Brighton - Liverpool 0-1 Premier League tactical analysis

Brighton & Hove Albion – Liverpool: Diamonds Are Good At Applying Pressure (2-2) 

Liverpool slightly adapted their pressing shape, not the first to do this against Brighton & Hove Albion this season. Although this put Brighton in uncomfortable situations, Roberto De Zerbi is determined to find answers within his distinct framework.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.



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In a forever-adapting football world, Brighton and Liverpool have two identifiable football styles and are still in the process of perfecting them.

After a poor start in the Europa League and being battered by Aston Villa, it started to feel like teams had found a solution against their methods. When a team’s press is baited, Brighton can play out through their predetermined patterns, but opponents being more passive deny them the space needed. A second-half comeback in Marseille was a lot more encouraging, but De Zerbi doesn’t just have buildup issues to worry about when their 4-2-4 high press has lost its authority.

A team that has also tried to reclaim its pressing dominance is Liverpool, but they have kept working themselves into scenarios where they are with a player less than the opponent. Three times this has happened so far this season and it was only Tottenham that were able to squeeze past them, and in a fortunate manner too. Liverpool have found difficulty against the De Zerbi pinball machine, but Jürgen Klopp’s team are not pressing as intensely and their adaptations have come more in their on-ball game plan. Would it disrupt De Zerbi’s rule book once more?  

In response to a humiliating result at Aston Villa, six changes were made from their last Premier League outing. Bart Verbruggen returned between the posts, with Igor Julio making his first league appearance of the season. Pascal Groß and Carlos Baleba made the double pivot, Simon Adingra and João Pedro were ahead of them. Kaoru Mitoma and Evan Ferguson completed the offensive selection, whilst Solly March was moved to left-back as Pervis Estupiñán picked up an injury.

Liverpool were forced to make changes, as Cody Gakpo picked up a knee injury and Curtis Jones, the midfielder who has provided more balance to their left side this season, was suspended. Harvey Elliott made his first start of the season, whilst Trent Alexander-Arnold and Darwin Núñez came into the team.


The strength of the diamond

Premier League teams are starting to form a trend amongst one another. The 4-3-1-2/4-1-3-2 formation is slowly creeping back into the elite team’s off-ball systems, to counteract deep and narrow buildup units. Arsenal faced Tottenham Hotspur in such a manner, but Brighton and Hove Albion have faced it more than most.

There are some key advantages against their passing patterns using this system; you already have a natural overload against the two strikers that drop, whilst the fullbacks remain strictly on the wingers that Brighton are trying to free up. Ultimately, the biggest gain is that you can drastically force your shape towards one side, teams leave Brighton center-backs to pass outwards on one side and then close them down one channel, making short circuits difficult to execute.

Liverpool established themselves in this shape. Dominik Szoboszlai was positioned just behind the front two, with Alexis Mac Allister positioned between Luis Díaz on the left and Harvey Elliott on the right. Virgil van Dijk strictly followed João Pedro and would move out of the defensive line to further compact the middle of the field.


2nd minute: Groß moved between the center-backs to create a 3-1 buildup structure against Liverpool’s diamond shape. The positions for the forwards to drop into were crowded out and Brighton was forced to move the ball through the outside as a result.


Salah saves the unbalanced shape

Liverpool shared the same amount of possession in the first half, with a much more flexible buildup structure from out the back. This is the age of press-baiting and Liverpool partake in such actions when passing out. Alisson positioned himself next to Virgil van Dijk, as Joël Matip hugged the right touchline, Andrew Robertson was often a lot higher up the field and Trent Alexander-Arnold performed his dictatory inverted role.

These dynamics and encouraging pressure were not always optimal for Liverpool, as seen in Brighton’s opener at the twenty-minute mark. Alisson was very slow in getting the ball out of his feet and although neither Evan Ferguson nor Pedro stepped on the goalkeeper, it did have three players surround Mac Allister and Van Dijk’s option to play the ball into him had big consequences. Simon Adingra picked up possession and Alisson was not anticipating the winger to shoot the ball so quickly. A cheap goal for Liverpool to giveaway.


21st minute: Wide pattern that Liverpool constantly used throughout the game. Alisson positioned as right center-back in build, Salah peeled off to occupy the wide-right position (Igor followed by tracked back when up against the overload) and a run between March and Dunk was made by Díaz, who situationally moved onto that side.


Nonetheless, Liverpool was quite successful in firing line-breaking passes through the middle of Brighton’s defensive structure earlier on as Mac Allister could stretch further out wide if Robertson went up the field on the left and Díaz moved inside. But their buildup was much more focused on moving the ball down their right side, if it wasn’t Alisson next to Van Dijk, it would be Alexander-Arnold and Liverpool moved the ball in a particular pattern. One forward would drop out to hug the right touchline, which would often be Mohamed Salah, whilst an inside run would be made, regardless of whether Solly March had been dragged out of position or not.

The high ball down the right channel was not successful in directly creating opportunities, but it did put the ball behind Brighton’s defenders and Liverpool profited from the chaotic moments that it generated. Liverpool’s transitioning from this area was very effective, counterpressing to stop Brighton from resetting into their passing structure and some of the passing moves that Liverpool created were efficient in getting the ball into the box.


39th minute: Buildup to Liverpool’s first goal. Counterpress from Liverpool forced Dunk to fire a quick pass, which was turned over by Mac Allister. A narrow defensive shape meant that Liverpool could transition quickly with players in the proximity of each other and with an overload against the center-backs.


1-2 shape that unlocked Brighton. Another advantage that this shape brings you is that the space between your attackers is very close to build with on the transition, whilst there are areas for more dynamic movements to be made. Lewis Dunk’s pass was intercepted by Alexander-Arnold and Szoboszlai had a direct route straight to Díaz or Núñez, with a four-versus-two overload on the Brighton center-backs. Díaz turned past Dunk, Núñez poked it towards the overload, Elliott dummied and Salah buried the ball past the goalkeeper.

A few minutes later, another breakdown in possession would lead to another goal, this time in Liverpool’s favor. Szoboszlai put immense pressure on Groß, just before he was dragged down by the German midfielder in the box. Salah executed the penalty, a complete turnaround just moments before halftime.


Liverpool’s momentum fizzles

Elliott was replaced by Ryan Gravenberch, who performed a very different role to his counterpart. Gravenberch was stricter in his positioning as he remained in the deeper left halfspace and supported attacks on the outside, holding minimum width whilst Díaz was positioned inside. Brighton did have one occasion, at the start of the second half, where they were finally able to put the ball in for a winger behind the fullback. Worked from a throw-in, Ferguson was able to face play and switch the ball towards Adingra, who moved the ball back inside of Robertson, but his shot was firmly saved by the on-rushing Alisson.

Liverpool’s buildup had also had some tweaks, Szoboszlai was deeper and Alexander-Arnold was closer to the center-backs, as Alisson remained in his box in these phases. Brighton’s pressing was also dialled up a notch: Ferguson moved into the box on the press and Groß had phases where he followed the movement of the ball back towards the goalkeeper.

Gravenberch was given a golden opportunity to extend Liverpool’s lead after they moved the ball out of the Brighton press. Alexander-Arnold knocked the ball down the right side and Szoboszlai moved it back inside to Núñez in a load of space between the lines. Szoboszlai then moved in-between March and Dunk to receive in the box, before his ball across the goal met the Dutchman, who could only connect with the top of the crossbar.

From this moment, Liverpool’s attack started to fizzle out. Much of this stems from the tactical decision to move the team back into the narrow 4-3-3/4-4-2 formation (aside from goal kicks, where the 4-3-1-2 shape was still in use) out of possession, depending on Salah or Gravenberch’s positioning.


Brighton put five on the last line

With Liverpool being more passive in the last half hour, we started to see what Brighton’s aim had been throughout the game from the middle third onwards. Groß kept his dynamic movement, but instead of situationally moving between the center-backs, he moved out of the double pivot and acted as an interior in the left halfspace. Ferguson was the central figure as Pedro was part of the same line as Groß. Pedro moved into the center as Danny Welbeck replaced Ferguson. Jan Paul van Hecke also came on, as he replaced the injured Igor Julio a few minutes later.


67th minute: Brighton’s 2-3-5 formation versus Liverpool’s narrow 4-5-1 formation. Brighton was still very reliant on working the ball down the outside to get the ball forward.


Brighton established themselves more in a 2-3-5 system, Veltman and March could move inside to support Baleba, with Adingra and Mitoma maintaining width. Groß also had phases still between the center-backs, which kept Brighton in a 3-1-2-4 shape at times.

Brighton was fixed on combinations between March and Mitoma; March was more determined to overlap the winger and both offered mazy dribbles to get the ball up the field. Even though Brighton was barely creating, having two good carriers down one side is going to get the ball into areas that are desired. March was bundled down between Alexander-Arnold and Ibrahima Konaté. An indirect free-kick was curled in, at knee height inside the box, but it was good enough for Dunk to smash it home from close range.

It was clear that a winger dragging the ball around a fullback was the only route for Brighton against the defensive block, and the last great chance of the game would arrive from the opposite side. Adingra slid around Joe Gomez and his low ball was deflected off Van Dijk. Welbeck left it to bounce into Pedro, in a fantastic position, but he blasted the ball over the crossbar.


Takeaways

An exciting game between two teams who have been forced to try and find more solutions to their game plan. De Zerbi’s rule book is under intense pressure, as teams have turned more towards the diamond to nullify their deep build. Their attack against Liverpool’s deep defense still relied on their tricky ball carriers taking the ball up the field, but De Zerbi has shown that he is willing to tweak his plan A in order to get results. Whether it makes Brighton better is still up for debate.

Liverpool’s possession plan can also look weird, but Salah is still a world-class asset and their attack is stacked. In the phases that they engaged in the press, Liverpool met with good intensity and was not opened up behind its midfield, but the balance of their flexible buildup will be sternly tested against better off-ball arrangments than Brighton. Nevertheless, both Brighton and Liverpool remain in the pack that is starting to break away from the rest of the league.



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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]

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