UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyses Liverpool's 3-1 win in Lisbon.
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Liverpool have one foot in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals after their 3-1 quarter-final first-leg win at Benfica this week.
In this piece presented by FedEx, the UEFA Technical Observer panel assesses how Jürgen Klopp's men achieved their fifth successive away victory in this season's competition – highlighting above all their highly effective counter-pressing.
0-1: Ibrahima Konaté (17)
Konaté's first Liverpool goal came from Andrew Robertson's outswinging corner as he rose with power above Everton beyond the penalty spot and directed a header down and into the net. For Robertson, it was his second assist from a corner in this campaign, the first a near-post ball to Roberto Firmino at Inter.
0-2: Sadio Mané (34)
A loose lay-off from Adel Taarabt in the middle of the pitch set Liverpool on their way as Konaté played a short pass forward to Trent Alexander-Arnold, some ten metres inside Benfica's half. The right-back delivered a fantastic diagonal ball behind the Benfica back line for Luis Díaz, who was entering the box between the full-back and centre-back. The Colombian nodded the ball across goal for Mané to apply a simple close-range finish.
1-2: Darwin Núñez (49)
The move for Núñez's fifth goal of this European campaign originated with Alexander-Arnold's high crossfield ball to Robertson. The Scot struggled to get any direction on his header and Luis Díaz, contesting the second ball, headed it back towards halfway, where Rafa Silva profited with a rapid run up the right flank and cross. Konaté, attempting to clear, missed the ball entirely and Núñez, behind him, took one touch with his left foot before a flat diagonal shot inside the far post.
1-3: Luis Díaz (87)
Luis Díaz's first European goal for Liverpool owed plenty to midfielder Naby Keïta. Building from the back, Liverpool lost the ball momentarily to a Nicolás Otamendi interception; however, Keïta duly stepped in ahead of Soualiho Meite and drove forward into Benfica's half.
Spotting Luis Díaz's clever run behind the last line of defence, Keïta dissected the Benfica centre-backs with his through pass and his team-mate did the rest, dribbling round goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos and finishing from a sharp angle with his left foot.
Player of the Match: Luis Díaz
On his return to Portugal, ex-Porto winger Luis Díaz took the Player of the Match prize for a decisive contribution featuring a goal and an assist. The UEFA Technical Observer said: "He was very quick and strong with the ball, with good dribbling, and always dangerous. He also worked very hard for the team in defence."
There was specific praise too for Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker, who impressed the UEFA observer with his strong personality and support for the team, illustrated by some big saves, his kicking ability in the building of moves (both long and short) and his good reading of the game.
In possession, Benfica opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Jan Vertonghen (5) as the leader of the back four and two central midfielders ahead of them in Julian Weigl (28) and Taarabat (49), who were responsible for constructing attacks. Gonçalo Ramos (88) supported target striker Núñez (9) with runs as Everton (7) and Rafa Silva (27) occupied the flanks.
Our graphic shows the hosts' defensive formation, whereby they formed a compact 4-5-1 block – often with eight players filling space centrally – and put pressure on the ball from deep. Gonçalo Ramos would harry the Liverpool centre-backs and midfielders, while the wingers defended aggressively on the flanks, supported by the holding midfielders on each side. From there, they would seek quick transitions from defence to attack.
The visitors set up in their usual 4-3-3 formation and it was interesting to see how both the wingers and right-back Alexander Arnold (66) moved infield to create overloads in the centre and open space on the flanks – particularly for Mohamed Salah (11) on the right. Midfielders Thiago Alcántara (6) and Keïta (8) would drop between the central defenders and advancing full-backs to provide an option in the build-up, while higher up Mané (10) fell back away from the Benfica central defenders and then looked to attack at speed from deep.
Out of possession, Liverpool were compact and disciplined as they operated a high line, with their powerful centre-backs Virgil van Dijk (4) and Konaté (5) often having half a pitch behind them. In this set-up, goalkeeper Alisson (1) acted as a sweeper, deftly anticipating any long balls behind the last four.
The video above offers examples of Liverpool's counter-pressing ability, showing how they got yellow shirts around Benfica, allowing them no time on the ball in the middle and forcing turnovers. The UEFA observer highlighted the intense pressure they put on the ball carrier, and their capacity to sustain this thanks to their physical and mental strength.
The end product was 74 recoveries – nine more than their previous best in the Champions League this season, at home against Porto – and their midfield three of Thiago Alcántara (ten recoveries) Fabinho (nine) and Keïta (eight) led the way on this front. To give another example of their aggressive ball-winning, Liverpool's collective total of 21 tackles was their second-highest of the season in the competition.
Liverpool's set-up is geared to achieve these results, with their wingers staying narrow alongside Mané in a first pressing line and, behind them, the three midfielders supporting in a second line of three. On Tuesday, the midfielders did this impressively, closing possible passing lines and reading the game very well. Both full-backs played their part too, as is seen in the first clip when Robertson comes infield to put pressure on the ball, and then Alexander-Arnold wins it on the other side.
To Benfica's credit, with the boost of their goal and the support of the home crowd, their hard work ensured that Klopp's men lost control for a period early in the second half. The Reds were no longer as compact and aggressive in pressing and counter-pressing, and mistakes crept in. However, Klopp reacted with a triple substitution in the 61st minute: Diogo Jota for Salah, Firmino for Mané, and Jordan Henderson for Thiago Alcántara. These fresh legs helped restore their compactness and control, with Jota, for instance, producing five recoveries in his half-hour on the pitch.
There was much to admire elsewhere in Liverpool's performance. In their build-up play, they offered a good mix of short passes and longer balls for the fast attackers to make runs in behind, as well as quick switches of play. Their positional play was excellent too, not least in the last third with overloads in the centre courtesy of the high-attacking full-backs – at which point their formation was almost a 2-3-5.
Another feature of their game worthy of mention was their set plays. Their set-piece approach was the focus of an earlier In the Zone analysis article after they won at Inter in February, and once again they looked well drilled at both their throw-ins and their corners. They now have six goals from set plays in the competition – more than any other side in the competition – and, additionally, they are a team boasting a good, clear organisation when it comes to defending set pieces (zonal).
From a Benfica perspective, scorer Núñez caught the eye of the UEFA observer for providing the hosts' main attacking menace, thanks to his dribbling ability, speed with and without the ball, and intelligence. While there was some decent build-up play with short passes, he was a regular target for long balls and contested ten aerial duels – more than any other player in the Champions League this week (with a 40% success rate).
The home side's game plan was twofold: to withstand Liverpool's pressure and counter-pressing, and then to hit them with quick transitions when they won the ball. They did this with some terrific vertical passes and powerful runs, notably in a much stronger second-half display as they defended with discipline in a deep block, denying Liverpool space, and showed strength and aggression in 1v1 situations which led to good counterattacks.
No one showed more of that strength and aggression than right-back Gilberto, who on top of 15 recoveries (the most by any player on the pitch), contested 28 duels with a 60.7% success rate.
Nélson Veríssimo, Benfica coach
"We tried to explore the weaknesses they had and at certain times this happened. In the second half, we were better than in the first. We made corrections at half-time; the players themselves felt they could continue with possession. We scored the goal that put us back in the tie and we were close to making it two."
Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool coach
"Coming here and winning an away game in the Champions League is tough. Benfica fought for their lives. We gave them a little bit too much, but they deserved the goal as well, even though we could have defended better. They had counterattacks; it's not easy to keep the ball all the time.
"The crowd was there; we knew 2-0 is nothing, nice but no more. They score the goal and it was much more open than we wanted, but the goalie was probably the best player and made a couple of really good saves. We usually score more [in such situations] but we didn't, mainly because of the goalie; credit to him."