How Liverpool have evolved: Thiago in the left half-space and more cutbacks like City

Now that Jurgen Klopp is the longest-serving manager in the English top flight, is there anything left to say about his Liverpool team? You know their shape. You know their stars. You know they used to be heavy metal but have mellowed into artsy dad-rock. You know they’re very, very good at football.

But the team that takes the pitch in the Champions League final in Paris in a few hours won’t look like the one that lost to tonight’s opponents Real Madrid in the same showpiece fixture four years ago. This year’s Liverpool are scarier, more skillful, and arguably more fun than the versions that came before.

The current version of Liverpool might be the best team Klopp — or just about anyone else, for that matter — has pulled together.

Consider: the title-winning Liverpool of 2019-20 managed to wring 99 points out of a +52 goal difference. This year’s squad finished at +68. That’s better than the 2018-19 team that only lost once in 38 Premier League matches, and the expected goals difference isn’t even close, +55.0 to +44.4 in favour of this season’s side. If it weren’t for their equally excellent rivals 30-odd miles to the east, we’d be talking about Liverpool right now in hushed we’re-witnessing-history tones.

These guys are legit at everything. Out of 15 positive tactical traits highlighted on The Athletic’s new playstyle wheel, Liverpool rank below the 90th percentile in just two, low defending and dribbling, and even in those are comfortably in the eighties. They’re better at building up, breaking lines, creating chances, and defending upfield than almost any English team of the last five years — including previous versions of themselves.

Like most clubs that stay great for a long time, the secret to Liverpool’s success is steady, incremental renovation.

Piece by piece, they’ve taken a team that was already historically great for most of Klopp’s time in charge, re-thought the details, and come out the other end even better for it.

Here are some ways they’ve done it…

Thiago on the left rebalanced the midfield

One of the things everyone knows about Klopp’s Liverpool is that the midfield doesn’t matter, at least not in the usual way.

The fun stuff happens on the wings, where you’ll find Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and the playmaking full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.

Instead of connecting play with dizzy short passing, like a Pep Guardiola midfield does, the guys in the middle for Liverpool are mostly there to mop up.

You can see some of that old midfield in previous seasons’ pass networks below.

The colours on the chart show a stat called possession value, which is sort of like expected goals except instead of measuring goal probabilities at the moment of a shot, it estimates how actions further back in the build-up improve a team’s chances of scoring on that possession.

Some possession value models can be pretty advanced, but this one is as basic as it gets: it calculates the average team’s likelihood of going on to score from any given area of the pitch, with no other information about what’s happening on the pitch.

If you move the ball closer to goal, those averages go up, and a passer is credited with the change in goal probabilities. It’s basically just a weighted ball-progression metric.

The full-season pass network shows all kinds of subtle but interesting changes in Liverpool’s 4-3-3.

The right winger (usually Salah) is playing slightly wider while the right midfielder (usually Jordan Henderson) is closer and better connected to him, strengthening the passing triangle with the right-back. The right centre-back (usually Joel Matip) is playing a more advanced role and creating more passing value than ever before. In the leaderboards at the bottom of the viz, you can see the left centre-back (usually Virgil van Dijk) playing fewer passes this season and the right-back (usually Alexander-Arnold) playing more valuable ones.

While the full-backs’ circles are consistently big (lots of passes!) and blue-green (valuable passes!) from season to season, the midfielders in Liverpool’s 4-3-3 haven’t always stood out. Back when Georginio Wijnaldum owned the left central midfield spot, he did less ball progression than most of Klopp’s players.

That changed last summer when Wijnaldum left for Paris Saint-Germain as a free agent and Thiago, who spent his 2020-21 debut season either out injured or mostly playing on the right of their midfield three, inherited the left side he had favoured at previous club Bayern Munich.

This was an important move that would have knock-on benefits for the rest of the team.

When he’s fit (Klopp says he is in contention to feature in the Champions League final after going off before half-time in Sunday’s Premier League season finale against Wolves), a left-sided Thiago is a game-changer.

He’s a twinkle-toed, La Masia-trained passer who likes to come deep alongside Fabinho in the build-up to help relieve pressure on the centre-backs. He’ll often drop outside them on the left, out in full-back territory, which frees Robertson to push up his wing from left-back and also allows the left winger to tuck inside, closer to goal.

The full-back hole is a safe area for Thiago to receive passes with a view of the field, so he can decide how to break down the opponents’ defence.

More importantly, receiving on the left means Thiago gets to pick his pass while moving from left to right. That’s a big deal for a clever right-footed passer.

His body shape when moving to his right naturally shields the ball from defenders and gives him a wider range of natural passing angles, including high-value diagonals to the opposite wing or into the penalty area.

Sometimes, just the threat of those passes pulls defenders out of position so he can play even more valuable disguised ones, shaping his body as if he were going to hit a diagonal but then sneaking a no-look ball across his body to break lines straight ahead.

The upshot is that Thiago is a way more progressive passer when moving from left to right.

Following a carry of at least two metres to either side, he creates more than twice as much value per pass attempt when he’s moving to his right than when he’s going in the other direction, which exposes his right foot to defenders and makes his passes curl the wrong way.

The viz above is a pass sonar, showing the number and average value of passes Thiago attempted and completed while carrying the ball to the left or right. Moving to his right, he attempts more low-percentage, high-value vertical passes with his shielded right foot. Going the other way, like he tends to do when he starts on the right side of midfield, the high-value passes dry up and he sticks to safe sideways play.

Last season, Thiago played about the same number of passes while moving in either direction. This season, in a more defined role on the left, his more valuable carries to the right outnumber the ones to the left by about two to one.

It’s no coincidence that Thiago has gone from a supposed misfit at Liverpool in his debut season to one of the best players in the Premier League when playing in his natural position.

The right-wing triangle is more fluid and more dangerous

Even when Thiago lines up on the left, Liverpool’s most important playmaker is still Alexander-Arnold at right-back.

The Englishman attempts more passes than anyone but Thiago and leads the team in progressive yards, passes into the box, and expected assists. Having Thiago as a counterweight in left midfield means that when the ball is on the other side of the pitch, Alexander-Arnold is relieved of some build-up duty and can slip up the wing, closer to Salah.

When the ball finds its way to those two in space, magic happens.

The biggest change in where Liverpool create passing value this season isn’t in midfield, even though you can see Thiago’s left half-space turning dark green in the viz below. The darkest green zones on the right wing are where Liverpool create by far the most value, compared to other Premier League teams.

With Henderson playing a supporting role in right midfield, Alexander-Arnold and Salah are free to get creative.

Alexander-Arnold has started coming inside more often in the final third, sometimes all the way to the D at the top of the box. That drags defenders around so Salah, staying wider, has more room to work.

It also puts Alexander-Arnold in position to do more playmaking than ever.

No player in the league completed more progressive passes in open play (defined as successful passes that move the ball at least 25 per cent of the remaining distance to the opposition goal) than Alexander-Arnold’s 335, beating his own league-leading 316 from last season and 307 in the one before that.

At this point, the arguments over whether Alexander-Arnold can defend are like worrying about the towing capacity on a Lamborghini.

Live a little!

The new first-choice front line creates different kinds of shots

Ball progression is all well and good, but at some point you’ve got to put the thing in the net.

Liverpool have changed the way they do that, too. This team scored 94 league goals, the most in almost seven full years under Klopp and second-highest in club history, and they did it by setting up better shots.

Their favourite finishing moves are still there — long, searching diagonals from Alexander-Arnold to a runner on the left; Salah shimmying inside one-on-one to curl a left-footed shot — but there’s been a dramatic shift this season toward final balls from inside the box, in the cutback zones more often associated with Guardiola’s Manchester City.

It was easy to miss during all the hoopla of a Golden Boot race with Son Heung-min of Tottenham that came down to the final day, but Salah’s non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes weren’t actually up all that much this season. The big change was his expected assists, which nearly doubled to 0.34 per 90 minutes, his highest rate since joining Liverpool in the summer of 2017.

Salah is still getting good shots off, but by starting his moves wider and slipping into the box from the side instead of dribbling across the top, he’s getting in position to play cutbacks and low, short crosses.

The rest of Liverpool’s attack has changed even more.

Since arriving from Porto in January, Luis Diaz has done what was pretty recently unthinkable and managed to unseat Mane on the left wing.

Like Mane, he’s great at off-ball runs to get on the end of passes from the playmakers, but instead of relying on straight-line speed he can break down defences with shifty dribbling. Until dribbling deity Adama Traore returns to Wolves from his adventure with hometown club Barcelona, the only two Premier League players who complete more final third take-ons per 90 minutes than Diaz are Allan Saint-Maximin of Newcastle and Watford’s young Brazilian Joao Pedro.

Then there’s the centre-forward spot, which has changed hands a couple of times this season.

First, Diogo Jota snatched it while Roberto Firmino was dealing with injuries, then Klopp bumped the displaced Mane into the middle to accommodate mid-season arrival Diaz on the left.

Klopp once said people will write books about how Firmino interprets the striker position, with the way he slips into the half-spaces to make space for the wingers to run in behind.

With Mane at centre-forward, the job is more of a short story: press hard, run behind the line early and often, and score a whole lot of goals.

Liverpool doubled down on the high line (and it worked)

Klopp’s attack isn’t the only thing that has undergone a quiet sea change. After a miserable 2020-21 that saw pretty much anyone who could even locate the centre-back position wind up on the injured list, it was a pretty sure bet that Liverpool’s defence would bounce back, but no one could have predicted that their goals conceded would drop 38 per cent, from 42 to 26.

Their new and improved defence starts up front.

When they lose the ball in the attacking 60 per cent of the pitch, Liverpool win it back in the same part of the field within eight seconds 24 per cent of the time. That’s the second-best counter-pressing rate of Klopp’s tenure, better than the supposedly more gegenpress-obsessed early years.

Even when they don’t win the ball back right away, Liverpool are allowing less danger from turnovers in the opposing half — especially on the wings, where their attack is concentrated.

Here’s the fun part: Liverpool have managed to cut down on counters by taking more risks, not less.

With first-choice centre-backs Van Dijk and Matip back in service after last season’s injuries limited them to a combined 14 of a possible 76 league starts, Klopp has doubled down on the high line to squeeze opponents and make them roll the dice on direct balls over the top.

That can look pretty bad when it doesn’t work.

Yes, Liverpool are counter-pressing more effectively by squeezing space in the attacking half, and yes, their high line is drawing more offside calls than ever before, but the number of through-balls they’ve given up from outside their defensive 40 per cent of the pitch this season has more than doubled.

Not even rock-bottom Norwich (41) or almost-relegated Leeds (38) could compete with Liverpool’s chart-busting 46 high through-balls allowed this season.

Still, it’s turned out to be a risk worth taking.

Goalkeeper Alisson has to do more sweeping up outside his penalty area and one-v-one shotstopping to cover for the high centre-backs, but Liverpool are starting their own possessions farther upfield than ever before, and only Klopp’s 2018-19 team conceded fewer goals than this one.

Short corners out, outswingers in

Not even dead-ball routines are safe from Liverpool’s quiet revolution.

Their attacking set pieces have improved so much this season — expected goals per corner kick or free kick within 35 yards of goal are higher than any time in the last five years.

Part of the reason for this seems to be that they’ve ditched short corners. Two seasons ago, 23 per cent of Liverpool’s corners were taken short. Last season, it was 20 per cent. In this one, only nine per cent of Liverpool’s corners were short, a drop from fourth to 12th in the league for short-corner share.

Instead of retaining possession with short corners, Liverpool have gone all-in on outswingers, from 49 per cent of their corners two seasons ago to 57 per cent last season and up to an astonishing 73 per cent in this one. No other club in the last five seasons has taken more than 53 per cent of their corners as outswingers.

The shift has paid off.

Liverpool have scored 10 goals within eight seconds of an outswinging corner this season, more than from all corner types combined in any of the last five years. They’ve been especially deadly from the left, where Robertson’s outswingers yield a higher xG per attempt than Alexander-Arnold’s versions from the other flank.

But the club’s secret weapon at corners is back-up left-back Kostas Tsimikas, who produced four goals from just 35 left-sided outswingers this season, at an xG per attempt that is 36 per cent higher than Robertson’s and 62 per cent higher than Alexander-Arnold’s outswingers from the right.

Interestingly, though, only one of those four goals was scored directly from the dead-ball pass.

His corners’ value comes in part from how their type and placement can create second-wave shots.

Tsimikas’ deliveries are tightly grouped at the near post, where the goalkeeper is unlikely to pluck it out of the air and launch a counter-attack, giving Liverpool more chances to score with less risk the other way.

Put all these little tweaks together and a team who can feel familiar, even predictable, starts to look anything but.

Yesterday’s Liverpool is not today’s Liverpool. Six and three-quarter seasons in, Klopp and his players are still hunting for any slight advantage that might help them keep pace at the top of the game.

Whether or not it earns them a second European Cup in less than three calendar years tonight, the relentless pursuit of perfection is rarely dull to watch.

(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)


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