24 August 2017

Visualized: Liverpool 4-2 Hoffenheim

Previous Match Infographics: Crystal Palace (h), Hoffenheim (a), Watford (a)

Match data from WhoScored.

(Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

The lesson, as always, is I'm an idiot.

Chances are we're getting "soak up and counter" Liverpool. Defend deeper than usual, hoping to prevent the gaps and mistakes which lead to long-ball and counter-attack concessions. Try not to give away any set plays. And then burn them with pace, with Salah, with Mané. As tempting as it is to go at Hoffenheim from the opening whistle, that Liverpool getting one goal wouldn't dramatically change proceedings will play into Klopp's tactics.

I was spectacularly wrong. Spectacularly. And I couldn't be happier to be so.

It's not as if Liverpool can or will ever completely focus on defense. That's not Liverpool. Liverpool just aren't built to play that way, a couple of first-leg European performances at Dortmund and Villarreal aside. Liverpool "focusing on defense" usually means heavy pressing from the front and quick counter-attacks. And, to be fair, we did get a bit of that.

But I did not expect that show of force, that show of strength. That much of a trip to the woodshed for the first quarter of the match. Those first 24 minutes rivaled anything we've seen in the last few seasons – even The Great Arsenal Massacre of 2013-14.

In those first 24 minutes, until Hoffenheim were forced into a tactics- and formation-altering substitution, Liverpool took nine shots. Hoffenheim took none. Four of those Liverpool shots were clear-cut chances, three of those shots ended in goals.

Hoffenheim just could not breathe.

Within four minutes, Mané was through on goal thanks to Firmino's defense-slaying throughball, denied by Baumann. Within ten, Liverpool opened the scoring – another throughball from Firmino to Mané, this time holding up play before a back-heel to Can, a fortunate finish via deflection. Eight minutes after that, Wijnaldum hit the post when set up by Firmino, and poacher-in-extremis Salah's on hand for the rebound tap-in.

And then, in the 21st minute, one of the prettiest goals you'll ever see. Embedded here, because it's just that sexy. And if this embed is country-protected because Fox Sports – which at least won't get taken down because of copyright – I encourage you to Google. Now. This'll be here when you get back.

My gods. All the gods. Just watch it again, then a few times more. It's as good as team football gets.

Moreno forward into Firmino, who has dropped as a "false nine" should, then turned and makes the necessary run forward after laying off to Wijnaldum. Who delivers as perfectly-weighted a throughball as you'll see – and we'd already seen two from Firmino. Then Mané's intelligence in holding up play rather than an early low cross to a covered Salah; seriously, this is the most underrated part of the move. Then exactly the back-heel needed to release Firmino, followed by Firmino's cross with his weaker foot to the exact spot for Can to finish with his weaker foot. The entire move from start to finish, from one of the pitch to the other, took just 12 seconds.

Woof. I'm done. I'm on the floor and I have no idea where I am or where my pants are.

Incidentally, two of Liverpool's three goals so far had featured back-heels from Sadio Mané. A small matter in the greater scheme of things, but I want to note my fervent approval.

But, credit where due – and it ain't much credit – Hoffenheim steadied. Hoffenheim made a necessary and improving change: Uth for Nordtveit, attacker for defender and a switch to a 4-2-3-1. Because a high-line three center-back defense was getting absolutely shredded by Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, with Can and Wijnaldum cleverly taking up spaces vacated by retreating center-backs. A back four with deeper full-backs and central midfielders at least stemmed that tide for a while.

And it got Hoffenheim a goal back, with some help.

It feels slightly pedantic to blame an individual player for a goal conceded in a match where Liverpool often ran riot, but step forward Dejan Lovren. Wait. No. Don't step forward. Don't step forward after playing a pass directly to a Hoffenheim attacker in your defensive third, creating the angle for Wagner to feed Uth. The substitute's goal from a wide-box shot to reduce arrears, just as he did in Germany a week ago, this time less than four minutes after coming on.

That could have been tilt. Or at least a little tilt-y. We've seen Liverpool, no matter the good that came before, sink faster than the Titanic when faced with adversity after unnecessarily conceding. But that did not happen here.

Liverpool should have extended its lead even further in the 36th – Moreno cross-field to Alexander-Arnold, one-touch perfectly weighted for Salah, a low cross to Firmino with the goal dead to rights but somehow shot straight at Baumann. Not long after, Emre Can was inches away from a 42-minute hat-trick. Meanwhile, Hoffenheim remained limited to a couple more half-chances from Gnabry and Uth.

Liverpool just kept doing Liverpool. Gegenpress, then go for the throat. Sure, play the high line. Press fervently. Attack, right away, if given the slightest glimmer of a chance.

Liverpool were incorrigible. And ultimately unstoppable. The second half never saw the heights hit in the first, but Liverpool were in control of tenor and tempo if not possession. Another clear-cut chance, a couple of shots on-target well saved by Baumann – who truly prevented a massacre – and then the final nail into Hoffenheim's coffin in the 63rd minute. Henderson charging forward from deep to press Vogt into an error, then laying off for Firmino. 3-1 up, 5-3 on aggregate, with 30 minutes to play, and your deepest midfielder is doing things like that. Liverpool can really be fun sometimes.

And from there, a formality. Liverpool rarely tried to attack, taking 20 minutes from the fourth goal to even register another shot, and Liverpool were kind of, sort of punished for it with Hoffenheim's second consolation: a well-hit cross after a well-worked throw-in, but more notably Matip losing his man, leaving Lovren one versus two and Wagner first to the ball to head past Mignolet. Yes, this was a match where I was extremely happy with what Liverpool did for 97% of the time. But it was a match where Liverpool also conceded two goals mainly because their two center-backs each did something not great.

That second consolation was also enough of a wake-up call. Hoffenheim would get no closer. Hoffenheim wouldn't take another shot for the rest of the match.

Yesterday saw Liverpool's attack almost at its best. Almost. And the only reason it's "almost" is that six or seven goals wouldn't have flattered the home side.

Liverpool had six clear-cut chances. Everyone in front five had at least one. Liverpool's high last season was five, achieved twice, in the 5-1 win over Hull and 6-1 win over Watford, and Hoffenheim is neither Hull nor Watford. I've been tracking Liverpool clear-cut chances for three seasons now. This is the most I've seen in a single match. Meanwhile, Hoffenheim had none.

Liverpool put nine of 20 shots on-target. Liverpool took 17 of 20 shots inside the box. Liverpool out-shot opponents who needed a win, who needed at least two goals to get that win, by 11 shots. And that's despite (or maybe because of) Liverpool having just 45% possession.

We're four games into the season and each of Liverpool's preferred front three have scored two goals. Mo Salah's the only of the three without an assist.

There have only been four games, so "sample size" in big flashing neon letters, but this is what Liverpool's front three are doing so far:

It wasn't just the attack either. We finally got a functional Liverpool midfield too. An assist, five successful tackles, two interceptions, and 89% pass accuracy from Jordan Henderson. Three in-box shots – good chances coming after smart runs – that killer pass to start the move for Liverpool's third goal, and three key passes from Wijnaldum. Oh, and two goals from Emre Can, who was reportedly ill.

Most sides would've have done what I expected Liverpool to do. Hoffenheim needed two goals, so first and foremost make sure Hoffenheim doesn't get two goals. Well, that's not Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool.

Hoffenheim got those two goals. Liverpool got four.

This was Liverpool's game, Liverpool's match, to a T. Look up "Klopp's Liverpool" in the dictionary and you'll see this, probably the best example of what they're capable of against this type of opposition, since the 4-1 victory at Manchester City early in the manager's reign. An onslaught from the opening whistle. Press, blitz, finish. Lather, rinse, repeat. A boot, stamping on a human face – forever. Until the defense does something dumb, but at least not until Liverpool are out of sight.

If only more opponents would let Liverpool approach matches similarly.

However, as noted by someone smarter than I on Twitter (stupid private accounts and pseudonyms make it hard to credit), Liverpool are a Wijnaldum error and blown offside call (on the same injury-time play) from a perfect start to the season. It should be two wins from two in the league, and is two wins from two in the Champions League qualifiers. Despite all the issues we've repeatedly mentioned in previous matches. Despite Coutinho, Lallana, and Clyne yet to play a single minute so far.

Despite Liverpool being capable of much more than we've seen so far. But yesterday was as close a glimpse as we've gotten yet.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of the work you put into these! Just a note that Salah should be credited with a goal (rather than Mane) in the shots, assists, chances created graphic. Mane was amazing and deserved a goal. Hopefully he'll get another against Arsenal.

nate said...

There's always something. Thanks v much.