MAKING IT (down the) RIGHT
For stretches last season Liverpool had real issues breaking down opponents’ left-hand side defenses. They would absorb the overlapping moves of Mane and Robertson numerically. This caused midfield goals to dry up and forced an overdependence on the creativity of Salah and Alexander-Arnold.
But football is a week-to-week chess game. Teams find ways to compensate for what isn’t working while defenses respond to successful strategies to shut them down. Often learning from one another when working counters pass the battle test.
Pushing Jota out to the left gave Liverpool another option from the moment he arrived. The arrival of Luis Diaz in the winter window has given Klopp an entirely different way to shuffle the deck. Opponents have clearly struggled to contain the left side of Liverpool’s attack since.
Opposition defenses have since shifted a numerical imbalance to the other side in an attempt to keep Liverpool more one-dimensional. Salah is often zoned by three players when he’s on the ball. Some opponents (like Manchester City in recent matches) like to play high on Alexander-Arnold to stop him from coming forward.
Other Factors to Consider?
Some other factors have also contributed to the relative anemia on this side of the attack. Before playing Manchester United, Salah had produced only two goals from open play since the AFCON. Ongoing contract talks appear to have weighed on the Egyptian star and his fatigue after national team endeavors are understandable. The encounters with the Manchester teams seem to have put that to rest, Salah is finding new ways to get open and score. While Alexander-Arnold has added perfected one-touch diagonal passing to his repertoire.
Against Manchester United (who were woeful), Salah added the diagonal move as well with runs. Twice coming from the right-wing diagonally into the box, getting inside the defender, where he scored from a central position. Up to this point, opponents have been able to provide enough coverage to force him off. It remains to be seen if this was just poor defending from MUFC or a fresh move on the chessboard.
Liverpool’s first goal against United saw the Trent – Mo combo embarrassingly overrunning United’s defense. Scoring with a man to spare in the buildup. It showed that the potential remains for this pair to tear up the right flank if defenses get it wrong.
Still, other factors require attention!
Previously the triumvirate of Alexander-Arnold, Salah, and Jodan Henderson would rip apart the right side of defenses with superb passing. Henderson seems to have gone missing from that equation of late. Some pundits here on American Scouser believe it is the start of his overall long-term deterioration as a player. I’m not so convinced.
Liverpool’s Captain still looks like a lively and effective player in the “six”, a role more commonly played by Fabinho. In a “double six” as seen in the league meeting against Manchester City, Salah was more or less pulled back into the midfield for the second half. But Henderson started the season coming off an injury and picked up damage to his knee in February. I suspect it is that injury that has impacted his touch and mobility in wider positions. It is too soon to tell if his fast approaching 32nd birthday is making that permanent.
In Jurgen Klopp’s “chess game” his next move is to get this right-side ticking again. Despite so many other things in the attack working so well, this could be improved. Roberto Firmino, absence for much of the season (16 out of 53) may be part of how the drop-off occurred. His regaining fitness can hopefully unlock things for Alexander-Arnold and Salah. His movement on the field causes fits for the defensive organization. Klopp though knows that means sacrificing minutes for others on the forward line. While making choices to determine the most effective way to play with what he has at his disposal.
What do the stats say?
Trying to examine stats of who to start is like a deep dive down a rabbit hole that answers little. I saw A.S. pundit Paul Bickler arguing online with someone who was pointing out that Liverpool “only” get 2.35 points per game (PPG) when Henderson starts. (More on Bickler’s role as Boffin Man, Social Media’s answer to King Moonracer, another time. Contrary to the misguided analysis of Bickler’s uneducated nemesis, the stats about who’s starting actually show remarkably little difference. Using 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw across all competitions with games going to penalties scored as a draw, we get the following this season.
(After Manchester United and before Everton)
Liverpool FC Won-39; Drew-11; Lost-3; PPG-2.42
Henderson starts Won-27; Drew-8; Lost-2; PPG-2.41
Firmino starts Won-11; Drew-5; Lost-0; PPG-2.38
Alexander-Arnold starts Won-28; Drew-8; Lost-3; PPG-2.36
Salah starts Won-28; Drew-9; Lost-3; PPG-2.33
Whatever Liverpool decides to do and however they line up, Mo still attracts plenty of attention and that’s something that can’t be underestimated. While three players watch the right side to neutralize his potential, others are afforded the opportunity to get into space, run through the line, or have a go at making something happen in single coverage.
And as Trent learns, as an option, to play longer and quicker balls with more speed and accuracy it leaves opponents with the unenviable task of figuring out which of Liverpool’s tactical weapons to contain and which ones to leave exposed.