Liverpool made a number of changes for this must-win Champions League tie against Napoli, altering their personnel and their formation from the weekend’s Premier League meeting with Bournemouth.
In that game Jürgen Klopp had gone with a mixed formation which resembled his 4-2-3-1, but in truth was more 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-1-1, using Naby Keita wide on the left, Shaqiri right, with Roberto Firmino dropping deeper than fellow forward Mohamed Salah.
For this crunch game it was back to the old favourite — 4-3-3 — and the old favourites, James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, against the 4-4-2 of Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli.
The three midfielders covered more ground than any of their team-mates, running for around 12km each, with Henderson topping the list on 12.43km covered. Milner also won more aerial duels and tackles than any of his team-mates with five, while Wijnaldum was one of the game’s standout players.
After the game Klopp praised his side’s pressing and defending throughout the pitch.
“The boys played with their whole heart on the pitch; with each part of their body they were in that game. Our offensive defending, our offensive pressing, was some of the best I ever saw. We played football and the direction we played with, the intensity we played with, was difficult to deal with.”
The Liverpool manager also said his side were a different team compared to the game between the two sides in Naples where they failed to register a single shot on target. This was partly due to Kalidou Koulibaly’s excellent display and nullifying of Salah, but here at Anfield the tables turned.
Aside from the full-backs, Salah was the most involved player in the Liverpool lineup with 75 actions. This is rare for such an attacking player, but by dropping him back to the right wing Klopp was encouraging his star man to get involved and win the game for them, which he duly did.
Throughout Liverpool’s two games against Napoli Senegalese defender Koulibaly regularly had the better of the battle between the pair, but in one swift movement Salah left him behind to produce a one-on-one with David Ospina in which there was only ever going to be one outcome.
Ospina dived out of the way, Salah put it between his legs, and put Liverpool through to the knockout stages of the Champions League. Salah emerged the victor, but the tournament will be worse off without Koulibaly in it.
As previously alluded to, Liverpool’s full-backs enjoyed plenty of the ball throughout, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson coming out of the game having had more touches of the ball, or ‘actions’, than any of their team-mates.
The influence of Salah and the full backs is shown in the Twelve attacking rankings below.
Alexander-Arnold’s 91 involvements were more than any other player on the pitch, and his first-time crosses were a feature of the match. One of these balls into the box was turned home by Sadio Mane, but the winger was a good few yards offside, perhaps unnecessarily so.
It was the beginning of a frustrating night for Mane, who squandered a number of good chances, but Alexander-Arnold went from strength to strength before being forced off through injury with minutes left in the game.
He made six key passes and created one big chance. Another cross back to the edge of the area was headed powerfully by Firmino but it was straight at Ospina.
It’s not very often a large number of crosses will turn out be be successful statistically, as they are low percentage plays, but the balls into the danger area from Alexander-Arnold were measured. He completed five out of his six attempted crosses, and a few of these deliveries from out wide may have gone down in the data as passes, such was the nature of them.
Napoli’s compact, narrow shape meant there was plenty of room for Andy Robertson on the other side too, and though his stats aren’t as flattering as Alexander-Arnold’s, he still produced some dangerous moments and the Twelve algorithm singled him out as the most effective attacking player.
He created the first big chance of the game, which fell to Salah, whose first touch let him down on this occasion and the ball rolled into Ospina’s grateful hands.
He joined the midfield to become part of this blanket press Klopp spoke of after the game, which was then reinforced by the defensive display of Virgil Van Dijk, and the outstanding positioning by Alisson in the 92nd minute to deny Arkadiusz Milik.
Liverpool introduced the midfielders who had played against Bournemouth in the last ten minutes of this game, but their roles were very specific and designed to see the game out.
Keita was asked to shuttle up and down the right, joining the first line of the press, but also using his evasive skills to help keep the ball once Liverpool won it back.
Fabinho was brought on to win headers as Napoli pumped it into the box in search of the goal which would have seen them qualify. The Brazilian was effective, even though he was part of the defensive confusion, which included Van Dijk and fellow substitute Dejan Lovren, and needed to be bailed out by Alisson in those dramatic final minutes.
Liverpool’s last line of defence — Alisson, and their front line in attack — Salah, won this game, but don’t mention that to Klopp without first praising the work done by the rest of his players. For a manager whose game has been built on pressing from the front to label this game as “the best I ever saw” in this regard, is something special.