Anatomy Of Liverpool’s Right Side

As defensive organizations continue to improve, depending solely on individual talent to break down deep defensive structures might not be viable in the modern game. It takes a unit to break down a unit; structured movements to break down a structure. The rise of Liverpool in the last couple of years was seen as a win for the pressing family tree, but it wasn’t only about pressing and counterpressing. Knowing how to break down deep defensive structures provided Liverpool that extra element the team were missing after the 2017/18 season. In this article, we look at the anatomy of their right side. 

Written by Ahmed Walid.

Towards the end of the 2018-19 season, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp started playing Jordan Henderson on the right side of midfield, with Fabinho fully integrated into the team and playing in a central position. 

Henderson’s impressive performance in that position, notably away to Southampton in April, led to Klopp jokingly apologizing for playing the English midfielder as a number six for one and a half year. 

The understanding Henderson built with Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold on that right side saw Liverpool bulldoze through the Premier League the following season. In the 2020-21 season, injuries derailed that triangular combination. Henderson himself missed seventeen games through injury while playing nine times as a center-back.

How Liverpool operate on their right-hand side this season is not new, but after an absence for a season because of injuries, the right-hand side “flexible triangle” as Klopp calls it, is back in business.

One of the reasons Alexander-Arnold excelled in the 2019-20 season was the coverage Henderson provided for the right back. Alexander-Arnold missed that protection last season, but with the introduction of Harvey Elliot into the team and the lack of injuries, the coverage was back on. This was clear from the first game of the season away to Norwich City.

After Naby Keïta was moved to the right of midfield in the second half, a task was added to his to-do list and that was to cover for Alexander-Arnold’s rampaging runs forward. 

As Liverpool lost the ball up front and Alexander-Arnold was completely out of position……

…..but Keïta was there to cover in case the pass was played down the line. Fortunately for Alexander-Arnold here the pass was short and he managed to retrieve it.

Another example would be the first goal against Leeds United. At first, Elliot is inside the field. However, once he notices Joel Matip progressing with the ball and Alexander-Arnold high up the pitch…..

……..he moves out wide to cover for Alexander-Arnold, allowing the latter to square the ball for Salah. This aggressive positioning by Alexander-Arnold is only viable because of Elliot’s positioning in the top right-hand corner of the snippet below, covering his right back in case Liverpool lose the ball.

That part could be seen against Chelsea when Alexander-Arnold darted into midfield with Elliot putting on the breaks out wide……

……before running back to cover Alexander-Arnold’s space when Liverpool lost the ball in midfield. Without Elliot here, Mason Mount could have controlled the ball freely and attacked the space. In reality, Elliot’s positioning pressured Mount into losing the ball and Liverpool regained possession.

Even after Elliot got injured against Leeds, Alexander-Arnold was still covered and there’s not a player who understands that role more than Henderson. In the buildup to the equalizer against AC Milan, Henderson was positioned behind Alexander-Arnold to cover for him. Three quick passes put Liverpool in front of Milan’s defensive line…..

……Divock Origi then magically scooped it for Salah over the defense for the Egyptian to make it 2-2. However, the relevance here is how Alexander-Arnold is free out wide, providing a clear passing option for Origi. All of that while Henderson is covering in case Liverpool lose the ball.

The role of Elliot and Henderson isn’t limited to covering for Alexander-Arnold. If it was, Klopp wouldn’t have called it a flexible triangle. Elliot’s width and ability to play wide as a winger, allowed TAA to move centrally where he can be dangerous. First of all, with Elliot out wide, his dribbling ability can cause problems for the opponents’ fullback. But even more defining of the way Elliot defines his role in this position is his open body shape.

Being left footed, Elliot usually receives the ball with his back to the touchline, having a clear view of the whole pitch. This allows him to take better decisions when trying to progress the ball further. Here, he sees that a pass into Alexander-Arnold is not possible, but with Marcos Alonso moving forward Elliot manages to slip the ball through to Salah.

A further example in the same game shows Alexander-Arnold inside the field with Elliot by the touchline. When Elliot receives the ball….

……his open body orientation allows him to have a complete view of the scene and because he’s left footed, he can play quick accurate passes inside the field like this one for Firmino. This type of pass from a left footer in that area of the pitch, is something Liverpool never had before, and the result is more penetration which further explains why Alexander-Arnold is better in the middle of the park when Elliot is playing.

Accordingly, that brings us to Liverpool’s second goal against Burnley. In the buildup Alexander-Arnold has already moved inside the pitch with Elliot signaling for Virgil van Dijk to play the diagonal.

Elliot’s open body orientation means that he already knows where Alexander-Arnold and Sadio Mané are, and thus plays the pass quickly into Alexander-Arnold who puts Mané through on goal.

Elliot’s ability as a wide player, him being left-footed and the constant coverage for Alexander-Arnold makes him the perfect player to maximize Alexander-Arnold’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

He’s not the only one though. Two years ago, it was Henderson excelling in that role, and with Elliot out for a while after sustaining an ankle injury, it will be Henderson again.

In addition to the covering role as illustrated above, Henderson provides overlapping…. When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping.

….and underlapping Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. runs depending where Salah is.

Henderson usually starts his runs from an orthodox position in midfield…..

….but then turbochargers in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. depending where Salah is. Here, Salah’s inside positioning means that there’s space out wide. Therefore, Henderson overlaps and attacks that space….

…..putting an excellent cross for Thiago Alcântara after Salah played him through. Thiago’s header was saved though, then Diogo Jota missed the rebound.

At times, the overlaps also put Henderson in goal-threatening positions towards the far post as was the case in this chance against Crystal Palace. Mané’s cross towards the far post found an onrushing Henderson but Vicente Guiata managed to save the shot. 

In terms of underlapping, Henderson usually attacks the space between the fullback and the center-back once Salah drags the fullback out. This could provide Henderson with a crossing opportunity or as seen throughout the 2019-20 season, dragging the opponents’ players away from Alexander-Arnold so that the right back can put in the crosses with more time to pick his spot.

And with Alexander-Arnold moving inside the pitch more since the end of last season, Henderson’s underlaps should in theory create more space centrally for the right back to attack. As seen in the first goal against Milan, Henderson’s run dragged Ismaël Bennacer out wide…

…..creating a gap in the center of the pitch which Alexander-Arnold attacked before his low cross was deflected off Fikayo Tomori and went into the net.

The first goal against Brentford shows the other benefit of Henderson’s underlaps. A run into the space between Ethan Pinnock and Pontus Jansson, as the first moves out towards Salah….

……finds Henderson completely free out wide because Jansson and Vitaly Janelt decided to move inside and defend the box.

From there, Henderson managed to find Jota to bring Liverpool back into the game.

Elliot’s injury could not have come at a worse time for Liverpool but despite that, their right side still has the necessary means for penetration and chance creation while making sure Alexander-Arnold is not exposed on the counterattack. The first two months of the season have shown us how capable Liverpool’s right side is, as it is a well-drilled unit that breaks down compact defenses in various ways. 

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