Looking to bounce back from a 3-0 loss to Burnley, Southampton hosted European champions Liverpool at St Mary’s. Liverpool have had better luck with their results, however Chelsea taking them to extra time in their European Super Cup win means they had played another 120 minutes in the time Southampton were preparing for this match.
Ralph Hasenhuttl set up his team in a 3-5-2 shape, while Jurgen Klopp continued with Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 formation, reuniting his forward trio and bringing Trent Alexander-Arnold and Georginio Wijnaldum back into the starting eleven after substitute appearances in mid-week.
Liverpool were on the front foot in the opening stages of the match. Their attacking revolved around their right side. If Alexander-Arnold was given any space, he would immediately look up and swing in a cross, but if Ryan Bertrand closed him down, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, moved back into midfield after an ineffective half in attack on Wednesday, would make a run in behind the left wing-back, forcing one of Southampton’s centre-backs out to the flank to deal with him. Southampton’s back five meant they had plenty of cover so this wasn’t necessarily stretching them, and Alexander-Arnold wasn’t quite finding his range yet, but Liverpool did pose an early threat.
Southampton soon took control of the match though, dominating the first half. Rather than engage Liverpool high up the pitch, they sat off in a mid-block and let the Reds come forward. Their narrow midfield band of three meant Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson had plenty of space, yet the back five meant that they had plenty of defensive cover around the penalty area, meaning there was alway someone on hand to nip in and defend. Oriol Romeu also battled well in midfield, often coming away with the ball in challenges.
As soon as they recovered the ball, Southampton immediately pumped it forward. This rendered Liverpool’s counter-pressing completely ineffective, as the ball was being plowed away over their heads before they could even get close. More importantly though, it was catching out Liverpool’s high line.
Liverpool’s defence has looked shaky so far this season, yet Southampton’s success wasn’t the result of lackadaisical defending as Norwich’s and to some extent Chelsea‘s had been. The away side’s back four looked sharper, dropping off quickly and in sync with one another, however Southampton were picking out some superb passes and the pace of Nathan Redmond would be a threat to any high line, regardless of how well-drilled it is.
Even if Liverpool’s defenders got to the ball first, Southampton’s forwards, with James Ward-Prowse also stepping up to support them, were pressing them intensely, meaning they couldn’t easily turn out and play a pass forward. They were either having to boot the ball out for a corner or throw-in or pass back to Adrian, who seems relatively calm in possession, making him a more suitable understudy to Alisson Becker than Simon Mignolet was, but lacks the Brazilian’s ability to pick out a pass.
Southampton were managing to pin Liverpool back in their half, either with passes in behind, forcing the ball out of play for a set-piece, or forcing the ball back to the goalkeeper and then winning his hoofs forward in midfield.
Constantly being forced backwards, Liverpool were struggling to create any chances, yet they were the ones who went in at half-time with the lead. In stoppage time, Roberto Firmino managed to block one of the Southampton clearances and the resulting attack was eventually forced out for a throw-in. A neat little combination between Liverpool’s players on the left saw the ball end up at Sadio Mane’s feet just outside the box. With five defenders for cover, Southampton usually left Liverpool’s forwards with very little space to work in, although in this instance, the runs behind of both Robertson and James Milner appear to make Jan Bednarek reluctant to step out of the defensive line to confront Mane. The former Southampton forward seized the opportunity, cutting inside and rifling a shot inside the far post before Bednarek or Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, coming across to cover, could stop him.
The game flipped on its head in the second half, with Liverpool now in complete control. Southampton’s strategy of sitting off no longer worked as Liverpool were content to just keep possession without really making an effort to attack. Once Southampton finally caved, closing them down to try and get the ball back, Liverpool would burst into the space they left. Southampton’s attacking strategy no longer worked either, as Liverpool happily sat deeper, meaning there wasn’t the space to attack behind them – the long punts forward would be collected by a Liverpool defender long before Redmond could run onto them.
Hasenhuttl changed things mid-way through the half, bringing on Danny Ings for Romeu. This briefly changed Southampton to a 3-4-3 shape and made it possible for them to effectively press Liverpool’s backline, which made it look like they might get back into the game. However as this shape left only two men in the middle, if Liverpool managed to play around Southampton’s pressing, they could cut straight through the Saints. After Liverpool went from back to front in a few seconds and Firmino narrowly slid a shot wide, Hasenhuttl quickly reverted to the 3-5-2, bringing on Stuart Armstrong for Che Adams.
Southampton had started trying to play out from the back when it became clear their quick punts forward were just giving the ball straight back to a Liverpool team who were now only looking to toy with them, playing keep-away. This backfired though, as it made Liverpool’s pressing a possibility again. Mane put Bednarak under pressure deep in his own half and the Pole stumbled, gifting Mane the ball, who played it inside for Firmino to finish.
Like Mane, Ings got a goal against his previous club. Virgil van Dijk passed the ball back to Adrian and, as Ings chased him down, Adrian calmly took a touch then proceeded to smack the ball directly into the feet of Ings, and the ball rebounded into the net behind him. Seeing it from a different angle, it’s not quite as glaring a mistake as it first looks: Adrian is clearly shaping to pass out to the right, hoping to trick Ings into adjusting his run so that he can pass to his true target, Fabinho. Ings is on top of him too fast though, enabling the striker to close off the angle into Fabinho so the ball falls right at his feet.
It’s similar to Alisson’s blunder against Leicester, where none of the defenders move to provide an easy pass out for the goalkeeper. However, the responsibility still falls on the keeper’s shoulders: if none of the defenders make themselves available for a pass, smack the ball up the field and yell at them for not doing their jobs. It’s the kind of mistake a keeper rarely makes twice.
With Liverpool sitting back, Southampton had been getting back into the game more and more even before their goal – their wing-backs able to get forward and stretch Liverpool’s defence without having to worry as much about being punished by Liverpool’s attackers on the counter. Liverpool managed to hold out to claim another three points though.
It was a similar Liverpool performance to what we saw many times last season: Liverpool didn’t look great, struggling to create, and yet they came away with the win thanks to the individual quality of their players, shown perfectly by Mane’s goal, and a pressing system that punishes any mistake brutally, shown perfectly by Firmino’s.