UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyses Liverpool's dominant semi-final first-leg defeat of Villarreal.
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Liverpool moved a step closer to their third UEFA Champions League final of the Jürgen Klopp era with their first-leg semi-final victory over Villarreal on Wednesday night.
In this article brought to you by Fedex, the UEFA Technical Observer's panel shines a light on their switches of play, as well as hailing the work of midfield conductor Thiago Alcántara.
1-0: Pervis Estupiñán own goal (53)
This goal highlights two features of Liverpool's play: the way they moved the ball quickly crossfield and the movement of so many of their players. Jordan Henderson was one of the men in red who rotated his position regularly to try to dislodge Villarreal's solid defensive set-up and it paid off here with the breakthrough goal. Mohamed Salah picked out his overlapping run on the right and the captain's cross clipped Estupiñán and flew goalward, with Gerónimo Rulli getting a hand to the ball in vain.
2-0: Sadio Mané (55)
Mané's 20th goal of the season in all competitions followed fine work by Salah for his first assist of this European campaign. Receiving a pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold with his back to goal, the Egyptian turned and shuffled into the box before slipping a pass into the stride of Mané, who added the finish.
Player of the Match: Thiago Alcántara
The UEFA Technical Observer panel said of the Spanish midfielder's performance: "He showed vision and precision with his passing. On the ball, he was able to get clear of his opponents and made crucial challenges when required. For 90 minutes, the pitch was like his playground."
Liverpool set up in their usual 4-3-3 structure. In practice, it is a very fluid formation in which only some players stick closely to their position – namely centre-backs Virgil van Dijk (4) and Ibrahima Konaté (5), midfield pivot Fabinho (3) and Salah (11) on the right of the attack.
Otherwise, the other outfield players have licence to move freely and are often seen 'out of position'. In the case of Henderson (14), he played in a No10 position at times on Wednesday night – and Alexander-Arnold (66) was also seen popping up in that area.
The visitors played in a compact 4-4-2 formation with the back four protected by defensive midfielders Daniel Parejo (5) and Etienne Capoue (6), who maintained a rigid partnership in the centre and this disciplined positioning forced Liverpool wide.
At Bayern München in the last round, it was noticeable how Giovani Lo Celso dropped back to support right-back Juan Foyth and at Anfield it was apparent again how well players filled in for each other, the match observer citing how Francis Coquelin (19) would drop in to cover when Estupiñan (12) was drawn out of his left-back position.
The UEFA Technical Observer panel highlighted Liverpool's use of crossfield passes to try to exploit the narrow defensive formation of the visitors, who set up in two banks of four in a 4-4-2 structure. The video above offers several examples of this ploy starting with a searching Alexander-Arnold ball from the right to the far-left touchline after 19 minutes.
A few minutes later, Liverpool moved the ball in the reverse direction (second clip): with Villarreal's ten outfield players compressed into a block in their defensive third, Luis Díaz looks to Alexander-Arnold, who is free in an advanced position on the right and so able to get in a cross. For the third clip, it is Andrew Robertson's turn to go crossfield with a ball directed to the head of Salah.
Overall, Alexander Arnold offered a constant threat with his long passing and, in his relatively free role on the right, was able to take up forward positions as seen in the second clip. As mentioned above, he was not the only player given freedom to roam and another example was Henderson, who was constantly on the move.
It helped Liverpool to have a player of the ability of Thiago controlling the tempo. His passing was not only accurate but expansive – be it providing short, cutting balls between lines, or delivering long, raking passes across the pitch. He had the most touches of any player in this week's first legs (118 along with Alexander-Arnold) and attempted 103 passes with a 96.1% completion rate. He also ended the week joint-first for recoveries – 11, along with Robertson and Konaté. The UEFA match observer noted that "his reading of the game was a level above any other player".
For Villarreal, it was a difficult night. When they tried to play out from the back in the first half, they lost possession quickly in the face of Liverpool's high-tempo pressing. Skipper Henderson praised their counter-pressing afterwards when reflecting that "when we lost the ball high up the pitch the reaction to win it back and cause them problems was really good".
It was just as challenging for the visitors when they went long, with Konaté, for instance, winning all four of the balls sent towards his section of the field by Rulli. Pau Torres, the Villarreal centre-back, said they had "wanted to use direct, vertical football to relieve the pressure" but they "failed to connect with our front players". The absence of forward Gerard Moreno did not help; coach Unai Emery admitted they missed his hold-up play and he will hope to have him back for the second leg.
There was one occasion when Villarreal did exploit Liverpool's high line with a free-kick that Parejo, on halfway, arrowed behind the home defence for Lo Celso in the first half. At full stretch, though, he could not keep his volley down.
Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool coach: "What I like most about Villarreal is that even when they are under pressure, when there is one moment they can get out of the pressure they are immediately a threat. Immediately passes in the centre and we had to put a lot of players, obviously, on the wing to try to win the ball. If you don't win the ball there then obviously you are all of a sudden in between everything and we did that most of the time really well.
"When we spoke at half-time, I thought we looked really fresh in the first half, we had good legs in the first half. It is intense for us to play the way we play, but it is intense for the opponent to defend us in that way as well."
Unai Emery, Villarreal coach: "We wanted to win, wanted to take control, but they didn't let us. We couldn't run in behind them... We resisted defensively as much as we could so as to have options in the second game.
"Gerard [Moreno] is a player who gives us certain things on the pitch, being able to hold the ball up front and get to the penalty area with a bit more presence. He's a player who gives us that… We had a plan but it didn't come off. It could have been worse because there were a couple of disallowed goals. But we know that it can be different at home – we still believe."