Case Study: Liverpool 1-0 Flamengo 21/12/2019

Case Study: Liverpool 1-0 Flamengo 21/12/2019

Liverpool - Flamengo line-ups

In a rematch of the 1981 Intercontinental Cup, European champions Liverpool took on South American champions Flamengo to decide who would be the official best side on the planet.

Jurgen Klopp set up up his team in their usual 4-3-3 formation, making numerous changes to the team that edged past Monterrey. Virgil van Dijk recovering from his illness allowed Jordan Henderson to return to the midfield, Trent Alexander-Arnold came back in at right-back and Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane reunited with Mohamed Salah to form their deadly attacking trio.

The first team to do a Brasileirao-Copa Libertadores double since Santos in the sixties, Flamengo are no pushovers. Jorge Jesus organised them in a 4-2-3-1.

Liverpool had two great chances to take the lead in the opening minutes. Flamengo wouldn’t close down the man on the ball in time, but their backline also didn’t drop off fast enough, allowing Liverpool to drop long balls in behind for their attackers. Both Firmino and Naby Keita fluffed their lines though.

Liverpool dominated the opening stages of the match largely due to their high pressing. Reluctant to risk giving the ball away high up the pitch, Flamengo generally went long. They would leave two men high up the pitch, Gabriel Barbosa and either Everton Ribeiro or Bruno Henrique, then try to hit long balls in behind Liverpool’s high line for them to run onto, however they were easily dealt with by Liverpool.

Liverpool press high
Liverpool press high
Flamengo leave two forwards high up the pitch and go direct
Flamengo leave two forwards high up the pitch and go direct

Flamengo also tried to press high up the pitch. They pushed lots of men forward to try to stop Liverpool playing out: Ribeiro and Gabriel would get close to the centre-backs, Bruno Henrique and Giorgian De Arrascaeta to the full-backs and Gerson to Henderson. Unlike Flamengo, Liverpool were happy to test the press though. Joe Gomez regularly strode forward on the ball and both he and Van Dijk drilled passes into the forwards. Alisson acted as a spare man, forcing one of the Flamengo forwards to leave the centre-back to press him, and Henderson would also drop back, forming a back three to work the ball forward. Despite Flamengo pushing so many men forward, Liverpool could easily find a free man and pass out. As Flamengo had basically left Firmino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain free between the lines in order to try to cut out the short passes, this posed a considerable problem for them as Liverpool could pass straight through and attack.

Flamengo press high
Flamengo press high
Alisson acts as a spare man
Alisson acts as a spare man
Alisson picks out a pass to the unmarked Oxlade-Chamberlain
Alisson picks out a pass to the unmarked Oxlade-Chamberlain
Henderson drops back to form a back three
Henderson drops back to form a back three

Oxlade-Chamberlain also sometimes took up a position high on the left flank, outnumbering Flamengo in this area and often putting Liverpool’s attackers four-vs-four against the Flamengo backline.

De Arrascaeta is unsure whether to close down Andy Robertson or stay with Oxlade-Chamberlain
De Arrascaeta is unsure whether to close down Andy Robertson or stay with Oxlade-Chamberlain
Mane drops deep, dragging Rafinha up the pitch, creating space in behind for Oxlade-Chamberlain
Mane drops deep, dragging Rafinha up the pitch, creating space in behind for Oxlade-Chamberlain

After about 15 minutes, Liverpool dropped off into their mid-block. This was probably a pre-planned decision to conserve energy, however Liverpool weren’t actually having to do much running – the mere threat of the press was enough to get Flamengo to send the ball long – so they probably could have continued it easily. They didn’t though and this allowed Flamengo to grow into the game.

When they had possession, Flamengo would shift into a 3-5-2 shape. Arao would drop between the centre-backs, allowing Felipe Luis and Rafinha to push forward from full-back while Bruno Henrique and De Arrascaeta tucked inside. Felipe Luis and Rafinha would move past Mane and Salah, drawing a Liverpool player out to close them down when they received the ball. If it was a Liverpool midfielder who moved out, the pair would usually end up passing backwards, yet if they baited the opposing full-backs up the pitch then it would leave a gap behind them for a Flamengo player to attack. The Liverpool centre-backs were generally live to the threat though.

Flamengo play to the full-back. Robertson pushes up to close Rafinha down.
Flamengo play to the full-back. Robertson pushes up to close Rafinha down.
Rafinha plays a pass into the space behind Robertson, where Ribeiro makes a run
Rafinha plays a pass into the space behind Robertson, where Ribeiro makes a run
Van Dijk comes across to cover
Van Dijk comes across to cover

Without the threat of Liverpool closing them down, Flamengo’s backline had more time to pick out their passes over the top. Despite no longer pressuring the man on the ball, Liverpool continued to play with a high line, not even dropping off when Flamengo shaped to play long passes. This was less of a cardinal sin of defending than when Everton did it against them, as Liverpool can trust the speed of their backline to get back quickly, however it was risky.

No pressure on the ball. Liverpool's backline don't drop off despite Pablo Mari shaping for a pass
No pressure on the ball. Liverpool’s backline don’t drop off despite Pablo Mari shaping for a pass
Mari plays a pass in behind for Bruno Henrique
Mari plays a pass in behind for Bruno Henrique

Bruno Henrique went from being completely anonymous in the opening stages to having the better of Alexander-Arnold, and, while the young Scouser started brightly, it seemed to dent his confidence. Keita was doing little to support his full-back but fortunately Gomez was excellent.

At around the same time as Liverpool dropped off, perhaps a little later, Flamengo did too. As their press wasn’t working anyway, this didn’t really change their ability to win the ball back high up the pitch, but it did offer greater protection to their defence, stopping Firmino and Oxlade-Chamberlain from going free.

By the end of the first half, Flamengo had switched to a 4-4-2, as Bruno Henrique joined Gabriel in attack, Ribeiro moved to the right and De Arrascaeta switched to the left. They also, however, looked exhausted – the long Brazilian season of national league, state championship and Copa Libertadores clearly having taken their toll.

In the second half, the momentum swang back in Liverpool’s direction. Flamengo continued to pose a threat on the counter, but they mainly sat back and defended as Liverpool had the ball. Liverpool did their usual routine of switching the ball from flank to flank to force a knackered Flamengo side into covering the width of the pitch, yet they also worked the ball through the middle well, regularly able to find one of the attackers between the lines with passes into feet.

Flamengo managed to hold out to extra time despite Liverpool carving out multiple good chances, but Firmino broke the deadlock from a counter – Rodrigo Caio’s stretch in an attempt to cut out Henderson’s pass causing him to fall over, allowing Mane and Firmino to double up on the last man.

Jesus made attacking substitutions and threw men forward, but Liverpool were able to hold out and claim the title of world champions.

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