Southampton may have been raided of much of their top talent during the summer but only the absence of a clinical edge cost them a result here against the prime culprit.
Liverpool’s announced first eleven suggested a continuation of the 4-3-3 shape that brought them much success last season. The starting shape, however, turned out to be a 4-2-3-1, with Lucas joining Gerrard in a double pivot and Coutinho in his preferred number 10 role. Jordan Henderson was shunted out to the right, with Raheem Sterling playing as an inside left. Former Southampton centre back Dejan Lovren joined Martin Skrtel in defence.
Southampton, under new manager Ronald Koeman, fielded the same shape, a continuation of the policy of the previous regime. However, James Ward-Prowse and Steven Davis were swapped from their usual roles. Ward-Prowse had built a decent understanding with right back Clyne, but here he was fielded as the number 10 – behind new target man Graziano Pelle – with Davis on the right of midfield. Maya Yoshida made his first club start since February at the back alongside Jose Fonte.
From the off, a change of approach from the visitors was clear. Under Pochettino, Saints fans had become accustomed to pressing in the opposition half, coupled with a high line. Here, however, the pressing was only initiated on the halfway line. Liverpool’s defenders were put under no pressure and could pick their passes at will, demonstrated by Dejan Lovren’s 100% pass completion rate in the first half (he was Liverpool’s top passer in this period).
The high line of old was still in place though, meaning that the visitors were very compact from back to front, preventing Liverpool’s attacking midfielders from getting space between the lines. Coutinho in particular was completely nullified due to this and only got turned on the ball between Soton’s defence and midfield twice in the first half. He showed no ability to vary his position to get around this lack of room.
If Liverpool were to penetrate they had to rely on through balls from deep. Given the pace of their front line and the proven ability of the side to play successful through balls, it seemed odd that Soton were playing so high as a unit. It was important for Soton that they applied enough midfield pressure to prevent Liverpool threading passes through from deeper areas. Luckily for them Victor Wanyama was on the case. With seven successful tackles in the first half alone (and nine in total) he ensured that Liverpool’s penetration was limited. Only two through balls found their mark. In the 6th minute Sturridge dropped deep and held off Wanyama to feed Sterling in the inside left channel. He shot straight at Forster under pressure. Then, in the 23rd minute, Dusan Tadic was dispossessed (and probably fouled) by Manquillo, allowing Henderson to skip a Schneiderlin challenge and dispatch a fantastic curling through ball into the inside left channel for Sterling to finish and put Liverpool one up. Right back Clyne was caught up the pitch due to Liverpool’s attacking transition being so swift. This after all was their main strength last year – the ability to turn defence into attack quickly and effectively.
Southampton’s strategy in an attacking sense was simple (and led indirectly to Liverpool’s opener). They looked to play quick cross-field passes into the right back area to left winger Tadic and rely on him to go on the outside and provide the crosses for Pelle. Unfortunately for Saints, Tadic had an appalling first half, completing no crosses, no dribbles and being dispossessed four times. Javier Manquillo completely shut him down, even allowing for the yellow card he picked up for a late challenge on the Serbian.
In the second half, Soton immediately looked to press higher, hounding Liverpool’s defenders in possession and committing more men forward. In the 55th minute they got their reward for their braver positioning, when an outside-in run from Clyne was untracked by Sterling. Clyne played a one-two with Tadic, who was now cleverly varying his positioning by drifting right to escape Manquillo and overload Liverpool on that side. Tadic took Lovren out of the game with a deft backheel into the inside right channel. Lucas was ballwatching, allowing Clyne to sneak in behind him and blast home.
Minutes later, Soton could and should have been ahead. Tadic and Ward-Prowse combined in front of the Liverpool defence before finding Steven Davis running in unmarked from the right. He shot straight at Simon Mignolet. An appalling finish.
Rodgers took immediate action. He removed Lucas for Joe Allen and pushed Coutinho out right, with Henderson central. This was now the 4-3-3, with Gerrard as the sole holder. Rodgers was hoping that the dynamic forward running of Allen and Henderson would break the opposition lines and lead to more goalscoring opportunities.
The next big chance would again go to Soton however. Another Tadic/Clyne combination lead to a chance for Pelle. Martin Skrtel made the crucial last ditch saving tackle.
By this time, however, Southampton had dropped as a unit again and it was Liverpool who had the territorial advantage. In the 76th minute, Rodgers went for it, introducing a second striker in Rickie Lambert and moving to the midfield diamond that often featured last season, with Sterling at the tip, Gerrard at the base and Henderson and Allen as the shuttlers. It was Henderson who would initiate the winner. Shuttling to the right to maintain his side’s width, he crossed to the edge of the six yard area. The ball went over Lambert’s head but the clearing header was poor and only reached the edge of the area. Steven Davis allowed Raheem Sterling to win the aerial duel and his header found Daniel Sturridge in between Clyne and Fonte. 2-1.
Now, once again, the momentum shifted. Liverpool were now the side defending their penalty box as Soton piled forward for a second equaliser. Amazingly the visitors would go on to be presented with (and spurn) two more clear cut chances. With two minutes remaining of normal time, a poor clearance was headed back into the box. Pelle held off Skrtel, allowing Morgan Schneiderlin to unleash a point blank screamer that Mignolet somehow tipped onto the bar. A stupendous stop. The resulting rebound fell to Shane Long who incredibly directed his free header wide. This is why Long’s £12 million transfer raised so many eyebrows – despite his work-rate and his movement in the channels, he is quite simply a poor finisher for a striker at this level.
Soton had 77% of the possession in the last 10 minutes, demonstrating the type of siege that Liverpool were subjected to. Fortunately for them, the Saints’ chances had come and gone.
An extremely even battle here in which the more clinical side came out on top. Both sides had limited success with their chosen strategies – Liverpool with quick through balls behind the opposition defence and Southampton with an extreme passing focus down the left towards Tadic. The visitors created four clear cut chances and only converted one. Liverpool created two but converted both of them.
Southampton have much to be pleased about here. Their defensive strategy worked well. The compactness of their side coupled with the high defensive line crowded out Liverpool’s attacking midfielders. Pressure on the ball in deeper areas was important, and thanks in the main to Victor Wanyama’s ball-winning masterclass they weren’t overly exposed to through balls from deep. Liverpool only successfully attempted two all game, one of which led to the goal. This, of course, was tinged with controversy, as Manquillo did appear to foul Tadic to allow Henderson to recover the football. Of course the soon to depart Schneiderlin still deserves criticism for missing his challenge which let the young midfielder in.
As for their attacking strategy, it was one-dimensional and ultimately a failure – quick switch to Tadic, go on the outside, cross to Pelle. Javier Manquillo, however, had other ideas, completing six tackles and four interceptions in an excellent debut showing. Only one of Tadic’s 13 crosses found its target. He was dispossessed five times and only completed one dribble. Credit to him however – he changed his approach in the second half, drifting right to overload Liverpool’s midfield and penetrate with one-twos. He created the goal and was unlucky not to create another.
As for the home side, again apparent in this game, as it was throughout last season, was Rodgers’ ability to coach his side to play in and switch between a number of different shapes. Three different formations were on show today and his side never once looked to lack attacking cohesion.
However, while his side’s attacking transitions are still looking good, their defensive transitions are still sorely lacking. Southampton’s big three attacking situations culminated in clear shooting opportunites for untracked midfielders/defenders. While Lovren and Skrtel had solid games and new man Manquillo won his battle against Tadic, the big problem is just ahead in midfield. Tadic’s drifts to an inside right position were not picked up on two occasions, led to one goal and should have led to two (were it not for the Skrtel’s last gasp intervention). If Liverpool are to consoldiate this season, they must resolve this. The only genuine holding midfielder that they possess, in Lucas, was partially culpable for the goal. The signing of talented Bosnian holder Muhamed Besic by city rivals Everton looks like a missed opportunity for the Reds.