Premier League, August 20 2018
Milner (45 pen)
Liverpool followed up on their resounding home win over West Ham on the opening weekend of the Premier League campaign with a confident victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. The Eagles have proved tricky opposition in recent seasons for teams battling at the top of the table, so Jurgen Klopp was delighted by the determination of his players who, despite not being at their attacking best, still came away with the three points. James Milner opened the scoring just before half-time, becoming the first player to score eight consecutive Premier League goals from the penalty spot following a foul by Mamadou Sakho on Mo Salah. Roy Hodgson’s troops worked tirelessly against a team many expect to be Manchester City’s closest title challengers this season, and came close when Andros Townsend curled an effort on to the bar. But there was little hope of a revival after the dismissal of Aaron Wan-Bissaka with 15 minutes remaining, and Sadio Mane went on to wrap up the points in injury time.
6 / 1
SHOTS / ON TARGET
17 / 6
Passes / Accurate
7 / 1 / 1
Fouls / Yellow / Red
12 / 1 / 0
Crystal Palace set up in the same 4-4-2 structure used in their victory over Fulham on the opening weekend of the Premier League season. Their in-possession structure looked more like a 4-2-4 or even a 2-4-4, as the full-backs joined the deep central-midfield pairing of Luka Milivojevic and James McArthur on the second line. Given the threat posed by Liverpool forwards Sadio Mane and Mo Salah in behind and through the spaces between their full-backs and centre-backs, this was a risky ploy.
The front four of Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke, Andros Townsend and Jeffrey Schlupp displayed a definite element of fluidity to their game – there were several instances when the two centre forwards, Zaha and Benteke, would split wide while Townsend and Schlupp moved inside. It was also fairly common for this quartet to play narrow, which then triggered one of the full-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Patrick van Aanholt, to surge forward and provide an outlet in wide areas.
They tended to rely on the pace and power of Zaha and Benteke to trouble their opponents’ defence, but on occasion would attempt to play their way out from the back. McArthur and Milivojevic, however, too often received in positions that offered only a backwards pass; as a result, they rarely bypassed Liverpool’s press in this way.
On the few instances they did enjoy success in building from deep, the position of Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins, the two centre-backs, was key. If the pair played on a different vertical line to their central midfielders, one of Liverpool’s midfield three would close down Milivojevic or McArthur. From here, the midfielder in possession had the opportunity to set the ball back to their defenders for a penetrative pass through the newly formed passing channel.
Palace formed a rigid 4-4-2 mid-block structure out of possession, and tried to ensure they had consistent vertical and horizontal compactness. They were content in allowing their opponents to have the ball in front of them – and Liverpool had to play with patience. When Alexander Sorloth replaced Benteke in the 70th minute, they tended to show the Reds to one side of the pitch. Zaha set out to push the visitors towards the touchline, while Sorloth would man-mark fellow substitute Jordan Henderson in an attempt to prevent the natural central overload that comes when a 4-4-2 has to defend against a 4-3-3.
Once Wan-Bissaka was shown red for a foul on Salah outside the box, there was little hope of the Eagles fighting their way to a point. It was a tireless performance from Roy Hodgson’s players, but despite carving a few openings on goal they were simply second best to a team starting the season in ominous form.
Liverpool set up in their familiar 4-3-3 formation. James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Naby Keita operated as the midfield triangle, behind the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah.
Mane and Salah were constantly looking to exploit the spaces between their opponents’ full-backs and centre-backs. Their ability to find space and opportunities on goal was largely due to the exceptional movement and work rate of teammate Firmino. The Brazilian regularly dropped in to help with the midfield; this either drew a central defender out of position, thus creating space for Mane and Salah, or allowed him to dictate play himself by getting on the ball. He also frequently pulled wide towards the Crystal Palace full-backs – enabling Mane or Salah to run inside, or creating space for Keita and Milner to make forward runs through central channels.
The midfield trio were positionally flexible, too. Milner could often be found pulling out to the right-hand side, which either released him, creating an overload, or left a central gap. Wijnaldum tended to sit deeper and regularly dropped between Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, or between his centre-back and full-back. This allowed for a clean build against Palace’s first line of defence and created space beyond the midfield line, if he was closed down by a player from the second line of defence.
Patience in possession was crucial for Liverpool, as was the persistent desire of the midfield and attack to create space for one another. The movement of the midfield three complemented that of the front three throughout – should they remain so in tune as the season progresses, any opponent will find it difficult to track and defend against them.
Defensively, they remained loyal to their 4-3-3 out of possession and tried to close Palace down early. The immediate counter-press has long been at the heart of Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy, and the Reds enjoyed considerable success in quickly regaining possession. The nearest man to the ball would pressurise the ball carrier, while the players within the next line were on the front foot, ready to initiate their press should the first man fail to win possession.
Palace performed well against superior opposition, but didn’t do enough to threaten a composed Alisson in the Liverpool goal. The Reds have now started their campaign with two wins from two, scoring six with no reply in the process. They have been guilty of dropping points to such opposition in recent seasons, but they are now beginning to suggest they aren’t afraid to win ugly, as Klopp himself put it in his post-match interview.
Author: Tony Hodson