Case Study: Liverpool 2-0 Sheffield United 2/1/2020

Case Study: Liverpool 2-0 Sheffield United 2/1/2020

Liverpool Sheffield United line-ups

Welcoming in the new decade in a much better situation than their last, Liverpool looked to extend their lead at the top of the table as they hosted Sheffield United, themselves fighting for their highest finish since the seventies.

Jurgen Klopp returned to Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation from the 4-2-3-1 they used against Wolves, whereas Chris Wilder set up his side in a 3-5-2 shape.

It didn’t take Liverpool long to go ahead. Sheffield United looked to engage Liverpool quite high up the pitch. Their forwards would block the passes into midfield then push up to close down Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, with the midfielders pushing up behind them in support. This didn’t trouble Liverpool though as their full-backs were left open out wide – the Sheffield United wing-backs were too far from them to close them down, while the midfielders were often too occupied with James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum to really put them under pressure.

Sheffield United's strikers block the passes into midfield
Sheffield United’s strikers block the passes into midfield
One presses the man on the ball
One presses the man on the ball
Liverpool pass wide to the full-back in space
Liverpool pass wide to the full-back in space

Jordan Henderson also made it easy to play around the Sheffield United frontmen by dropping back to the right side of the defence, forming a makeshift back three just as he had against Wolves.

Henderson drops back to form a makeshift back three
Henderson drops back to form a makeshift back three

The result was that Sheffield United would press, their midfield and defence pushing up behind them, but Liverpool could easily find the space in defence to pick out long balls over the top. Mohamed Salah scared the backline in the opening minute and not long later Andy Robertson raced in behind to square for the Egyptian, giving Liverpool the lead. George Baldock was live to the danger, dropping off quickly, but he slipped, making it easy for Robertson to assist Salah while the right-back held his head in his hands.

Liverpool hit a long ball in behind in the opening minute
Liverpool hit a long ball in behind in the opening minute
Robertson runs in behind to assist Salah from Van Dijk's long ball
Robertson runs in behind to assist Salah from Van Dijk’s long ball

Despite still having close to a full game still to play, Liverpool’s response to going ahead was to toy with the visitors. Calmly passing the ball around without the need for a goal, Liverpool could maintain possession while barely mustering more than a stroll. This forced Sheffield United into pressing, as Liverpool weren’t going to risk giving it back to the away side when they didn’t have to.

The aforementioned problems in Sheffield United’s pressing weren’t corrected though, and Liverpool were even less interested in passing forward now, so more often than not they would pass the ball down one side, draw Sheffield United’s pressure, then switch it out to the other flank. It was a great way to wear Sheffield United out, dragging them across the pitch, baiting them into sprinting at them, then doing the same thing again on the other side, all while Liverpool’s players were enjoying a casual stroll.

Liverpool did still muster some attacking threat, however they were more selective in how they expended their energy. Many of these would be long passes if a defender had time on the ball and a decent run had been made, but they also worked the ball forward with neat one-touch passes down the flanks. If the wing-back moved up to press Trent Alexander-Arnold or Robertson, then they would generally pass the ball backwards and try again down the opposite flank, but if it was instead the midfielder who moved out to close down the full-back or one was caught out of position then there was often a Liverpool player left free in the middle to receive the ball and tap it back out to the flanks, where Salah and Sadio Mane were coming short to drag the Sheffield United defenders out of position.

John Fleck moves out to press Alexander-Arnold
John Fleck moves out to press Alexander-Arnold, leaving Milner free
Alexander-Arnold passes inside to Milner
Alexander-Arnold passes inside to Milner
Milner passes back out to Salah
Milner passes back out to Salah

By the end of the first half, Sheffield United had largely given up pressing. This plugged up many of the holes that Liverpool had been exploiting, but it did nothing to deal with the fundamental problem of Liverpool having complete control over the game.

Unsurprisingly given they barely saw anything of the ball, Sheffield United offered little in attack either. Their main idea seemed to have been leaving David McGoldrick and Lys Mousset up the pitch against Van Dijk and Gomez and hitting long balls up to them as soon as they recovered the ball. Liverpool dealt easily with this anyway but any threat it posed was killed off completely after Liverpool took the lead, as they would now leave more men back, ensuring the strikers were surrounded by Liverpool players to win the second balls.

Sheffield United keep two men up against Liverpool's centre-backs
Sheffield United keep two men up against Liverpool’s centre-backs

When they could hold onto possession, Sheffield United would push the wing-backs high into attack while Scouser John Lundstram made runs from midfield in behind the Liverpool backline, however they didn’t really offer many ideas beyond this, only occasionally trying out their over-lapping centre-backs.

Liverpool doubled their lead half-way through the second half with a counter-attack, easing fears that a set-piece or a freak mistake might cost them their lead. Mane and Salah combined to score despite Sheffield United getting six men back to defend.

Sheffield United have six men back but Salah and Mane still combine to score
Sheffield United have six men back but Salah and Mane still combine to score

It was a masterful performance by Liverpool, completely dominating the game without breaking a sweat, and a great sign of how much they have matured in recent years. Earlier in Klopp’s tenure the match might have been more exciting, yet Liverpool did the bare minimum necessary to take the three points without giving Sheffield United a kick, making it a year unbeaten in the league while keeping themselves fresh for the difficult month of fixtures ahead.

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