After losing to third-placed Manchester City on Saturday, Leicester City followed up that tricky tie by hosting newly-crowned champions of the world Liverpool, looking to claw back the considerable gap that the Reds have opened up at the top of the league.
Jurgen Klopp made only one change to the team that beat Flamengo in the Club World Cup, as injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made way for Georginio Wijnaldum. Klopp’s predecessor at Liverpool Brendan Rodgers matched Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation with a 4-3-3 of his own.
Always a proponent of passing football, Rodgers had Leicester try to play though Liverpool’s press. When in possession, they formed a 2-4-2-2 shape: the centre-backs split wide to the edges of their penalty area, the full-backs pushed forward in line with the midfielders, Youri Tielemans dropped back next to Wilfred Ndidi, the pair positioning themselves in the gaps between Liverpool’s front three, James Maddison tucked inside and Dennis Praet pushed forward between the lines, while Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes stayed up in attack.
Liverpool’s frontline defended well though. One man would generally press high, either closing down the goalkeeper or centre-backs while blocking off a pass into someone behind him, while the others remained close to Ndidi and Tielemans. If Leicester risked lobbing the ball out to the full-backs, Liverpool’s outside midfielders or the full-backs would rush up to close them down.
Leicester did manage to play around this pressure on occasion. This was usually done by baiting one of the other Liverpool forwards into pressing high when another was also high, however often it was simply the two not getting close enough to the Leicester midfielders. Ndidi in particular seemed to be able to keep passing angles into him open, even if they were only slim and, once he received the ball, he was happy to turn out and play forward.
They also gave the ball away cheaply just as often though. The effectiveness of the Liverpool frontline’s defending meant that the players behind them didn’t have to push up behind them too much, usually only one or two players at a time, meaning that even if Leicester did manage to pass the ball out, they still had to break down eight Liverpool players behind the ball.
After around ten minutes, Liverpool began to vary whether they pressed high or not. Sometimes they would stay in their mid-block, crowding the centre. From there, Leicester would pass to the full-backs in space then the Liverpool wingers and outside midfielders would begin to close them down while cutting off the passing options into the centre. With few passing options, the ball would generally be sent down the line, where Liverpool frequently caught the Leicester City attackers offside.
Leicester also tried to press Liverpool although it was less effective. Vardy would position himself between the two centre-backs, while Praet pushed up to get close to Jordan Henderson and the wingers stood in positions to close down the full-backs. Once Alisson Becker chose which of the centre-backs to pass to, Leicester tried to trap Liverpool on that side: Vardy would close down Joe Gomez or Virgil van Dijk, blocking off the pass across to the other, and the midfielders would move across in support, the opposite side’s wingers tucking into the centre. With their options through the centre closely marked, Gomez or Van Dijk would be encouraged to pass to the full-back, who would be quickly closed down by the winger as they received the ball.
This rarely troubled Liverpool though. For one, they looked incredibly sharp, passing the ball around quick enough to evade the pressure of Leicester’s frontmen, while Wijnaldum, Naby Keita and Gomez all took turns simply dribbling past the men closing them down. Although much of Liverpool’s comfort was due to how good they are at keeping the ball, there were also fundamental flaws in the Leicester press. It was designed to encourage Liverpool to one side then keep them there, but anyone who’s seen anything of Liverpool this season knew that wouldn’t work. They switch play constantly, so Leicester’s press was frequently bypassed just by pulling men over to one side then hitting it out to the completely free Liverpool players on the other. With Leicester midfielders being drawn up high to get tight to Liverpool’s midfielders, Liverpool were also able to hit passes straight through the gaps in the centre at times.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was having the time of his life. Either free as a bird or up against the defensively weak Maddison, the young Scouser always had plenty of time and space to venture forward and pick out his crosses. Liverpool took the lead following a corner when Alexander-Arnold swung one in for Roberto Firmino to head home at the back post.
Given free drinks before the match, Leicester’s supporters were noisy early on but slowly tailed off, starting to get on the backs of their players after the goal went in. They picked up again when Leicester had a decent spell mid-way through the second half, when they started to push four or five players forward for quick attacks, however going behind seemed to really dent Leicester’s confidence. Their press ineffective, Leicester ended up having to constantly drop deep and were fortunate not to concede more as Liverpool kept them pinned back in their half.
Vardy was left isolated and Tielemans looked particularly bad, looking more exhausted coming out for the second half than he had going in for the break. He played the full 90 minutes despite his discomfort becoming so obvious that his never-fulfilled impending substitution became an ongoing joke for commentators Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux.
Just as Leicester were getting back into the match, willing to risk the danger of Liverpool’s counter-attack to attempt some attacks of their own, Liverpool killed off whatever hopes Leicester had of a comeback. First, substitute James Milner converted a penalty with his first touch of the match. Second, Alexander-Arnold picked out Firmino for another goal despite Leicester crowding the box.
To seal it, Alexander-Arnold finally got the goal that his superb performance deserved. Again, Leicester pulled the majority of their players over to one side, then Liverpool switched out to the other flank. Alexander-Arnold made a run from his own half down the outside and fired past Kasper Schmeichel without skipping a beat.
It was an excellent performance from Liverpool that showed the gulf between first and second is one of quality as well as points.