Liverpool's new formation fails vs. Stoke before half-time tweaks
Liverpool recovered from a stagnant first half to win 2-1 at Stoke on Saturday, in a display affected by numerous absentees and a formation they had reportedly not even used in training.
Beset by injuries, Jurgen Klopp wheeled out a 3-5-1-1 system featuring two teenagers and players fielded out of position. With Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino benched, the visitors lacked flair and cohesion, and created next to nothing before half-time.
The same was not true of Stoke, who opened the scoring just before the break. They particularly threatened down the flanks, pumping in crosses and using their wingers to trouble the outside centre-backs, as happened for their goal.
At the interval, Klopp brought on Coutinho and Firmino to play behind striker Divock Origi. That provided more options in the final third and, though Mark Hughes put on an extra midfielder to stop the duo, they still struck twice to hand Liverpool a first win in six league games on the road.
New system kills cohesion
Those goals surely spared Klopp some criticism, given the drab first-half showing. With the treatment room busy, the German played Dejan Lovren (right), Joel Matip (centre) and Ragnar Klavan (left) in a back three, with Nathaniel Clyne (left) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (right) as wing-backs. Just ahead operated James Milner (left), Emre Can (centre) and Georginio Wijnaldum (right), while 17-year-old Ben Woodburn played behind Origi.
If the defending was passable, the attacking was toothless. The idea seemed to be to find Origi over the top and down the channels, then provide support from midfield, but the lone striker was isolated and the passes towards him poorly timed. His first-half highlights included two tame efforts, a corner won and a half-decent cross. He completed one single pass.
It did not help that Liverpool had no wingers. Most teams who use a back three have at least another two wingers or a front duo who take turns to stretch play. Liverpool had neither and, with Alexander-Arnold inexperienced and Clyne playing on his weaker side, they hardly ever broke free down the flanks, as their first-half map for completed passes shows.
By half-time they had only recorded those two Origi attempts. Even Klopp would admit that "nobody really felt comfortable" in the system, and added that there had been no time for practice. It showed.
Stoke exploit wide zones
Such facts considered, Stoke may regret not causing Liverpool more problems in the first period, even though they were 1-0 up at half-time.
Hughes went on the attack by using a 4-4-2 in which Jonathan Walters and Saido Berahino played up front, with Marko Arnautovic (left) and Xherdan Shaqiri (right) out wide. Given that Liverpool had no wingers, they soon identified the flanks as key areas, and pushed full-backs Glen Johnson and Erik Pieters forward.
In response, Liverpool would send out either the nearest central midfielder (Wijnaldum or Milner) or their wing-back to press the full-backs. They were fine when the task fell to Wijnaldum or Milner, as it meant the wing-backs could pick up Arnautovic or Shaqiri. But when the wing-backs pressed, the Stoke wingers could escape down the line and run at Lovren and Klavan.
Lovren generally coped well, even if one sliced clearance handed Arnautovic a decent chance. But Klavan struggled more. A minute before half-time, Shaqiri skipped past him and crossed for Walters to nod home. Three minutes into the second period, Klavan got booked for barging into Shaqiri, and could have seen red when bringing down the Swiss winger once more later on.
Klopp tweaks midfield shape
By that stage Klopp had taken off Woodburn and Alexander-Arnold for Firmino, who had been rested, and Coutinho, who had just lost three kilos due to illness. The manager kept the back three, switching Clyne to right-wing-back and Milner to the left, but changed the midfield: Liverpool now had two central midfielders (Can, Wijnaldum) and the Brazilian duo just behind Origi.
This was key for several reasons. Origi now had better support, while Liverpool got another two players who could stretch play. Coutinho and Firmino could also link up between the lines, where Stoke's 4-4-2 was likely to be vulnerable.
The improvement was striking. The Brazilians kept finding holes behind the Stoke midfield as Clyne and Milner maintained width. Before long Coutinho had set up an Origi shot curled wide, while Firmino had fired a left-footed drive at Lee Grant. Coutinho then tested Grant with a low effort, earning a corner that Lovren headed against the crossbar.
Such chances meant Liverpool should have equalised by the time Klopp brought on Daniel Sturridge for Origi on 68 minutes. But two minutes later, Stoke cleared a Can pass straight to Coutinho, who hammered home. Another two minutes on, a simple Lovren pass over the top found Firmino who fired high into the net. The turnaround was as dramatic as the transformation.
Indeed, Liverpool would complete 55 final-third passes in the second half, having managed 23 in the first. Symbolic of their newfound dynamism was Firmino, who linked up in central positions and helped Clyne stop Pieters down the flank.
Whelan sub backfires
Such slack defending will surely have angered Hughes. Earlier, Stoke should have gone 2-0 up when a Shaqiri corner fell to Charlie Adam, who fired at Simon Mignolet from yards out.
Besides, Hughes had foreseen trouble. On 68 minutes, as the visitors dominated, he had taken off Walters for Glenn Whelan, making the logical move of bolstering midfield to try to stop Coutinho and Firmino. Yet Whelan was the one clearing Can's pass to Coutinho for the equaliser and, two minutes later, Hughes suddenly had to chase the game.
The subsequent Stoke finish proved disappointing, though they should have scored when Berahino slid to meet Arnautovic's cross, only for Mignolet to produce a stunning reflex save. Beyond a Bruno Martins Indi header, the hosts had no other dangerous attempts in the second half, and played just one successful pass into the box, leaving Hughes to rue missed chances as Klopp savoured a great escape.
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