(Coutinho 3′, Sterling 73′)
Liverpool gained ground on the Champions League places as they saw off high-flying Southampton on a wet night at St Mary’s. Neither team looked odds-on to score; Southampton had more possession but lacked the edge up-front with the off-color Graziano Pelle while Liverpool rode on the back of a confident defence and based their game mainly on counter-attacks.
Ronald Koeman’s Southampton lined up in a typical 4-2-3-1; two defensive midfielders Steven Davies and Victor Wanyama providing the ballast for the front four of Eljero Elia, Filip Djuricic, James Ward-Prowse and Pelle. The Saints’ front midfield oriented mainly to the left (Elia’s side) while new signing Djuricic played in the inside right channel with right-back Nathaniel Clyne overlapping along the right touchline.
Liverpool were a predictable 3-4-2-1, but had changes in personnel. They had a reshuffled back three with Emre Can filling in for Mamadou Sakho on the left of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren on his right. Lazar Markovic replaced Alberto Moreno as the left wingback, but his unfamiliarity with the role meant that Markovic made positional errors and lacked understanding with the center-back on his side, Can. Raheem Sterling was at the tip of the 3-4-2-1.
Southampton attack Liverpool’s wingbacks
Liverpool in their 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 system have concentrated their game more through the wide areas, and pacey wingbacks are an integral part of the system. In the attacking third, they basically pull the opposition full-backs towards their wingbacks and prevent their opponents from creating 2v1 situations in the center, thus allowing the likes of Coutinho to flourish. But Southampton’s pressing game and Clyne’s energy on the right meant that Markovic found little space to run into channels and combine with Coutinho.
Southampton’s front of midfield had a slightly asymmetrical look to it. Elia on the left slotted into the pocket behind Liverpool’s right wingback Jordon Ibe, and generally found himself in promising areas down the left flank. That Elia found space behind Ibe often caught Lovren in a dilemma: whether to commit himself or hold his position. Thankfully for the Reds, Skrtel had an expert eye on Pelle and Ward-Prowse’s lack of presence in the Zone 14 and propensity to pass wide meant that the Saints did not convert their advantage into a goal.
On the other side, Clyne and Djuricic often overloaded Markovic with their combination play. Markovic, as the false defender that he is, struggled with the pace of Southampton attacks and frequently found himself tracking back to Clyne’s runs. Can, too, struggled against the movement of Djuricic. After conceding the first goal, Southampton generally moved higher as Liverpool dropped yards and this made Markovic look particularly woeful. He lacked invention whenever he had the ball, often cutting back and moving the ball sideways or backwards- very untypical of a wingback.
Liverpool’s zonal press
Surprisingly though, Liverpool’s high-intensity pressing game was missing; understandable considering their European exertions in the week. Instead they employed a zonal pressing system that focused on creating overloads along the wings, and counter-attacking whenever they recovered the ball in Southampton’s half. Through the central areas, Liverpool hardly pressed which allowed plenty of time on the ball for Wanyama and Davies.
Lallana on the inside right and Coutinho on the inside left led Liverpool’s zonal press that involved the touchline as a false defender. The Reds had combinations of four on either flank whenever Southampton looked to build-up through the wings. Sterling, Lallana, Henderson and Ibe on the right and Sterling, Coutinho, Allen and Markovic on the left converged on the ball but Southampton generally had a spare man to recycle the ball which meant that Liverpool’s counter-pressing was ineffective. Once they led, Liverpool were content to sit back and hit on the break, but this needed better midfield passers than Allen and Henderson.
Both sides made changes after the half-time break, and Brendan Rodgers once again came out trumps with his Markovic substitution. Moreno is predominantly left-footed which makes him a better fit on the left. And the fact that Liverpool were effectively defending after their early goal required more safety on the sides, and Moreno is a left-back by trade. A masterful interpretation of Markovic’s difficulties in the first half against Clyne by Rodgers.
Southampton changed little after Morgan Schneiderlin came on at half-time. They retained their shape throughout, and only after Sadio Mane’s introduction that they changed their overall approach. Pelle had an off-day by his standards; Southampton found little joy in forward combinations involving the Italian (Skrtel was pivotal for Liverpool here) and swung hopeful crosses from the wings. Mane was brought on for more direct runs behind the center-backs which Pelle fails to do as a target man.
Southampton’s extra playmaker
Southampton lost the initiative early doors when they conceded the goal but they gradually came back into the game, thanks in part to Liverpool’s waiting game. The two center-backs, Jose Fonte and Maya Yoshida, pushed higher up the pitch as the game progressed. Liverpool’s negligible pressure on the ball in the Southampton half in central areas meant that the two center-backs were allowed to carry the ball fairly easily. Liverpool’s lack of a defensive midfielder was evident as the Saints easily bypassed their midfield line and found players in space between the lines.
Southampton encountered little resistance in their phase I; often Fonte carried the ball into Liverpool’s half. Henderson and Allen kept distance from their center-backs, a move primarily made so that Liverpool could be quicker in their attacking transitions. This meant that Southampton, and Ward-Prowse particularly, found enough space between the lines. It was disappointing that the Saints had too little to offer in their attacking phase III after promising situations in phases I and II.
Fonte and Yoshida recovered possession pretty high up the pitch, and Fonte often started Southampton’s moves. Yoshida, too, passed the ball whenever possible to Fonte (Yoshida to Fonte was the game’s highest pass combination), allowing the Portuguese to find the midfielders ahead of him. Too often in the first half, Markovic stuck tight to Clyne while Allen remained too central and lost Ward-Prowse, who was excellent with his movements. Ward-Prowse found himself behind Liverpool’s midfield in space and time but Fonte, for the defender that he is, continually chose the wrong pass or the wrong option. Southampton, again, failed to capitalize on an obvious advantage.
Liverpool were perhaps lucky to come away with all three points in a soggy St Mary’s, but Southampton had themselves to blame for failing to score for the third straight home game. Martin Skrtel’s contribution in pinning down Pelle was significant as was the decision to get rid of Markovic in the second half. The Saints offered plenty of promise but suffered from a general lack of goalscoring threat. They were excellent in the wide areas (particularly Elia and Clyne) but Liverpool’s clinical efficiency saw them through. Liverpool’s fifth successive clean sheet on the road was one of the many important statistics from the game.
– Starting XIs made using Tactics Creator