Premier League

Jurgen Klopp v Marcelo Bielsa: How the tactical battle played out

In the opening round of the Premier League season we were treated to a cracker at Anfield as Liverpool began their title defence

12:00pm on Monday 14th September 2020
Edward Stratmann

The hotly anticipated clash between Liverpool and Leeds United certainly lived up to the hype, with newly promoted Leeds ultimately succumbing 4-3 to a late Mohamed Salah penalty despite an impressive display.

Making their long awaited return to the Premier League after 16 years away, Marcelo Bielsa's high octane Leeds showed no fear against the reigning champions at Anfield. Having gone behind three times and come back on each occasion, it was heartbreaking that Rodrigo's sloppy challenge handed the Reds a late spot kick.

"Leeds are special,” asserted Jurgen Klopp afterwards. “The way they play, it is just uncomfortable. If you don’t respect the opponent they will kill you but I really liked the attitude of my team today. We are still a fighting unit. They just don’t stop.”

With Leeds setting up in their asymmetrical 4-1-4-1 and Liverpool in their usual 4-3-3, the two tactical setups made for a captivating duel.

Facing off against Bielsa's aggressive man marking pressing setup, Klopp's men shrewdly found ways to get at the away team. To start with, the movement and understanding of Liverpool's front three was vital. By constantly varying their positioning by either rotating with one another, playing narrowly to combine quickly or getting one of the wingers pushing high and wide to be isolated, this meant Leeds struggled to settle into a rhythm.

Often manipulating the Leeds backline by luring them out of shape, this created disconnects to be exploited by the Reds' fullbacks, central midfielders or lethal front three. The dropping of Roberto Firmino was especially beneficial, for he expertly drew a Leeds centre back out, which opened spaces for either Naby Keita or Georginio Wijnaldum to exploit. These penetrative runs from deep caught out Leeds due to their excellent timing, how they caused marking dilemmas and as the runners enjoyed a dynamic advantage over their back to goal facing markers.

Keita zooming into the space created by Firmino pinning Koch

To compound issues for the visitors, the fact Liverpool pushed so many numbers into the box, with two central midfielders, the fullbacks and all three forwards persistently in the area giving them plentiful options. How they were all situated at different heights and depths amplified their threat.

Liverpool attacking the box with six players

The way Andrew Robertson would maraud forward from fullback into the spaces created by Sadio Mane dragging Luke Ayling infield was effective too. Not only did the Scot add depth to moves, he importantly dragged Helder Costa all the way back, thus limiting Leeds' impact in transition on this side.

Also scoring two goals from wonderfully worked set pieces, Liverpool were so dangerous in this regard. The first saw them beautifully make room for Virgil van Dijk by using clever blocks on Robin Koch and decoy runs so he could head home emphatically.

Then, for the second, knowing Van Dijk would attract attention, they whipped in a set piece to the back post. Three men tracked the Dutchman, who unsurprisingly lost out. But Liverpool intelligently left Firmino, Keita and Salah at the edge of the box to win the second ball. The Egyptian then latched onto the rebound in acres of space before slamming home a wicked volley.

To focus on their high pressing strategy, Firmino was oriented towards keeper Illan Meslier while blocking the lane to Kalvin Phillips, as Salah and Mane would be positioned to press the central defenders as they too used their cover shadow to close off routes to the fullbacks.

Although Leeds broke through the Reds' high press quite often, once they pushed a midfielder higher to track Phillips (typically Henderson), they enjoyed better success in nullifying Leeds' build up.

Liverpool's pressing scheme

Having clearly prepared diligently in true Bielsa fashion, the Argentine devised a good scheme of his own to beat Liverpool's press. Their opener offered a testament to this, where Philips evaded Firmino to form a 4v3. The England international then turned and struck a magnificent long ball into Jack Harrison, who was 1v1 with Trent Alexander-Arnold. Bringing the ball down with aplomb, Harrison then breezed by Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez to then apply a clinical finish.

Phillips generating a 4v3 prior to Leeds' opener

While Philips had his impact reduced by Henderson moving up to press him, this gave Leeds' attacking mids in Klich and Hernandez additional room to operate. In the move leading up to their second goal, they took full advantage of this as Klich received possession freely after Keita left his zone to press the fullback and Henderson was high near Phillips. Klich's positioning consequently lured out Gomez as he and Dallas combined. The latter then struck a through ball towards Bamford, who then pounced on Van Dijk's error to level things up again.

The powerful running and high positioning of Leeds' midfielders saw them alongside the forwards occupy Liverpool's rearguard in 4v4 or 5v4 situations, which in conjunction with how they executed some clever interchanges with each other or a fullback, ensured this was a real weapon. Time and time again, Leeds exposed Liverpool's high line with runners into depth, with Klich's memorable strike a prominent example of how they got in behind Liverpool's midfield to wreak havoc.

Leeds attacking LIverpool's backline and form a 5v4

Leeds creating a 5v4 as their mids are free behind Liverpool's mids

Even though Liverpool bypassed Leeds' customary man marking pressing with some quality passing exchanges, the centre backs dribbling upfield and through Firmino's movement, Leeds still found some joy.

Organising themselves so Bamford would be on Van Dijk, Harrison in an intermediate position to access either the fullback or Gomez and Costa on Robertson, their aim was to send the Reds wide. Factor in Philips and PHernandez pressing onto Henderson and Wijnaldum, and this enhanced their central focus. Klich would subsequently monitor Keita, with the back four consequently having a spare man to deal with Liverpool's lethal trio upfront.

Leeds' pressing structure

From a Leeds perspective, a couple of additional points of note came from how Bamford and Costa rotated smoothly and how they formed wide overloads to destabilise and overcome their foes.

Despite Liverpool dominating many key statistics such as Expected Goals (3.68 XG vs 0.67), shots (22 to six), corners (nine to zero) and passes per defensive action (10.1 to 14.4), it was by no means a comfortable victory.

Looking ahead, both teams will have learned plenty from this colossal clash, with many positives and negatives to be extracted. But Leeds especially will draw confidence from how hard they pushed the mighty Reds in their opening fixture, as Liverpool will lament how unusually brittle they were defensively.

In a season that's set to be full of excitement and drama, this exhilarating encounter illustrated what challenging, multifaceted outfits these two will be for anyone to combat.

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