Liverpool – Porto: Porto’s frenetic midfield make for a chaotic encounter (2-0)
In this frantic affair, Liverpool unsurprisingly displayed the most composure. FC Porto’s seemingly-uncontrolled and direct approach – while giving themselves more than a few problems – exploited some shared vulnerabilities, but after a quick two goal lead, a home win was never really in doubt.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Seen as a favorable pairing for Jürgen Klopp’s side, Porto posed an interesting challenge to the Liverpool FC battering ram. With last season’s 0-5 win still fresh in mind, tt may well seem a relatively kind draw, but it was not one to be taken lightly.
With so much at stake, few changes were made by Klopp from the team fielded at St. Mary’s on Friday night. Andrew Robertson, out through suspension, was replaced by James Milner, while Dejan Lovren came in for Joël Matip and Jordan Henderson stepped in for Georginio Wijnaldum.
Sérgio Conceição made four changes to the eleven that beat Boavista 2-0 on Friday also. Pepe and Héctor Herrera were busy serving suspensions while Wilson Manafa and Yaçine Brahimi also made way. As opposed to Klopp, who kept his shape consistent in their familiar 4-3-3 system, Conceição opted for a tactical change towards a back-three, specifically a 3-4-3 formation
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 formation against Porto’s 5-2-3 shape out of possession.
Liverpool’s width exploits Porto’s experimental setup
To begin with, Liverpool had managed some calm, early spells of possession. Here, we got a clearer picture of how both sides wanted to function.
In a flat 5-2-3 shape out of possession, Conceição’s men showed signs of being the novices they truly were in such an untried formation. One of their biggest issues was their left side, at least in a coverage sense. Throughout the game, Porto wanted to squeeze the central channels as much as possible, without much care for width nor the space in front. It was all about the central shield, so much so that it proved costly.
In line with Liverpool’s left-sided buildup, Porto shoved across to the ball side and had Telles tuck right in to suffocate the channels for any inside runners. This shift left wide open spaces for diagonal switches A pass from one side to the other. into Trent Alexander-Arnold. Salah’s inside movement dragged Telles further inside, giving the young fullback even more space to exploit. The one positive for Porto was that they had time to shift and, thankfully for them, Alexander-Arnold was not an expert one-versus-one dribbler.
The man who was equipped with covering this kind of width tended to be nominal forward Moussa Marega, who often dropped all the way back to position himself almost level with Porto’s back line. However, in a case of backwards logic, his role as an additional defender to cover the switch only increased Porto’s problems, compared to his initial high position as part of a front three. Because of this – and the fact that Porto’s midfield still held to one side rather than adjusting for the loss of Marega in midfield – any of Liverpool’s attackers that could be located in the right halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. were given free reign to receive unmarked and unpressured.
Graphic showing the space players like Henderson were affored in front of goal.
Liverpool’s setup was far more fluid, compared to Porto’s rigid system. With so much of their final third play revolving around the right side, the structure on the left became less and less symmetrical. As a result of this, Naby Keïta took advantage by dropping to form a temporary back-three, with both Lovren and Virgil van Dijk slanted towards the right side. Here, when receiving, Keïta could step inwards, from the left, against the grain of the right-sided presser and could shield the ball inside while also, as a right-footer, being perfectly placed to spread it across to either side.
Early sucker punch
Conceição’s side looked rushed and panicked in their efforts to be fast and direct. In the automatic three-versus-three at the back, Liverpool did not find it difficult to force Porto back and long.
As was most often the case, Iker Casillas would be handed the ball to pump high into the middle third, preferably out to the wings. The fact that Porto could not keep the ball under calm control was illustrated by their measly 65 per cent pass completion in the first half.
A clear three-at-the-back system by Porto.
Casillas deployed most of his aerial balls towards Marega, although it did not always fall their way. Even when Porto won the first header, Liverpool were much better prepared for claiming the knock-downs. This proved crucial in the fifth minute.
Milner picked up on a follow-on loose ball and swept it wide to Sadio Mané. Poking it into the box for Roberto Firmino, he squared it across to Keïta, whom, along with Henderson, was in a large amount of space thanks to Porto’s aforementioned structural issues. This gave the midfielder time to fire his shot, which deflected into the top corner. A sucker punch very early on.
Firmino and Salah were quick to try and get in on the act with both being played through following hesitant, misplaced passes by Porto players that handed Liverpool back the ball within an instant.
Firmino soon grabbed Liverpool’s second goal in the twenty-sixth minute. Surprisingly somewhat against the usual pattern this time, but still in keeping with the aforementioned Porto problems. A steady stream of buildup play eventually saw Firmino shift the ball with ease across to Henderson, who was perfectly positioned in the right halfspace with no oncoming pressure whatsoever. Alexander-Arnold, alert to the situation, darted from his wide position diagonally inwards to get in behind the unalert Marega. Played through, a simple drilled ball across gifted Firmino an easy tap-in.
Porto display resistance in the form of attack
What turned out to be Porto’s kryptonite was also Liverpool’s. In one of the away side’s more structured moves through the midfield, a last-ditch challenge for the ball by Óliver Torres set away Marega, free of his marker Lovren. Tiquinho had done an excellent job in this match of overloading the Croatian defender in order to get in behind. The two linked earlier in a play that led to a decent cutback chance for Marega.
In any case, the striker broke through and, were it not for his slightly wayward control of the ball, he might have punished the home side.
The chances kept coming. Liverpool, again, exploiting the width brilliantly. First, Salah’s run dragged Telles inside; secondly, Keïta’s shielded dribble back inside gave him time to play the ball; and thirdly, Alexander-Arnold’s and, more importantly, Henderson’s runs were played through. The midfielder received the ball and lofted it to the back-post where Firmino came rushing in before blazing his volleyed effort over the bar.
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 formation, where Naby Keïta did not have a high touch volume, but he was involved in a lot of moves leading to chances.
Liverpool casually exploit holes in Porto’s shape
The most pressing issue from a Porto perspective was their exposure to the space in front, particularly inside on the right. Because Conceição never adjusted Marega’s positional issues, the hosts could recycle the ball from side-to-side effortlessly. Now Liverpool’s play, while camped in Porto’s half, was spread evenly across the pitch. At the same time Porto’s quick-witted attackers – who were effective on counterattacks in the first half – were now limited to scraps.
Inevitable turn in pressure strengthens Liverpool’s position
Eventually it was always going to be the case that Porto would have their own spell of dominance on the ball. When that time came, they looked a little bit lost, though. Their best idea was to constantly switch it out to each wing-back and hope they could square up and beat their opponent. This was rarely how things turned out.
In terms of territory, Porto benefitted from having huge open spaces to run into. After making progress on the pitch, though, they rapidly found themselves up against a mightily tough Liverpool defense with next to no room to get in behind. And, in the smart way you might expect, Klopp’s side realized this was working heavily in their favor. So, to maximize their advantage, they cleared it long again and again and again. Liverpool completed no less than four long balls in the final ten minutes.
The visitors did have one more chance to grab a lifeline. Following a quick attempt at a counterattack, Éder Militão intercepted a long ball aimed at Salah, and played it long over the top for Marega. The space was finally there again and they manipulated it well. With such a good opening and the goal gaping, he had to square it to his teammate but Marega only had eyes for the ball and subsequently released a forgetful strike wayward of the goal.
A two-goal advantage and no away goals conceded will definitely be enough to satisfy Klopp. Liverpool took excellent advantage of the shortcomings in Porto’s defensive system. Now it’s time to turn their attention to the other big competition his side are still well in the mix for – the Premier League.
It is hard to imagine Conceição sticking with the back-three for the second leg, considering how heavily it appeared to backfire. One can only speculate really, but it seems last season’s 0-5 trashing against Liverpool was still fresh in the mind and perhaps influenced the choice to deviate from their usual tactical plan.
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