Liverpool went into the international break in the best possible way, beating Manchester City 3-1 to extend their lead over their main title rivals to nine points.
Jurgen Klopp went with Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation, although Mohamed Salah was rested as he recovers from an ankle injury, replaced by midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Roy Hodgson welcomed his former club to Selhurst Park with a 4-5-1 shape, hoping to put an end to a four match winless streak that saw Crystal Palace face off against some of the league’s toughest opponents: Man City, Arsenal, Leicester City, then Chelsea.
As expected, Palace quickly set up trying to defend while Liverpool sought to break them down. Palace would drop off into their own half and allow Liverpool to come forward with the ball, their narrow defence blocking the centre and their midfield five giving them some defensive width to combat Liverpool’s marauding full-backs.
While Palace pretty much completely ceded Liverpool’s half to the visitors, they would begin to press Liverpool once they ventured near the half-way line.
Jordan Ayew would hover around Fabinho when Palace sat back, but once Liverpool got towards Palace’s half he would move out to close down the centre-back on the ball, still blocking the pass into the Brazilian. When he did this, one of his teammates would move up in support. If Dejan Lovren had the ball, Wilfried Zaha would push up close to Trent Alexander-Arnold and then curve his run to join Ayew in closing down the Croatian, also blocking the pass into Alexander-Arnold. If Virgil van Dijk had the ball, either Andros Townsend would do the same thing as Zaha, or Cheikhou Kouyaté would move up out of midfield to close down the Dutchman – the latter mainly happening when Ayew had been dragged far away from Van Dijk to close down Lovren. Palace’s midfield would shift across behind them to cover the gaps opened up by whichever of them pushed forward to join Ayew – this was particularly important to cover Zaha as Jordan Henderson would often pull out to the right flank behind him.
The centre-backs’ response to this pressure was almost exclusively to hit a long pass in behind of the Palace backline. Palace would drop off deep enough so that Lovren and Van Dijk had plenty of time and space to pick out these passes and there was never much chance of them getting caught out by Palace’s pressing, but the home side sitting back meant there also wasn’t much space behind their backline for these passes to be played into. Van Dijk and Lovren, aided by the speed of their frontline, kept nearly pulling off perfect assists only for them to just be inches out of reach of the attacker, the backline getting in the way or Vicente Guaita rushing out to claim the bouncing ball first.
Aside from these long passes, Liverpool didn’t really offer anything creatively. They would slowly pass the ball around the backline until they reached the half-way line, draw Palace’s press then hit it long over the top of them.
With a lack of attacking inventiveness in this game, it’s perhaps better to look at what Liverpool didn’t do than what they did. The win against Tottenham Hotspur acts as an excellent comparison to this match: Spurs scored early on and then set up to defend their lead in a 4-5-1. In response, Liverpool moved the ball around quickly, passing the ball out to one flank, drawing Spurs across then switching it out to the other side. Palace were set up even better for Liverpool to exploit than Spurs due to their pressing: when Zaha, Townsend or Kouyaté pushed up alongside Ayew the other midfielders would tuck inside to cover their space, however this would inevitably leave the full-back on the opposite flank in loads of space if Liverpool could quickly switch play.
Liverpool seemed to try to stretch the pitch early on, hitting balls out to players hugging the touchline, yet gave it up fairly quickly when it didn’t immediately work. Joel Ward and Patrick van Aanholt were doing really well to get out and meet these wide attacks, but as they were having to start from such narrow positions this wouldn’t have been sustainable over 90 minutes. Sprinting out from the box to the touchline is fine the first or second time, but it’s likely that they would have slowed down by the thirtieth or fortieth. That leaves two options: either Liverpool get more space in the wide areas or the full-backs take up wider positions that give Liverpool more space through the centre.
Palace’s narrow defending made it understandably difficult for Liverpool to play through the centre, but Liverpool never really made any effort to manipulate it. Against Tottenham, Georginio Wijnaldum would drop deep next to Fabinho, drawing Moussa Sissoko up the pitch and leaving a gap behind him. Given Kouyate was keen to push forward anyway, this same movement would have probably worked against Palace, which could have helped Liverpool play through the centre, or, in the event that Townsend would simply have tucked inside to cover him, more space for Andy Robertson out wide.
Fabinho was also quite often an open-but-unused passing option. Ayew would block the pass into him initially, however once the ball was passed across to the other centre-back his efforts to get across and cut off the Brazilian again were unenthusiastic. Liverpool could have quite easily drawn Ayew’s pressing, switched the ball to the other centre-back and played a short pass into Fabinho. This would have asked questions of Palace’s midfield: do they step up to stop Fabinho and risk opening up a gap for Wijnaldum, Henderson or Roberto Firmino, or do they sit back and give Fabinho space to use himself? Liverpool never asked these questions of Palace though, they just thumped the ball over their heads.
That it was a fairly even game when the gulf in quality between the two sides is large would suggest Palace were doing something right. While this was certainly true defensively, it’s questionable offensively. They grew throughout the first half, but they only really seemed to actually engage Liverpool due to Alexander-Arnold have a terrible start to the game, continually gifting the ball away with poor passes or touches. When they did attempt it, Palace were able to play around Liverpool’s press with fantastic one touch passing (the best example is 27 minutes in if you want to hunt it down) but more often than not they simply looked to get the ball as quickly as possible to their wingers and break.
Ceding Liverpool’s half meant that they had plenty of space to run into once they won the ball back, however Liverpool’s tendency to smack the ball long meant Palace were generally winning the ball back in low areas of the pitch. Townsend’s one-footedness meant that when the ball came to him, he was having problems moving the ball forward without just running in the direction of Van Dijk.
Zaha was much more useful, causing Alexander-Arnold problems, however Palace were rarely able to catch out Liverpool’s defence. James McArthur and Kouyaté would sprint forward in support of Ayew, but Palace were generally starting their runs from so deep that Liverpool’s defenders were back in position before they could get there. Palace had the better chances of the first half, but it was more due to the poor play of Liverpool than their own brilliance, as these attacks were more useful for winning corners which then let them get their defenders forward than for creating goalscoring opportunities in open play.
Shortly into the second half, Liverpool took the lead. You could tie it to some of Liverpool’s strategy – their counter-pressing making them likely to win loose balls, Firmino dropping off into midfield, them keeping three men forward to make them a threat on the counter – but in truth it was simply individual quality that won Liverpool their lead.
They won the loose ball from an aerial battle, Robertson bombed down the left and hit a first-time cross, Firmino’s run panicked the Palace backline so none of them tried to cut it out and Mane finished. Ayew had two superior chances for Palace to take the lead and fluffed them, Mane had one half-chance and put it in the net. That was the difference between the two sides.
With the lead Liverpool looked more comfortable. They still lacked creativity, but now they were on course for three points they didn’t need it. They simply played keep-away for most of the second half while Palace were forced into chasing them in an attempt to get back into the game. Robertson also seemed to realised Townsend simply isn’t very good, repeatedly rushing past him whenever there was space.
Just as Palace seemed to grow into the game in the first half, they seemed to fade out of it in the second, only to then score late on. Liverpool had a throw-in in their half, Alexander-Arnold’s pass rebounded off of a Palace player and Zaha was on the break, slipping away from Liverpool players before offloading the ball to substitute Christian Benteke down the left.
Lovren moved out to cover the right flank and display why he’s now fourth-choice. He initially shaped his body well, showing Benteke down the line while positioned to block a touch inside. He then squared up (shifting in anticipation of Bentek cutting inside? Who knows?) and stuck out a leg as Benteke easily knocked it past him, completely cutting him out of the game.
Benteke passed inside to Townsend, who knocked it on to Zaha. Robertson quickly moved across in anticipation of blocking a left-footed shot but Zaha brilliantly let the ball roll across him, winning himself space at the far post to finish.
There was barely enough time for Liverpool to panic before they retook the lead though. They won a corner and Van Dijk, as he had throughout the game, got himself free to turn the ball towards goal. Palace blocked the initial touch and Van Dijk’s follow-up, but there were so many players crowded around the ball that there was no space to clear it, enabling Firmino to pounce and restore Liverpool’s three points.
Part of this goal can be blamed on disorganisation, as an injury to James Tomkins meant that other players had to switch roles: Benteke can be seen running out to pick up a Liverpool player pretty much as Alexander-Arnold swings it in, hardly giving him enough time to work out what’s going on.
It also shows some glaring flaws with man-marking though. Terrible camerawork means the movement of Liverpool’s attackers for the corner isn’t obvious, but here’s an earlier example:
Gary Cahill is the man who is supposed to be marking Van Dijk. As England’s love train showed, crowding players together leaves no space for defenders to get tight to their man. When they can’t get tight to their man, it’s easy for that attacker to go free, and Van Dijk managed it throughout the match.
Secondly, it’s easy for defenders to all get dragged into the same areas if they have to follow their men. When that happens there can easily be no space for them to actually do their jobs effectively, such as clearing a football:
It wasn’t a great performance from Liverpool but it is a familiar one. Liverpool have often grinded out victories this season, and last, due to their individual quality or excellent counter-pressing rather than blowing away their opponents. While last season’s easing off into a mid-block felt like it was a reaction to opponents shutting down and looking to counter, this season it appears to be more of an attempt to manage their heavy schedule across the season, doing the bare minimum to get their points and stay fit. Why get the full-backs to bomb forward if they don’t have to, especially with little back-up and the Club World Cup to contend with?
It’s all guesswork without Klopp or the coaching staff admitting it, and while it has led to many close games that Liverpool should probably be winning with greater ease, you also can’t really argue with decisions that have led to just two dropped points so far.