When the dust had settled on Roy Keane’s mesmerising exchange with Jurgen Klopp on Monday night, we were left to weigh up whether the Irishman had been right to say there was a grain of imperfection in Liverpool‘s emphatic display against Arsenal.
Do teams going up against Liverpool now have a glimmer of hope?
Klopp is as sensitive to direct challenges to his team’s performances as many managers. Discussion by Keane of Liverpool’s occasional ‘sloppiness’ was actually a footnote to his broader discussion of their qualities in the 3-1 win, which maintained their 100 per cent record.
Jurgen Klopp is as sensitive to direct challenges to his team’s performances as many managers
Roy Keane highlighted Liverpool’s occasional ‘sloppiness’ after an exchange with Klopp
But it was the second time in as many home games this season that the post-match discussion of Liverpool had ventured into an assessment of their defence.
When the BBC’s John Murray ventured to say the side had ‘struggled’ defensively against Leeds on the opening day of the season, the German either didn’t hear or didn’t want to hear, so the broadcaster re-posed the question.
Then, as against Arsenal, Liverpool’s audaciously high defensive line had let the visiting side in to score.
On Monday, Trent Alexander-Arnold was pressing the defender Kieran Tierney 10 yards from Arsenal’s box at the inception of a move which, within 10 seconds, had Ainsley Maitland-Niles accelerating into the space the Liverpool player had vacated, creating a three-on-two situation from which Alexander Lacazette seized on Robertson’s error to score.
Liverpool’s audaciously high defensive line had let Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette score
Joe Gomez had also ventured high up field to press Pierre- Emerick Aubameyang, leaving just Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson to deal with Maitland-Niles, Lacazette and Willian.
This was precisely what Leeds, engineered by Marcelo Bielsa, accomplished three times in a far more impressive exposition of how to get behind that high line, two weeks ago.
Refusing to get bogged down in a cat-and-mouse game against Liverpool’s high press, Leeds had five players operating high up the Anfield pitch and repeatedly bypassed Klopp’s players.
Kalvin Phillips often drove the ball from deep, with the diagonal ball, right to left, finding Jack Harrison who excelled and scored. The Leeds long ball made that a particularly difficult game for Alexander-Arnold.
In a shrewd analysis of this on Match of the Day 2, Jermaine Jenas highlighted Leeds’ boldness in deploying five men so high. They were effectively creating a ‘set piece in open play’ Jenas said, with the advanced midfielders and forwards all waiting to get behind a Liverpool back four who were effectively operating from the halfway line.
Arsenal used the long ball far less on Monday, preferring to try to pick their way through the press with limited success.
That defensive line of Liverpool’s is higher than ever. Opta average position graphs for their autumn matches against Arsenal in the past three season shows them far bolder in 2019 than 2018 and even more audacious on Monday night.
Even Klopp admitted after the Leeds game that he was presenting an opportunity, if any team could take it. ‘It’s just that the way they play you cannot defend it 100 per cent all the time,’ he said.
But that’s a very big ‘if’. Liverpool forfeit that space behind in order to press opposition to the point of strangulation.
And though there may be the occasional chance to get beyond them, Klopp backs the central defensive partnership of Gomez and Van Dijk to cope with a two-on-two or even a three-on-two in the opposition’s favour.
‘It’s risk and reward,’ says Sportsmail’s Martin Keown. ‘They are confident enough that if a ball is launched over the top of that high line then they can beat you in a foot race. It is about mobility.’
Leeds showed three times, as proved by Jack Harrison’s goal, how to get behind that high line
Their strategy reveals itself in a new Opta metric which shows the ‘average possession sequence start line’: the place on the field of play where sequences of possession begin, measured in metres from a team’s goal line. It highlights which teams successfully press the most.
Liverpool rank top of this list in the season’s early games. Their ‘start line’ against Arsenal was the third highest of any side in any of the Premier League games this season. The highest of any game came in their 2-0 win at Chelsea. Playing away clearly brings no fear.
Fail to win the pressing game and there will be consequences. A lame Manchester City, second in the ‘start line’ table, proved that in Sunday’s 5-2 defeat by Leicester.
Klopp backs the centre backs Joe Gomez (left) and Virigl Van Dijk to cope with a two-on-two
But Liverpool do not look like a side who will provide many such gifts.
‘It’s a calculated risk they’re taking,’ Sky’s Jamie Carragher said in his Monday night analysis.
‘But they are devastating when they don’t have the ball. As good as any team in world football and probably as good as anything we’ve seen in the Premier League.’
Jamie Carragher said Liverpool are ‘devastating’ and as good as any when not in possession