After Manchester City could only draw against Newcastle United earlier in the day, Liverpool were looking to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to eleven points.
Coming off of a poor peformance against Crystal Palace last weekend and a draw against Napoli in mid-week, Jurgen Klopp would be hoping for an easy time, especially with the loss of this season’s star performer Fabinho due to an ankle injury just in time for their busy winter period. The German set up his team in their usual 4-3-3 formation whereas Graham Potter opted for a 4-3-2-1 shape for Brighton.
Brighton started the game looking good but their strategy also played into Liverpool’s hands. They tried to play through Liverpool’s press and generally succeeded, passing out to their centre-backs to encourage Liverpool’s forwards to chase them down then out to that side’s full-back to get one of the midfielders to step up, before switching the ball out to the opposite flank, catching Liverpool on one side of the pitch.
Brighton also stretched Liverpool vertically. Davy Propper and Aaron Mooy took it in turns dropping in alongside Dale Stephens, positioning themselves either side of Roberto Firmino so that he couldn’t block the pass into both of them, while the centre-backs were confident enough to dribble with the ball, encouraging Liverpool’s attackers to close them down. When Liverpool’s attackers pressed, Liverpool’s midfielders were put in an awkward position: don’t push up behind the forwards and Stephens and whoever partnered him could receive the ball freely, but if they did push up they left space behind them for Pascal Gross and Yves Bissouma to exploit.
If the Brighton full-backs had the ball out wide, one of Gross and Bissouma would usually move out to the wing to offer an easy pass down the line and bait Jordan Henderson into moving wide to cover, while the other stayed inside and Aaron Connolly looked to run in behind. As the midfielders also had to move wide to close down the full-backs, three men were having to cover seven Brighton players, so Liverpool’s full-backs would often adjust their positions to help out.
Nevertheless, for the most part the midfield coped well. Brighton would frequently pass around Liverpool’s first wave of pressure and work the ball forward down the opposite flank, then really struggle to pull off that final pass into the attackers. Rather than panicking at the switch of play and immediately sprinting out to close down the man on the ball, Liverpool’s midfielders would move across while doing their best to block the forward passes into the centre, slowing down Brighton and allowing their teammates to get back into position.
Brighton’s patient passing play meant that they would move up the pitch as a team, often pushing quite a lot of men into Liverpool’s half. They pulled off some nice passing moves, yet it meant that when Liverpool won the ball back the home side could quickly counter, with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino all racing at a backline whose full-backs were often caught in Liverpool’s half.
While the 4-3-2-1 shape allowed Brighton to stretch Liverpool vertically when they had the ball, it didn’t offer great defensive width. This became important quickly as Liverpool were more aggressive offensively than they have been recently. Pushing Andy Robertson high on the left flank, Mane would tuck inside with Firmino while Salah stayed on the outside of Dan Burn. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and occasionally Georginio Wijnaldum also pushing forward in support, Liverpool could easily outnumber and stretch Brighton’s back four, with their defenders frequently playing quick diagonal balls from deep under little pressure from Brighton’s forwards.
Liverpool looked at their best when Henderson would drop in between the centre-backs. He struggles to do much with the ball when he receives it with his back to play anyway and as Gross would try to shadow him when he was in midfield, dropping deeper allowed him greater freedom. This also allowed the centre-backs to spread out across the pitch, making it easier for the team to switch sides easily, but, most importantly, the extra cover of Henderson allowed Trent Alexander-Arnold to venture forward.
Liverpool could attack down the left, dragging Brighton across with them, then switch the ball to the right. Salah would often make a run inside as the ball was played, dragging Burn with him, so Alexander-Arnold would receive the ball with the freedom of the right flank, allowing him to pick out one of his inch-perfect crosses to the flood of Liverpool players swarming the box. This only happened a few times though, as generally Alexander-Arnold was kept back while Robertson bombed forward.
Although they were looking quite good in open play, Liverpool ended up taking a healthy lead through two set pieces: Van Dijk heading home twice. The Dutchman stood offside for a free-kick, becoming onside as Brighton’s players ran into the box to defend the cross, so his marker Adam Webster never had a great idea of where he was. For the second, he simply sprinted towards the near post faster than Lewis Dunk – his marker never really getting a grip of him.
Although it had been a fairly even first half, the comfortable lead meant Liverpool dominated the majority of the second. The defence would drop off and spread out across the pitch and pass the ball amongst themselves. Brighton needed to chase them to win back the ball if they were to have any chance of getting back into the game, and when they did, Liverpool took advantage of the space they left behind them with quick, direct attacks.
It looked like Liverpool would simply run down the clock toying with Brighton until Alisson Becker got caught in two minds rushing out to sweep behind his defensive line and was sent off for handling the ball outside the box. Brighton then scored from the resulting free-kick while replacement Adrian was organising his wall.
The momentum switched on its head as Liverpool sat back in two banks of four to protect their lead. Brighton pushed men forward and stretched Liverpool’s defence with their widemen, while sticking to their passing game rather than pumping aimless balls into the box. Liverpool defended well though and held out comfortably.
Liverpool keep insisting on making games hard for themselves, but this was one of their better recent perfomances, helped in part by the way Brighton opted to play. Potter’s got his side playing some good football, however the open approach to the game played into the hands of a Liverpool team who pose an incredible threat on the counter.