Balotelli 85′ (pen)
Mario Balotelli’s late penalty forced the advantage Liverpool’s way in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 32 against a defensive Besiktas at Anfield. Liverpool excelled in the wide areas, with wingbacks Alberto Moreno and the particularly impressive Jordon Ibe, and restricted the Turkish Super Lig leaders to a measured approach which relied heavily on counter-attacks.
Brendan Rodgers set his Liverpool side in a familiar-looking 3-4-3 setup, but gambled with a featherweight midfield in the absence of captain Steven Gerrard. Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho lined up on either side of Daniel Sturridge; the three stacked up in a positionally fluid front three which resulted in Lallana often finding himself furthest forward in certain first half spells when Sturridge dropped off.
Slaven Bilic never won at Anfield during his playing days at West Ham and Everton, and seemed to be in no mood to alter history when he set his team to hustle out a favorable result to take home. Besiktas lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot which really was a waste of a man, while Demba Ba was often isolated up front while his support cast (Gokhan Tore and Olcay Sahan, the wide men in a trapezoidal midfield) was kept busy by the Liverpool wide men.
Both Liverpool and Besiktas had a stark similarity in their defensive thirds. The fact that both managers went with a lone striker meant that there was always a numerical advantage for the defending side on either end of the pitch. Liverpool had it relatively easy with only Demba Ba to mark, and Jose Sosa offering little in the way of a proper attacking threat. Sosa failed to impose himself and lacked the work-rate often demanded by teams playing on the counter. Consequently, he became the first player to be subbed off.
Similarly for Liverpool, Sturridge was the lone man up front and this meant that Besiktas too had a spare center-back to cover for the man on Sturridge. Liverpool missed Raheem Sterling’s direct runs, and the fact that Coutinho and Lallana’s lateral movements often required dodging the deep-lying Besiktas central midfielders made it easier for the Turks.
Besiktas’ double pivot of captain Veli Kavlak and Atiba Hutchinson sat right in front of their two center-backs, allowing Liverpool little space behind the lines centrally but this offered more pitch space for their wingbacks. As a direct result, both Ibe and Moreno shone, as Liverpool dominated the flanks. Lallana worked around the right halfspace, often becoming the link between Allen/Henderson and Ibe. Liverpool thrived in the wide areas, and this was to become their theme of the night.
Liverpool exploit the wings
Liverpool had a distinct advantage against Besiktas’ midfield trapezoid with their wingbacks. Gokhan Tore on the right and Olcay Sahan on the left were the wide midfielders/wingers for Besiktas and both played on their less-favored side. Bilic had his wingers inverted in a bid to put brakes on Liverpool’s wingbacks, but with little possession in their attacking half the move backfired spectacularly for the visitors. Ibe and Moreno found themselves bisecting Besiktas’ flanks; their full-backs didn’t push up to press and once Ibe and Moreno saw their markers’ backs they had a numerical advantage over the full-backs with Coutinho and Lallana in the halfspaces.
Jordon Ibe was impressive throughout; he dribbled with pace and took on his direct opponents with his youthful exuberance. He was involved in most of the Liverpool attacks, and earned the penalty which won the match. He made a bad night worse for the Besiktas left-back Ramon Motta who will now miss the second leg through suspension. Ibe was a live-wire on Liverpool’s right; he created 3 chances and had 11 take-ons (10 successful).
Substitutions and Liverpool’s Plan B
Besiktas made like-for-like replacements for the out-of-sorts duo Sosa and Sahan, and they had good reasons to have fresher legs against Liverpool’s energetic wide approach as the deadlock had yet to be broken. The game-changing substitutions were made by Rodgers, who clearly has now found his Plan B- altering Sturridge’s support. Coutinho and Lallana linked up well without ever looking threatening, and their replacements Balotelli and Sterling offered a different dimension to Liverpool’s attacks as the visitors looked to have frustrated the home crowd,
Balotelli was all action in his cameo, drawing fouls and making a nuisance with his physicality. This allowed Sturridge to play off the Italian which worked the Besiktas back four even more. Liverpool looked a more potent attacking force in the latter stages of the match, thanks to the pacey Sterling and Sturridge and Henderson pulling strings. Balotelli eventually scored the winner, but embarrassed his employers with the way he made a meal off the whole incident.
The game wasn’t a classic by any means but Liverpool and Jordon Ibe had their just rewards. Besiktas remained content with the 0-0 scoreline, and would’ve had the perfect away performance had Ba scored in a one-on-one with Mignolet. Instead Mignolet saved Ba’s shot, and they now return to Turkey with two suspensions to deal with. Rodgers’ proactive approach paid off well on the night; he had much to thank Ibe and Moreno for. There wasn’t any tactical masterclasses, but the way Besiktas went about their job on the night played directly into Liverpool’s hands. The visitors congested space down the middle, which opened up the wider areas. As of now, the tie remains finely poised for the return leg in a week’s time at the Ataturk Stadium.
– Stats and figures from Squawka
– Starting XIs created using Tactics Creator
– Featured image courtesy of This Is Anfield