smith’s plan could be seen from the onset of the match. He wanted to keep numbers behind the ball and work to use the young players’ confidence against them. As Villa would close down options for the Liverpool player on the ball they would squeeze the backline. The timing of Liverpool’s runs and the final pass lacked polish. Villa was able to hold off the attacks and play wide. Once wide, Liverpool showing very narrow play with the three midfielders, Trézéguet and Peleteiro provided great service and quality in decisions on the ball. This even leads to a 17th min own goal off a cross deflection from Liverpool Morgan Boyes.
Many times Villa would win the ball and look for the run behind the defence by their striker Jonathan Kodjia. He offered a very different approach than Villa’s regular Brizlian holdup player Wesley Moraes. This caught the young backline of Liverpool a few times. With the five offsides calls against Villa, you can tell they were willing to run in behind the backline every chance they got. As you can see below the narrow play of the midfield unit, no pressure on the ball and the high backline how exposed the Liverpool side is to Villa’s tactics. This was made easier by Liverpool’s high defensive line. They were formed upon average 51.1 meters from their goal.
Villa worked to catch Liverpool in bad decisions in possession. Villa almost capitalized on several mistakes from the Liverpool players. A few times Liverpool midfielders would show for the ball and try to play wide. Poor pass selection ended up playing into Villa players closing the space in front of the wing-backs. This accounted for five attacks leading to a direct shot on goal.
In the next image, you see how Liverpool played into a Villa player. There is no pressure on the ball from Villa, but the young Liverpool player decided to play first time into space in front of his wing-back. If the midfielder would have opened himself to the game it would have stopped the Villa player from advancing because of the fear of getting played in behind to a waiting Elliot in space. This would have freed up the original pass without fear of interception by Villa. The Liverpool midfield seemed rushed which played into Villa’s tactics.
The ability of the Liverpool players to combined down the outside did resemble the full side. Elliot showed his speed and creativity. His ability to move off the wing at speed and continue to pick players out could have really hurt Villa. He created two v one situations in many cases and put the Villa backline under pressure. Elliot was a true bright spot on the field for Liverpool. In the second half attacking movement shown below you can see how Elliot used the wall pass off the forward to access inside space. Once accessed he was able to spot the overload at the back post. This resembles the first team’s movements and how they play. This movement resulted in a header on goal.
A few times in the second half you found Liverpool very unorganized in their defensive shape. The players did not understand how to press or when to press. They often were seen in lines of players waiting for someone to press. Without pressure on the ball from the closest Liverpool player the backline must respect any deep run from Villa’s midfield or forwards on the backline. This forces the backline to give ground toward their own goal and as a result stretching the team. This provided space in behind the midfield unit and in front of the defensive line as seen in the first image below.
The other image shows how Liverpool overcompensated to reduce the space between the defensive lines. This allowed Villa to play through the lines or bypass Liverpool players all together as they played very direct.
When they did figure out the press they were successful in putting Villa under pressure. The midfield crew of Liverpool needed to have pressure on the ball and on the next closest Villa players. As Villa started to try to play into the middle and not wide Liverpool was successful in showing Klopp’s style of pressure. This style has been evolving since his days at Mainz in 2004. The “gegenpress” is a rapid movement to the ball by all the players to cut off passing options and win the ball quickly to start a counter-attack. It is a highly disciplined type of pressing where if one player or unit does not do their jobs it falls apart very quickly. If the Merseyside side could have continued with the intense pressing throughout or even most part of the game, it could have put Villa under extreme pressure and gotten a few goals in the process. As seen below the movements of all the players as they committed to the press and how they squeeze the Villa players and cut down options is a good example of “gegenpressing”.
There is no doubt that Liverpool have incredible young talent. They showed good skill, composure and the ability to create. The coaching staff will see the positives of this game and continue to develop these players for the next level. We will see many of these players over the next few years for their clubs and countries. The other thing that this game represents is the quality of the English Premier League. Villa showed grit and a tactical plan that worked against the young Liverpool side very well. This could be the bright spot of Villa’s season.
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