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Klopp's killer full-backs leave Spurs scratching their heads & five tactical lessons from the Premier League weekend

12:00 SAST 2019/04/01
Trent Alexander-Arnold Liverpool 2018-19
Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold played a key role as the Reds maintained their lead at the top of the table

A bizarre last minute own goal from Toby Alderweireld kept Liverpool in the title race on a frantic, blustery afternoon at Anfield. Tottenham deserved more from the match following an excellent half-time tactical switch from manager Mauricio Pochettino, but if he was disappointed by Liverpool’s late winner that was nothing compared to how Neil Warnock was left feeling after Chelsea’s controversial route back into the game at Cardiff.

Sunday’s drama made up for a pretty uninspiring Saturday, on which Manchester United returned to winning ways with an unconvincing 2-1 victory over Watford and Huddersfield Town were relegated in joint-record time. 

Here are five tactical things you might not have noticed from the weekend action:


Liverpool full-backs show up Spurs flaws


Liverpool’s 2-1 victory at Anfield on Sunday was a game of two halves, and so each 45 minutes deserves its own separate tactical analysis.

In the opening period, Tottenham’s 3-5-2 formation afforded far too much space in the wide positions for Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who dominated the flanks in the gaps in front of Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier.

The two Tottenham wing-backs were unable to come out to meet the Liverpool pair because Sadio Mane’s and Mohamed Salah’s positioning forced them to tuck in close to the three centre-backs.

This left the three Spurs central midfielders with far too much width to cover on their own (see image below).

Robertson’s cross for Liverpool’s opening goal exemplified the defining theme of the first half, and although eventually Pochettino switched to a 5-4-1 to provide some support in front of the back five the visitors were fortunate to go in just one goal down.

Here was an archetypal example of why the 3-5-2 is so risky: when the wing-backs are pinned, it becomes a 5-3-2 that cannot cover the flanks.


Pochettino almost picks Klopp's pocket


Klopp said after the match he has “no clue” why Liverpool stopped switching the play out to the full-backs to continue exploiting Tottenham’s weakness, but re-watching the game this week he will notice that Pochettino’s half-time switch to a 4-4-1-1 stunted Robertson and Alexander-Arnold.

Rose was repositioned in front of Jan Vertonghen for the first 20 minutes, and that extra security behind meant Rose could get tight to Alexander-Arnold.

The same thing happened on the other side with Christian Eriksen and Robertson, and with Liverpool suddenly unable to shift it wide they lost momentum, becoming unsure how to create chances.

As a consequence Spurs grew into the match, and in particular down the flanks.

Now it was their turn to find vulnerable spots to hit, with Liverpool’s narrow 4-3-3 leaving gaps in the wide areas; the hosts’ front three do not track back, meaning there was space on the wings for Tottenham’s full-back and winger to double up on the Liverpool full-back.

Again, this led directly to a goal, with Trippier breaking beyond Robertson to pre-assist Lucas Moura’s equaliser.

The final 10 minutes weren’t about tactics, although Klopp deserves credit for some gung-ho substitutions that created a chaotic – and ultimately triumphant – finale.


Warnock's man-marking plan almost bears fruit


Neil Warnock was understandably furious with the refereeing decisions that cost Cardiff City the points against a lacklustre Chelsea side the hosts had kept at arm’s length throughout the 90 minutes.

Cardiff deserved the three points for their performance, the outstanding feature of which was Warnock’s unusual man-to-man marking system in open play.

Throughout the game Cardiff’s players simply followed an opposition player around the pitch: Harry Arter tracked Ross Barkley, Aron Gunnarsson followed Mateo Kovacic, and Victor Camarasa sat on top of Jorginho.

But the system extended beyond the midfield battle, with Bruno Ecuele Manga chasing Gonzalo Higuain even when the Argentine dropped 15 yards off the defensive line and both full-backs tracking the Chelsea wingers despite Willian and Pedro frequently drifting into central midfield (the graphics below show how frequently Joe Bennett and Lee Peltier touched the ball in the middle of the park).

PICS: Peltier (above) and Bennett touches vs Chelsea

However, the perils of a man-to-man system were highlighted when the Cardiff midfield lost its way towards the end of the game.

The introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eden Hazard, both of whom drifted across the width of the pitch, confused the home side; suddenly Cardiff’s lack of a steady formational structure proved a hindrance.


Pellegrini pays the price in West Ham horrow show


West Ham’s first-half performance against Everton on Saturday was arguably their worst of the season.

The visitors could have been 5-0 up by the break such was their total dominance of the game, and Manuel Pellegrini should take most of the blame for a calamitous 4-4-2 formation.

The Chilean changed to a more secure 4-2-3-1 after the break, but it was too late by then.

Gylfi Sigurdsson dominated a very light West Ham central midfield, but more importantly their lack of midfield numbers meant Manuel Lanzini was left hopelessly without support.

Richarlison consistently drove down the right-centre column as Everton turned the screw, their possession dominance – and West Ham’s psychological weariness – the result of the hosts’ inability to relieve pressure by counterattacking.

Lucas Perez and Marko Arnautovic did not work hard enough, allowing the Toffees to immediately win the ball back and charge at that soft West Ham midfield again and again.


Fulham fail to understand how possession football works


Fulham's performance against Manchester City summarised their dreadful Premier League campaign, as Scott Parker’s team were twice caught attempting to play a short-passing game deep in their half, leading to the visitors' two goals.

Pundits have been quick to highlight the naivety of attempting a possession system against the best pressing team in the world, but this is not simply a case of choosing which games to play short passes and which to play a more direct style.

Fulham have fundamentally misunderstood how possession football works. Even the very best teams know to play longer passes into the channels when under pressure in their own half, and certainly all the mid-table Premier League possession teams of the last decade (such as Swansea City or Bournemouth) have recognised that you need to be in the right position of the pitch, and the right territorial battle, to pass the ball around.

Clubs cannot play possession football until they are on an equal footing; cannot begin to recycle the ball until they have created a sparring match and are settled, psychologically, into an even contest.

But Fulham attempt to pass their way out of trouble regardless of the circumstances, pursuing a dogmatic possession game that has never made sense in the Premier League.

There is no shame in hitting it long, gaining some yards, and then beginning the tiki-taka in the second phase: in fact, that’s how almost every other possession-centric club does it.

It is a damning indictment of Fulham that in the opening 27 minutes – up until the killer second goal - just nine of the 132 passes attempted by their outfield players were long, according to Opta.