After a winless run of four games prior to the international break, Saturday’s fixture away to Huddersfield looks like the ideal assignment for Liverpool to return to winning ways following their previously unblemished start to the season. The statistics don’t make pleasant reading for the Terriers, who have just three points and four goals from their eight Premier League matches to date; Liverpool racked up those tallies in their first game. Their lack of penalty box potency has been especially concerning, while the concession of 17 goals (just over two per game) already suggests that David Wagner’s men are in for an uphill slog in their second Premier League season. The lack of individual quality in their squad has been laid bare, although Danish midfielder Philip Billing has won plaudits for his recent displays. As our tactical analysis shows, he has been a rare shining light in a difficult period for Huddersfield.
The 22-year-old had been a bit-part player for Huddersfield up to the start of this season but he has been an ever-present in the Terriers’ eight league matches to date, matching his number of starts from the entirety of last term. If he features for more than 40 minutes on Saturday, he will have already surpassed his total time on the field during 2017/18. Even in the Championship, Billing was far from a regular in Wagner’s line-up, so he certainly couldn’t have expected to play a prominent part for the Yorkshire club in the Premier League this season. Having been finally given a chance to play regularly, though, he has grasped it firmly.
Philip Billing: Long throw threat
Liverpool’s organisation at defending set pieces has vastly improved since the signing of Virgil van Dijk, although they are still liable to conceding goals in such situations, as evidenced against Tottenham at Wembley last month. On Saturday at the John Smith’s Stadium, they could face a variation on the set piece theme, with Billing posing a potential threat from the dreaded long throw.
The image above shows a situation which stemmed from a throw-in taking by Billing against Crystal Palace. When the ball arrives into the cluster of players in the box, Steve Mounie rises highest to meet it and flicks it on to Elias Kachunga (circled), who with better composure would finish the chance.
Later in that game, another long throw from Billing (see image) causes consternation in the Palace penalty area. With five yellow shirts (one is obscured) firmly focused on the ball, it seems that the Eagles will clear their lines comfortably. However, aside from an unconvincing flicked header by Mamadou Sakho, the set piece is not defended competently, and a more astute attacking setup from Huddersfield may well have seen the ball met by an onrushing attacker.
While Liverpool’s defence has been far more assured than that of Crystal Palace so far this season, Jurgen Klopp would be well advised to work on defending the long throw in training this week. It’s a secret weapon that has nearly paid off for Huddersfield and the law of averages suggests that it will reap dividends eventually. The Reds must ensure that Saturday is not the day for that.
Philip Billing: Master of the interception
Although Liverpool don’t have the most dynamic of midfields, and the men in the middle have looked fatigued of late, it’s still quite likely that the Reds will charge at Huddersfield through the centre of the park and do so with regularity. That would put the onus on Billing and his nearest team-mates to be vigilant and diligent if Klopp’s side get into full flow. The good news for Wagner is that the Danish midfielder has most likely stopped the team from shipping even more than 17 goals thanks to several key interceptions in recent weeks.
One such instance occurred on the opening day of the season in the 0-3 defeat to Chelsea, who are currently level with Liverpool on 20 points, making this a fair comparison of what the Terriers can expect on Saturday. The left image shows N’Golo Kante, widely regarded as the king of the defensive midfield role in the Premier League, taking possession and about to surge forward into the vast space ahead of him. At this point, Billing is several yards behind him, but has his eyes firmly focused on the World Cup winner. However, he still needs to time any tackle very carefully or he would inevitably be going into the referee’s notebook. In the end, he not only makes up the ground but also wins the ball cleanly from Kante, who has turned the perfectly-timed interception into an art form.
The above image shows another example of Billing at his best in the 3-1 defeat against Leicester. Firstly, he applies pressure to Nampalys Mendy, who is forced to pass it back towards Ben Chilwell. In his haste, the Frenchman over-hits the pass and Chilwell is forced to adjust 180 degrees, which gives Billing the time to catch up on him. The England left-back still manages to retain possession and shields it well initially, but Billing excellently sticks out his left leg and not only dispossesses Chilwell, but also gives Rajiv van la Parra (circled) the opportunity to attack. Many players would have rashly dived in on Chilwell as soon as the ball broke to him, yet Billing showed maturity beyond his years to be patient before timing his challenge perfectly.
Perhaps his best interception of the season, though, came in the aforementioned match against Chelsea. When Alvaro Morata had possession in the penalty area, having turned past the initial challenge, Billing is on the scene to close him down. His intention to win the ball is clear, but unless the timing is spot on, he gives away a penalty. He nips the ball cleanly off Morata’s feet and it is ultimately hacked clear, the danger averted. The image shows just how close he came to fouling the Spaniard; instead, he exhibited a piece of defending which would not have looked out of place during the peak Serie A years of the 1990s.
Philip Billing: Block party
There are few things that football fans love more than seeing one of their team’s players putting their body on the line for the collective cause. Billing might be a tall, powerfully built footballer, but he’s also demonstrated a readiness to use that physique in unselfish ways.
Huddersfield may have been overrun by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in August, but their margin of defeat would have been even greater had it not been for two marvellous blocks by the Dane. Firstly, he stopped a David Silva cross from entering the six-yard box where Gabriel Jesus was lurking for a tap-in. The ball rebounded out to Raheem Sterling, who we can see in the image above lining up a fierce first-time shot that looks destined for the top corner of the Terriers’ net. However, Billing (circled) shows no fear in throwing his body at the ball and, when Benjamin Mendy lined up to send it back into the penalty area, it was Billing who made the clearing header that relieved the pressure on his team, albeit temporarily given Man City’s dominance.
Later in the first half, he again denied the champions what looked a certain goal with another piece of heroic last-ditch defending. It was Silva again who burst into the box and lined up to shoot (see image) before a timely block from the Huddersfield midfielder. Indeed, the Spaniard had already dribbled past Billing at this point, but the Dane showed excellent reactions to step back and thwart Silva at just the right moment.
From Billing’s defensive statistics above, we can see the value that he brings to a Huddersfield side who, having already faced Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham this season, could face another busy evening when Liverpool visit on Saturday. He diligently carries out a lot of industry that the casual observer might not readily appreciate, but you can be sure that Wagner, his Huddersfield team-mates and the club’s supporters all do.
Although he has committed 14 fouls so far this season, three of which led to yellow cards, he has shown a tremendous maturity for a player of just 22, knowing exactly when to try and win the ball from an opponent and striking the right balance between rash impetuousness and slovenly inactivity. Billing is no slouch on the ball, either; he has an eye for a long-range pass and that’s a weapon which Huddersfield could look to exploit against Liverpool, especially with the Reds frequently adopting a very high defensive line.
Tall, powerful, committed, calculated – Billing is a manager’s dream and while his wider profile might not be roundly publicised, he is the most likely holder of the keys to Huddersfield potentially springing an upset against Liverpool.