Tactical Analysis – Crystal Palace 0-2 Liverpool
Liverpool continued their winning start to the season with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over a plucky Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Goals from James Milner and Sadio Mane sealed the deal for the Reds, who were given a proper game by Roy Hodgson’s men. It was a match full of talking points in terms of the penalty decision and the sending off, both of which went in favour of the away team.
Below, we tactically analyse the game as to how both managers went about their business on the formation side of things:
Starting Formations and Game-play introduction
The above image shows us the starting formation of both teams. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp have an identity with their 4-3-3 system, which hardly changes. A narrow front-line operates in between the lines, with the full-backs high enough to provide width in possession.
The defensive line is high, squeezing up to enable the attackers to press from the front. Their supply line is built from the back, which either goes to one of the full-backs to stretch the opposition or towards one of the front-three via midfield.
For Crystal Palace, the plan was straight-forward and mostly, efficacious. Hodgson deployed a flat 4-4-2 for this game, with a narrow midfield and defence to compact the space in central areas. The two front men are quite different from each other. While Christian Benteke provides the physical option, Wilfried Zaha is there to offer pace and trickery on the ball.
How the game was played out
There was a specific pattern as to how the game panned out. Crystal Palace’s plan of congesting the central areas to not allow space for the dangerous Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino was on course for most of the time. They made Liverpool go wide towards the full-backs and were happy to defend the crosses, as the Reds do not possess too much physical strength in their attacking line-up.
As for the away team, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold made forays up the field to supply the width but couldn’t put in clever cut-backs or flat crosses for players to attack. This was the main reason why Liverpool struggled to carve out goalscoring chances despite having more than 60% of the possession.
However, the big moment in the game arrived at the stroke of half-time, when Salah was tripped by Mamadou Sakho in the box to hand Liverpool a penalty. James Milner then tucked that spot-kick with sublime confidence. If we analyse the situation around the penalty incident, we see Palace slightly differing from their original plan.
As shown in the above image, Firmino (marked on the right) gleefully identifies the space in wide areas offered to him by the Palace players. The Brazilian is intelligent to get time on the ball so that he can put his head up for the next pass. The diamond indicates the space left by Hodgson’s men to allow the Liverpool number 9 pick out Salah in the box.
Now, there was an undue controversy whether Salah dived or Sakho’s foul on the Egyptian was soft. But the next image depicts why the Palace defender was in the wrong position to start with. Things became complicated after he tried to win the ball from the false side.
As Salah turned, Sakho is at the back of him – a wrong position for the centre-back to be in, especially when defending someone who is about to shoot. So now, the Frenchman has to either foul the forward or let him have a pop at goal. As it turned out, the former tripped the latter twice to give away a penalty. So, there is no debate about a dive on that occasion.
The second half began with the home team looking to force the issue by putting more crosses into the box. Liverpool were defensively resolute, led by Virgil van Dijk, who almost won everything in the air. The Dutchman won 9 aerial duels, most of them coming against a tall Benteke. In addition, he made 8 clearances, 2 successful tackles and 1 key interception.
Not only did the 27-year-old shore up his performance, he also helped the likes of Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold to do their roles accordingly. Both youngsters were put to test against Zaha, but came out with flying colours, not allowing the Palace striker to have free space in and around the box.
Big-money signing Alisson Becker had the first test of his credentials in the game. The Brazilian made two good saves – one from the free-kick by Luka Milivojevic and other from a downward header by Benteke. His distribution from the back was unreal at times, as he completed 21 of the 23 passes attempted, most of them being pinged up the field to start off attacks.
The second Liverpool goal was all about them creating a goalscoring opportunity when defending a corner, which isn’t something new. Once van Dijk won the header, Salah was away with Mane, and van Aanholt had no chance to catch either of them. The Reds have scored from opposition set-pieces in the past too, which epitomises their threat even when they do not have the ball.
It was a tight game throughout, with the home team sticking to their plans and executing it perfectly, barring a mistake or two. Once they went behind at half-time, it was always the case of Liverpool getting more space in the later stages of the game, especially being a man up after Wan-Bissaka sending off.
For the Reds, it was a satisfying victory as they exhibited control and match awareness without really looking attractive in the build-up. Selhurst Park is one of the toughest stadiums for any team to visit and getting three points along with a clean sheet was a huge feather in the cap for Klopp.