Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota help paint picture of Liverpool’s tactical evolution

Thiago Alcantara celebrates scoring against Southampton (PA)
Thiago Alcantara celebrates scoring against Southampton (PA)

In the aftermath of Storm Liverpool, Ralph Hasenhuttl was still a little shook, still a lot in awe. The Southampton manager was at pains to try and paint how “hard it is to defend against a team on fire,” whose final-third play was “unbelievable” and underlined why they are “one of the very best in the world”.

What the Saints were subjected to at Anfield, beyond coming unstuck by their change of system, was the utter ferocity of Liverpool’s offensive play. The Merseysiders have scored twice or more in 17 consecutive games. Their 13 league matches have produced 39 goals for the 2020 champions; their highest total at this stage of a top-flight campaign.

That is already a staggering stat before you consider the encounters they coasted in after gaining a comfortable lead, like the writing on the wall walloping of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United at Old Trafford.

This version of Liverpool, fuelled on attacking force and consistent creation was concocted in theory as the club set records en route to breaking their 30-year title drought.

The forward-planning discussions between Jürgen Klopp and Michael Edwards, the club’s sporting director who will leave at the end of this season, centred around an evolution that would require two key things: a quality, hard-working goal threat and a press-resistant midfielder that could allow for greater control but also worry teams that looked to stem the threat from the full-backs by being able to open up games in varied ways.

Liverpool’s Diogo Jota scored twice in the 4-0 win over Southampton (PA)
Liverpool’s Diogo Jota scored twice in the 4-0 win over Southampton (PA)

Last September, a day apart, these were secured in the form of Diogo Jota and Thiago: Southampton’s chief tormentors on Saturday.

Klopp would wax lyrical on the former afterwards, calling him an “exceptional player, exceptional boy. It was for us a perfect signing because he has everything that a Liverpool player in this squad needs.

“He has the technical skills, he has the physical skills and he is very smart and can learn all the tactical stuff pretty quick. On top of that, he can play all three positions; in a 4-2-3-1 he could play as the 10. So, it is very helpful. He has the speed, has the desire to finish situations off really good. I think his goalscoring record is pretty impressive.”

While Jota made an instant impact during his debut campaign at Anfield, which produced 13 goals, the extent to which the injury crisis derailed Liverpool’s defence and central zone in 2020-21 meant Thiago’s part of the evolution - and the shape-shifting itself had to be delayed.

“We were lacking stability,” Klopp explained. “And we didn’t have stability not because we had no centre-halves for a while and we had to find solutions for that so we could not play the football we wanted to play.”

The German admitted that he “learned a lot” from that nightmarish campaign, which Liverpool did an incredible job of finishing third in and that he “made mistakes.”

Thiago strikes at goal against Saints (AFP)
Thiago strikes at goal against Saints (AFP)

Klopp circled shifting Fabinho and Jordan Henderson into the heart of defence as his main one, and perhaps if he did trust Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips completely together earlier, a lighter version of this Liverpool and the real Thiago could have been seen quicker too.

The former Bayern Munich metronome has now partnered Fabinho in midfield 13 times, with 12 victories and a draw to show for it, with 35 goals scored and just five against.

Liverpool, who have kept three clean sheets in succession, are closing in on the vision of Klopp and Edwards: the offensive hurricane of 2017-18 married with the monster steel of the Champions League and title-winning side.

It helps that Mohamed Salah has continued his phenomenal trajectory to make a case as the best player in the world on current form. The pre-season enjoyed by both he and Sadio Mane have made a massive difference to the all-round game and sharpness of both.

There is still work to be done though to fully implement the grand design: greater control and denying high-quality opportunity to the opponents.

Alisson had to bail Liverpool out of danger against Southampton on a few occasions.

“I was not happy with the chances we conceded,” Klopp said. “I have no problem that Ali has to make saves in a football game but these saves were too spectacular. One-on-one with the goalie should not happen twice in a game, for sure not. We have to really work on that.

“We have to be as stable, serious, ruthless defensively as somehow possible. That gives us then the platform to play football and then we can create and then we can score. It will not be forever like this that we score two goals per game but it happened so far. So, good. But if we win a game 1-0 then I’m happy as well.”

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