A draw in their penultimate game against Napoli left Liverpool in need of a result in their trip to Salzburg to confirm their place in the last sixteen of the Champions League.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mane all returned to the starting line-up after missing out against Bournemouth, with the Senegalese and Naby Keita returning to their former club. Jurgen Klopp continued with Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation while Jesse Marsch set up his Red Bull Salzburg side in a 4-3-1-2 shape.
Salzburg came out and immediately looked to scare Liverpool, starting very intensely and creating two chances in the opening minute. Their attacking was very direct: as soon as they got the ball, they would immediately look to slide a ball through or over the top for their strikers to chase in behind the Liverpool defence. The two forwards would often split and look to position themselves between the centre-backs and full-backs, tying up all of Liverpool’s backline, while Takumi Minamino would also make runs to join them. All three timed their runs well, posing problems for Liverpool’s offside trap.
These direct attacks were complimented by Salzburg outnumbering Liverpool in the middle. With four midfielders and Hwang Hee-Chan also often dropping back between the lines, Liverpool’s midfield trio found it difficult to cover everyone. If Jordan Henderson didn’t push forward to join Keita and Wijnaldum, one of the deeper Salzburg midfielders would go free, leaving a spare man to pick up the ball and play forward. If Henderson did go forward though, this would leave Minamino or Hwang in space between the lines.
This numerical superiority in the midfield was also ideal for winning the second balls from these direct passes – typically Liverpool’s bread and butter – as they could swarm the dropping ball.
Many of Salzburg’s long balls came from wide areas, as the outside midfielders in Liverpool’s 4-3-3 would move wide to cover the flanks, leaving only two inside to compete for the second ball. This meant that even when Liverpool’s defenders cut out the passes into the forwards, Salzburg could immediately regroup and attack again. The directness of these attacks also meant that Salzburg’s full-backs rarely had to venture forward, ensuring they had four men back to defend against Liverpool’s dangerous attacking trio.
Salzburg also pressed intensely from the off, getting up tight to the centre-backs, full-backs and Henderson and chasing down Alisson Becker to stop Liverpool from playing out.
Liverpool reacted to this aggressive Salzburg strategy with great maturity though. While Salzburg’s narrow midfield gave them an advantage through the centre, it left them short on the flanks, so rather than giving in to the chaos and turning the match into a mad pressing battle with Salzburg, Liverpool spent the majority of the first half simply switching play from flank to flank, forcing Salzburg’s midfielders to run from one side of the pitch to the other and then back again.
Much like Liverpool’s system, Salzburg’s had the outside midfielders move out to close down the full-backs while the other two shifted across to cover behind him, bringing them all over to one side of the pitch. As Liverpool were continually switching the ball from flank to flank, Salzburg were continually having to cover the entire width of the pitch. Sometimes the full-backs would step out to save the midfielders having to cover all that distance, but that would leave the backline three-against-three – a significant risk against the likes of Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
It’s a typical Liverpool tactic explained well by Alexander-Arnold: “The reason me and Robbo switch the ball across the field that much is because as full-backs you understand how it feels when teams do that so quickly to you. Having to shift so much is exhausting. There is so much running involved, an extra 30 or 40 yards to try and close it down. It creates space. That’s the idea.” Teams such as Tottenham Hotspur have used a five man midfield this season specifically to limit this space for Liverpool’s full-backs but Salzburg used only three and it took its toll – by the end of the first half, some of the midfielders appeared to have gassed out already, barely tracking back for a Liverpool counter-attack.
Liverpool also countered this pressure by having a midfielder drop back into the backline. As he was rarely followed this made it much easier for Liverpool to find a free man and play out from the back. Add in the fact that Minamino wasn’t particularly quick to shift across and Firmino would often drop off the frontline and Liverpool frequently managed to get a man free in midfield. Salzburg’s intensity likely wasn’t intended to be sustainable anyway, more an attempt to blitz Liverpool before they had got going, so after about fifteen minutes, Salzburg started to drop off rather than chasing after Alisson and the centre-backs.
At half-time, Klopp changed to a 4-2-3-1. Wijnaldum moved back alongside Henderson, allowing the two of them to keep tabs on Minamino, while Keita moved up next to Firmino and Mane to go against the deeper midfielders, and Salah looked to constantly run in behind the Salzburg defence. As well as giving Liverpool better coverage defensively, the 4-2-3-1 also improved Liverpool’s attacking, as it also had against Napoli, by adding an extra technical creative man to the frontline. A switch of play and a cut-back saw Keita give Liverpool the lead.
Salah then doubled Liverpool’s lead a minute later. He chased after a long ball in behind, panicking Jérôme Onguéné into a misjudged header back to his keeper. Salah was first to the ball though and rounded Cican Stankovic before finishing from an angle that would be impossible for lesser players.
Salzburg looked exhausted and were unable to really offer anything in the way of a response as Liverpool held out to win.
The match would have probably looked drastically different if Salzburg had managed to convert one of their flurry of chances at the start of the game, yet Liverpool weathered the storm and ended up comfortable winners without really kicking up a gear. What’s more, Klopp changed things up when he didn’t really have to – the German has often left things as they are when Liverpool haven’t looked their best but are doing enough to get by, however here he made changes that allowed Liverpool to dominate the game.