Fresh from a mid-week win in the Merseyside derby, Liverpool looked to maintain their lead at the top of the Premier League with a visit to the South Coast.
Jurgen Klopp made several changes to the team that beat Everton, bringing back Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino in attack while resting Sadio Mane and giving Naby Keita a rare start in midfield, switching back to Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation. On a four match losing streak, Eddie Howe set up his team in a 4-4-1-1 shape.
Unsuprisingly given the considerable gulf between the two teams, Bournemouth’s primary focus was on defending, sitting back in two banks of four. Callum Wilson stayed high up the pitch close to Virgil van Dijk to ensure the Dutchman couldn’t get on the ball, while Dominic Solanke looked to pick up one of Liverpool’s deeper midfielders, generally Jordan Henderson but sometimes Keita or James Milner if Henderson pushed higher.
Since Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s knee injury in 2018, Liverpool have had a tendency to create chances through their full-backs rather than working the ball through the middle. Against Bournemouth though, they displayed more creativity in the centre.
Part of this was the complete ineffectiveness of Bournemouth’s forwards in protecting the midfield. Wilson would stay close to Van Dijk, but Dejan Lovren was left completely free to push forward with the ball and pass into the midfield, with Henderson happy to drop back and cover him if necessary. Liverpool’s midfield easily evaded Solanke too by having someone drop back alongside Henderson to pick up the ball – either Solanke would move across and pick up the new man, leaving Henderson free, or the new man was left free to pick up and move forward with the ball.
Bournemouth’s midfield wasn’t much better. They would come narrow to protect the centre but Jefferson Lerma and Philip Billing would frequently get too tight together, leaving a large gap between them and Arnaut Danjuma Groeneveld to exploit. Danjuma was already having to tuck in quite far and he couldn’t realistically come in much further without leaving Andy Robertson open on the flank. This only got worse minutes into the game when Lerma and Billing started taking it turns to push up and stop Lovren or Henderson advancing with the ball, which then meant the other one had to position himself to cover behind, creating even larger gaps between him and the wingers.
Liverpool were excellent at exploiting these gaps. Salah, Firmino and Oxlade-Chamberlain would drop off to receive the ball or Milner and Keita would push up into the final third. Keita’s dribbling also gave Liverpool another way of moving the ball forward.
Although Liverpool were easily getting the ball into the final third, they were struggling to create clear cut chances once they got it there. This was mainly due to the fact that Bournemouth would get players back very quickly, collapsing inside so that there would be eight players around the box. Liverpool could sneak the ball through to someone between the lines but once they had it there they still had to get past a narrow back four. Simon Francis, worried about Robertson down the outside, often failed to tuck in on the right, but the freedom of Lovren to advance meant that Liverpool’s attacks generally came down Bournemouth’s left so it was rarely an issue.
Joe Gomez, Milner and Henderson all made overlapping runs down the right that created chances, yet they were mainly late bursts into attack – maybe if they had been positioned higher earlier, Diego Rico could have been baited wider to create some space inside.
Nevertheless, Liverpool took the lead anyway. Straight after Nathan Ake went off injured, Henderson dropped a long ball in behind for Oxlade-Chamberlain to finish, winning a foot race with Chris Mepham.
Soon after Liverpool scored a second more in keeping with how they were trying to play. Billing was dragged forward to close down Keita, who offloaded the ball to Milner, leading Billing inside. This left a large gap between Billing and Ryan Fraser which Keita ran into, while Milner passed wide to substitute Trent Alexander-Arnold who had the perfect angle to feed a ball straight through that gap to Keita. Rico stayed central but the wide positioning of Firmino had him worried, shaping his body to face the flank in expectation of a pass to the Brazilian. When Keita continued to advance, Rico was forced into turning and he stumbled as Keita passed inside to Salah. The Egyptian had two central defenders at his back but they couldn’t risk giving away a penalty by putting a foot in – it was left to Lerma to come across and nick it from the other side of Salah, but the attacker squeezed a pass through to Keita as Lerma came in. The Guinean was free to finish as Rico hadn’t recovered from his stumble.
Bournemouth offered nothing in attack. They would pass it around the defence but if Liverpool put them under any pressure they would just hit it long to the forwards, who were never able to compete with Liverpool’s defenders.
For the second half, Bournemouth pulled Wilson back alongside Solanke to form a 4-4-2 defensive shape. This helped plug up the holes in the centre as Solanke was no longer outnumbered if Keita or Milner dropped back, however it did nothing to stem the tide. The game was still all Liverpool and they soon added a third, Bournemouth giving the ball away on the edge of their area and Keita threading a through ball between the defenders for Salah to finish.
Liverpool were content to keep possession for the rest of the game but Bournemouth made little effort to put them under pressure, giving up on any hope of a comeback.
This was one of Liverpool’s better performances of the season. The opposition weren’t great however it was a positive return to a style that they haven’t used recently. They completely dominated the game, denying Bournemouth the opportunities that they have often given to lesser teams this season.