On course to win their first league title in thirty years, the FA Cup isn’t exactly a top priority for Liverpool this season.
Jurgen Klopp made a host of changes to the team that beat Wolverhampton Wanderers, but put out an arguably stronger team than he had against Everton in the previous round, with Fabinho, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren all getting minutes as they return from injury. They lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation.
League One side Shrewsbury had the opportunity to take a big scalp, welcoming the world champions to Montgomery Waters Meadow. Sam Ricketts set up his team in a 3-5-2 shape.
Unsurprisingly given the gulf between the two teams, Shrewsbury’s set-up was primarily defensive. They didn’t press high up the pitch, instead retreating into their own half and sitting back in a 5-3-2 shape. This ensured they had plenty of men through the middle, allowing them to congest the centre where Takumi Minamino was dropping off, Divock Origi and to a lesser extent Harvey Elliott were tucking inside and Curtis Jones was pushing forward. They also did a good job of making use of the more lenient refereeing that accompanies FA Cup ties against Premier League opposition – leaving a foot or elbow in to just make things uncomfortable for Liverpool without going too far and giving away a foul, enabling them to break up Liverpool’s rhythm.
As the centre was blocked, Liverpool inevitably went wide. Shrewsbury would shift across to limit space for the full-backs to advance but they didn’t really close them down, instead focussing on blocking the passes inside. This worked down their right as Yasser Larouci would either try to continue forward or inside or pass backwards, but on their left Neco Williams was happy to use this space to whip dangerous crosses into the box. One of these crosses was finished off at the start of the second half, albeit by a Shrewsbury player – Donald Love calmly poking it into his own net.
Liverpool’s midfield was balanced better than it had been against Everton. Pedro Chirivella had started at the base of the midfield in that game, however here he was in the place of Adam Lallana. This slightly higher starting position meant the Spaniard saw a bit less of the ball than he did against Everton, but he was happy to drop back alongside Fabinho, giving Jones more freedom to do what he’s good at, pushing forward to join the attack in the knowledge that the pair were protecting behind him.
Despite their defensive set-up, Shrewsbury conceded early and easily, pushing men forward for a throw-in then getting caught out on the counter as they slowly retreated. Chirivella slid a beautiful through ball in behind for Jones to add another goal to his FA Cup run.
Although understandable, this strategy had ceded all the control to Liverpool and hadn’t even worked. Shrewsbury were sitting back to defend then trying to catch Liverpool out with long balls forward, only to continually get caught offside by Liverpool’s high line.
About half-way through the first half, the momentum began to swing in Shrewsbury’s direction despite them changing little. Rather than trying to hit long balls in behind, they started to aim these long balls towards their strikers. Chirivella and Jones would push forward to press but they were slow to track back if the ball went over the top of them, meaning that when Matip and Lovren headed these long balls away, Fabinho was often left alone to compete for the second balls. This enabled Shrewsbury to pick up the ball right in front of the defence and quickly attack Liverpool’s goal, with Adrian being called into action more frequently than Max O’Leary despite Liverpool dominating possession.
Desperately needing goals, Shrewsbury pushed up and pressed Liverpool high up the pitch in the second half. Liverpool still found themselves able to play around this pressure, with Fabinho frequently dropping into the backline to form a makeshift back three, however none of those three players looked anything close to match fit. They were slow to turn and recover when defending and extremely sloppy with the ball, taking terrible touches or misplacing passes throughout the match.
Shrewsbury had let them off the hook in the first half by sitting back and giving them time on the ball, only really troubling them when they won those second balls. However, the pressing in the second half meant that Shrewsbury were forcing Matip, Lovren and Fabinho into playing quicker and putting themselves in better positions to take advantage of any mistakes.
Shrewsbury won a penalty after Fabinho gave the ball away near the touchline, forcing Larouci to come across and unsuccessfully try to cover. Soon after they were on level terms: Matip lost a header from a long ball and Lovren missed the clearance, enabling substitute Jason Cummings to grab a second.
Klopp threw on his first-teamers in an attempt to steal another late goal – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino all making late appearances – but if anything Shrewsbury continued to look the likelier to score.
It was a terrible performance by Liverpool. Lovren, Matip and Fabinho all need minutes to get back up to speed but playing them together like this backfired horribly. Against Everton, Liverpool’s youngsters were able to make up for their naivety with hard running, yet here Liverpool looked lethargic and static. Although a replay adds an unwanted fixture to Liverpool’s busy schedule, it should serve as a timely reminder against complacency for the Reds.
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