Opening of new main stand at Anfield Road and record attendance since 70s was a perfect stage for Liverpool clash with holding champions Leicester. Both teams had a shaky start to the season and found themselves in the wrong half of the table before the game. This fact made an already important match even bigger as both managers wanted to get on track and catch up with top teams.
Claudio Ranieri plugged the hole that opened when Nampalys Mendy got injured with Daneiel Amartey. Surprisingly, he omitted striker Islam Slimani who was signed for 30M. Luckily, Kasper Schmeichel recovered from hernia injury and was back to form a line up that won the Premiership last season. Without Kante obviously.
Although there is nothing new in way how Leicester plays this season, high tempo direct football with lots of long balls to Vardy, Klopp decided to replace injured Dejan Lovren (and Ragnar Klavan) with rather small Lucas Leiva in center of defence to cope with those high balls. Additionally, he also left out Moreno, probably to give him a rest after a tough spell he went through in recent matches. His replacement, though, was another surprise. A formidable and versatile midfielder James Milner but a player who probably can’t remember when he played left back last time. Despite a gamble with Milner, Klopp’s judgement proved to be very sound as intelligent professional Milner did his job to the highest level despite being up against Riyad Mahrez.
Above you can see How disciplined and well positioned Leicester is in defensive phase. It is their strength from last season. However, there is a dire mistake in their positioning even if they seem to be as compact as ever. Notice the ball in the feet of Lucas Leiva, he is already in the left half space and Okazaki fails to close him down to give his team mates time to shift to the left. A quick ball to Millner finds Leicester compact defence on wrong foot.
This calls for a quick, chaotic, shift from Simpson who goes to close down Milner. However, as Sturridge is keeping Morgan occupied, this gives precious window of split second for Firmino to run into the gap between Simpson and Morgan. Another key player here is Milner who can execute a perfect right footed curled pass into space for Firmino that would be extremely difficult for left footed player and Liverpool breaks the dead lock in 14th minute.
From then on, Liverpool has all the confidence and although Leicester isn’t playing poor, Liverpool is simply brilliant moving on and off the ball.
Above you can see Wijnaldum in possession and despite Leicester being set up in good defensive block, Liverpool midfielder still has time and space to safely pass the ball towards one of his open team mates. If you take a closer look at positioning of Liverpool players you can see they are set up to break the opposition by quickly passing through them while Clyne is keeping change of point of attack as an option. This is normally not enough to break such a formidable defence. However, off ball movement of home team combined with flair made it possible for Liverpool to completely dominate the first half.
It wasn’t only offensive phase where Liverpool excelled in a match against holding champions. The way they played without the ball was as much important for control of the game since they prevented any threat to their own goal.
Above you can see a chart of forward passes Leicester has made in first half. Only 47 percent of those found their target and literally none of them was into the dangerous positions. The problem Leicester has, and will have throughout the season if they don’t change something significantly, is they have no plan “B”. Direct, high tempo passing to Mahrez and Vardy can work as long as the defence manages to keep the clean sheet and opposition keeps attacking. Once Liverpool established complete control of the match Ranieri’s side had obvious trouble getting into any kind of scoring position. It took a poor touch from Lucas Leiva, a horrible sideways pass to Mignolet, to get Leicester back into the game and give them courage they could still do something.
The second half saw much more engaged Leicester that was closing down well but as time passed and they committed more men forward Liverpool was always more dangerous from counter attacks and in the end they punished the guests twice more to see out the match. While Leicester has serious problem in lack of different approach to their normal long ball, Liverpoo has shown the glimpses of a team they could and will be by the end of the season. At this phase they still remind of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle of mid 90s when they were chasing title by outscoring their opponents. As Newcastle back then, Liverpool at the moment is joy to watch when they are on the ball. However, they still lack consistency to keep their defensive game for 90 minutes but since they don’t need to chase European glory, they will surely have time to work on that as well.