Just 20 hours after a weakened Aston Villa side and a weakened Liverpool youth side tried to kill off the League Cup for good in what actually turned out to be an entertaining match, a weakened Liverpool side kicked off their Club World Cup campaign against Monterrey.
Changing back to Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation after using a 4-2-3-1 in their win over Watford, Jurgen Klopp also made numerous personnel changes: James Milner and Jordan Henderson joined Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson in a makeshift back four, Adam Lallana, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain formed an attacking midfield trio, while Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were rested, giving Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi starts alongside Mohamed Salah. Antonio Mohamed instead opted for a 3-4-3 shape for his Monterrey side.
Unsurprisingly given the gulf in quality between the two teams, Monterrey’s set-up was primarily intended to be defensive. They would retreat towards the half-way line, but they did look to engage Liverpool once the Reds entered their half. Little pressure was put on Liverpool’s centre-backs, or full-backs if they dropped deep, yet the rest of the team was closely tracked. Adam Lallana was often left free in the opening stages of the match but even he soon began to be followed, with Rodolfo Pizarro usually the one to get tight to him, killing off much of the early control in possession Liverpool had.
This close marking made it very difficult for Liverpool to play through the midfield. Klopp’s choice of very technical midfielders seemed perfect on paper to combat this close marking but in practice it didn’t work. The Liverpool defenders were reluctant to play passes into midfielders that had opponents breathing down their necks, even if they did it was difficult for them to turn out and do anything with possession due to the aforementioned players breathing down their necks, and, even if they managed to evade this pressure, all their passing options also had someone breathing down their necks, repeating the same problem. This defensive set-up from Monterrey meant that while Liverpool had plenty of possession, they were finding it very difficult to build up any kind of tempo and advance the ball.
Given their centre-backs had plenty of time on the ball, Liverpool’s usual solution to this pressure in midfield would be to simply hit long balls over the top for their forwards to chase. However, this also didn’t work against Monterrey, because, while Monterrey’s midfield would push up quite high, their defence wouldn’t move up behind them, staying deep so that there was little space behind the backline for the long balls to be played into.
If Monterrey’s midfielders pushed high and their defenders stayed deep, then the logical response was to use the space that opened up between the midfield and defensive lines. Monterrey’s man-marking could also be used against them to achieve this: if they insisted in following Liverpool’s midfielders everywhere, those Liverpool midfielders could split into positions that left big gaps between them, allowing the centre-backs to pass through those gaps into the feet of the forwards. Both Salah and Shaqiri proved excellent at getting into positions to receive the ball, with the Swiss roaming across the width of the pitch and the Egyptian always making runs to maintain a passing angle from the right flank.
Nevertheless, Monterrey had a solution to that too. Their defenders would also look to get tight and follow their men. This meant that they frequently left gaps in the backline, but with five defenders, one of whom was generally a spare man, they were generally able to cover these gaps well, and the Liverpool attackers found it difficult to turn and exploit these gaps with a defender so close (and often willing to clatter through the back of them if they looked too dangerous).
While their defending was clearly based on the positioning of Liverpool’s players, Monterrey were also very good at realising when Liverpool had outsmarted their pressure. If Liverpool managed to get the ball into a dangerous area, the players would generally all look to race back and take up defensive positions. This meant that even when Liverpool did manage to break through, they would still have to work the ball past seven or eight players.
This gave Liverpool more space in deeper areas to use, although the problem of how to break down such a heavy number of defenders remained.
Despite Monterrey’s solid defending, Liverpool did take the lead. It was partially an exploitation of Monterrey’s man-marking, but mainly brilliance by Salah. Monterrey’s preoccupation with Liverpool’s midfielders left space for Milner to play a pass through into the feet of Salah, who had Nicolas Sanchez tight to his back. The Egyptian held off Sanchez as Keita made an untracked run through the centre of the defence, taking advantage of the gaps created by the likes of Sanchez stepping out of the defensive line to follow attackers. Spare man Cesar Montes picked him up though, seemingly killing off any advantage Liverpool had gained. The quality of Salah kept the attack alive though: despite the pressure of Sanchez, he turned and fired a through ball into the box, down the blindside of Montes. This pass required Montes to turn 180° to deal with it, giving Keita the momentum to nip in behind the centre-back, get to the ball first and finish.
Although their goal was a bit haphazard, Monterrey did pose a threat to Liverpool in open play. They tried to catch Liverpool on the counter, getting four men running at Liverpool’s backline as soon as possible. This was another benefit of the man-orientated defensive system: sticking so close to their opposite number put them in a good position to sprint straight in behind them once Monterrey recovered the ball, whereas a more zonal system probably would have seen them constantly camped out on the edge of their box.
Milner’s lack of pace means he’s always going to struggle to make up ground on a counter-attack and, while Henderson put in a decent effort in a tough spot, it was obvious that he isn’t a natural centre-back. For example, he was caught square a few times as Monterrey looked to play a pass in behind. This body shape is fine in midfield, as the main impetus is on blocking the pass into the forward while the centre-back deals with anything played in front of the attack, but, as a centre-back, Henderson was that last line of defence, so it simply allowed attackers to run in behind him.
As it looked like the match was heading to extra time, adding yet more minutes to Liverpool’s hectic schedule, Klopp made attacking changes but kept the system the same. Out went Shaqiri, Milner and Origi, in came Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Firmino.
Any potential embarrassment was averted as the game headed into injury time thanks to the individual brilliance of Liverpool’s players. First Salah raced in behind with the drop of a shoulder, managed to keep hold of the ball surrounded by two defenders, then offloaded it to Alexander-Arnold. The young Scouser had the vision to spot a potential cross that’s difficult to notice even retrospectively, nevermind in the dying moments of a tough game. That cross span perfectly through the gap between three players, an inch or so either way enough for a defender to cut it out, onto the run of Firmino, who gently prodded the ball past Marcelo Barovero.
Another dubious performance by Liverpool, saved by the fact that they have some of the most talented players in the world, keeping their hopes of being crowned the official best team on the planet alive for Saturday.