It was a frustrating night at Anfield on Thursday as Liverpool were held to a goalless draw in their Carabao semi-final first leg clash with Arsenal.
The Reds finished the match having mustered up only one shot on target, despite the visitors going down to 10 men just 24 minutes into the match following an x-rated challenge from Granit Xhaka.
A lot of the post-match discussion inevitably centred around the absences of Liverpool’s key men like Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah who are currently away at the African Cup of Nations.
Yet Jurgen Klopp was quick to play those excuses down, “We were not good enough in certain moments but nothing to do with who is not here.
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“The only you can avoid these questions is to score. The situation is here, Mo and Sadio aren't here and they are world-class players. Do we miss them? Yes. But we've had some struggles against 10 men with them.”
The final point made by the Liverpool boss is a poignant one. Six times this season Liverpool have seen an opposition player dismissed. And in the combined 263 minutes against 10 men across those six matches, Liverpool have managed just three goals.
Additionally, two of those three strikes came from the penalty spot.
There’ll be some wider influencing factors behind the above. For example, the Reds led by two goals in three of those matches at the time of the sending off, meaning they’d inevitably be looking to attack less and instead be focused on protecting the lead they already had.
Yet even so, it’s still a disappointing attacking return in these moments when theoretically, it should be easier to score.
However, while it’s often overlooked, gaining a one-man advantage can actually often work against a team.
This is because the side a man down almost always adopt a more defensive approach, dropping deeper so there’s no space in behind, and closing the gaps through the middle of the pitch.
An example of what Liverpool faced for long periods of time is highlighted below. Arsenal have a flat back five positioned inside the penalty area, with a protective line no more than ten yards in front.
Chelsea did similar earlier in the season when they went down to 10 men at Anfield and held on for a 1-1 draw.
In these game situations, there are important features that an attacking team must maintain if they’re to try and disrupt the robust set-up of the deep-lying opposition.
Width needs to be maintained throughout in order to stretch the pitch, an extra player should join attacks as less balance is needed from a defensive standpoint, restarts from free-kicks should be quick so that the opposition has less time to set up defensively, and general passing should be fast too for the same reason.
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On Thursday night, Liverpool did a decent job of implementing these tactics, even if they’d have probably excelled further in the latter if Thiago was available. The midfielder is arguably Liverpool’s most technically gifted player and a master of fast accurate ball distribution.
However, there were other key points in which they were far less effective, and these certainly contributed to their struggles.
The Reds attempted plenty of crosses – 30 in fact – though too many were played high into the box. Ben White and Gabriel boasted aerially dominance over the likes of Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino and Takumi Minamino, making it a far from effective method of attack.
Liverpool may have benefited more from creating more cut-back situations, though with no natural wide man in Klopp’s system to over or underlap the wing-backs, these scenarios proved few and far between.
Another issue was that naturally as a high pressing side, Liverpool usually engage with their opponents high up the pitch. It was no different on Thursday against Arsenal in the rare moments that the North Londoners did manage to get possession of the ball.
Klopp’s men finished the game with a Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) average of 5.5, much lower than their season average of 8.6, highlighting an extremely aggressive press.
This often proves an effective form of defending for Klopp’s side, yet there’s a case to be made that against 10 men, the initial line of engagement should be much deeper, allowing the opposition to get out and higher up their pitch, coming away from their own goal and therein allowing more space to attack in the opposition's half when the ball is turned over.
On the whole, red cards tend to be rare. Meaning it’s not particularly something that teams tend to build sessions around in training.
Yet given their woes in such moments this season, it’s likely that Klopp and his staff will be analysing their struggles from Thursday night and be working hard to make sure similar failures are avoided going forward.
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