Liverpool’s tactical development under Jurgen Klopp has been notably progressive, as the playing system has been gradually tweaked to maximise the strengths of each key player in the squad while masking their weaknesses.
The likes of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk have specific traits on the pitch, and the current tactical make-up of the side permits those to be applied positively.
Firmino has a natural tendency to drop off from his most advanced position through the middle, for example, and that’s valuable because it’s coupled with Salah’s preference to run in the opposite direction behind opposing defences.
Interestingly, though, one of the adjustments imposed relates to how the team tend to refrain from attacking through the centre. The Reds have showcased a preference to rely on their full-backs to build attacks on the flanks, with players such as Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson instead tasked with primarily staying behind the ball and offering defensive coverage.
The system works because it’s functional as a whole.
That evolution may have occurred for reasons beyond simple tactics, though, with Liverpool being famed for their use of advanced data behind the scenes. Ian Graham is the club’s head of research, and behind closed doors he dedicates his time to analysing football beneath the surface using complex models and mathematics.
The outcomes that Liverpool’s research team have realised are unknown, but one may be related to how and where to attack on the pitch.
The middle of the field is commonly perceived as the most important. It’s the area that most teams want to control and it’s the most dangerous if the ball is lost. Graham and his team may have recognised and proved the latter notion through the application of data, with that information filtering down to Klopp and his staff.
Henderson and Wijnaldum have primarily defensive roles, but they are also instructed with making forward runs to support attacks in certain moments. When those runs are made, they seem to follow the wide theme despite those players being labelled as central midfielders.
An example is pictured below, with Henderson staying out wide against Manchester City and offering an option for a diagonal pass, rather than operating in more traditional zones.
Offensive runs of that nature are now part of Liverpool’s game. Klopp’s central midfielders seem inclined to run forwards and wide rather than straight through the middle, which hasn’t historically been the case when compared to the likes of Frank Lampard and Patrick Vieira.
There are cries from some supporters for the side to demonstrate offensive intent through the middle, but for a period of around 18 months now, Liverpool have evidenced a clear avoidance of risk-taking in central zones, which may be the case because of a conclusion grasped by the club’s research team.
Central midfield players such as Henderson, Wijnaldum, Naby Keita, James Milner and particularly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have experience fulfilling roles out wide throughout their careers. The latter performed as a winger for years at Arsenal, while the former initially started out as a right-sided midfielder at Sunderland.