After its 2-0 win at Southampton on Sunday, Liverpool remains unbeaten in 2015 besides an extra-time loss in the League Cup semifinals. The Reds are also the only team to score more than one goal against Southampton twice this season.
Ronald Koeman set Southampton up in its usual 4-3-3 with two holding midfielders, narrow wingers and overlapping fullbacks. The team’s shape resembled 4-2-3-1 in defense, with the wingers dropping alongside playmaker James Ward-Prowse.
Liverpool trotted out the 3-4-2-1 that has found some stability after Brendan Rodgers’ experimentation last year. Raheem Sterling ran across the front line alone, ahead of a box midfield.
Playing three center backs against a three-forward system often causes problems for the defensive trio. Liverpool struggled to build out of the back on Sunday, as Southampton’s frontrunners easily marked Dejan Lovren, Martin Škrtel and Emre Can.
Besides three narrow forwards marking out the center backs, the Saints’ fullbacks stepped to take away the wingbacks as outlets for possession. Liverpool’s fourth midfielder against Southampton’s three became difficult to find while facing high pressure.
Southampton defended high, and only Sterling remained to chase long clearances. Liverpool defenders found more success playing long balls angled toward the advancing wingbacks or creative midfielders pulling wide.
Both teams found trouble building up through a crowded central channel. Liverpool’s best moment in attack came on Philippe Coutinho’s early goal, with Lazar Markovi? involved high up the touchline for one of few moments in his time on the field.
Coutinho drifted inside, between lines in the Southampton midfield, and unleashed his otherworldly long shot that rattled the crossbar. Liverpool changed the point of attack from the right to left flank to get around the crowded middle, stretching Southampton’s holding midfielders to give Coutinho space.
The Reds attacked opportunistically but struggled to maintain forward momentum, particularly in the first half. They managed just one shot to Southampton’s five, their one goalscoring opportunity only converted courtesy of a world-class finish. Liverpool completed 73 percent of 357 attempted passes throughout the match.
Southampton kept more possession but struggled to be effective with the ball. The Saints finished with 55 percent possession, completing 81 percent of 520 pass attempts, but their best opportunities came off long balls toward Liverpool’s three center backs.
Again, those one-on-one matchups in the back created trouble for Liverpool, which had little room for error and no free man in defense. Playing three in the back against two forwards leaves one free to recover loose balls and organize the team in front; Sunday’s team shapes meant all three Liverpool defenders had marking responsibilities.
Škrtel looked particularly vulnerable, lacking the mobility of Can and Lovren despite his 13 successful clearances (eight headed) and winning 60 percent of his aerial duels. Southampton completed 49 percent of its long balls and should have exploited the Liverpool defense better, especially on a wet day at St. Mary’s Stadium.
The Reds were clearly uncomfortable in the back, their center backs’ individual defensive abilities again called into question. They could have conceded a penalty 20 seconds into the game when Can challenged Filip ?uri?i? in the box, and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet should have been sent off for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity with a handball outside the box before halftime.
Southampton generally pinned Liverpool back with its possession. Nathaniel Clyne and Matt Targett overlapped wide, keeping Liverpool’s wingbacks in their own end. The Reds’ team shape resembled a flat 5-4-1 out of possession.
Liverpool left space between its back and midfield lines, but Southampton circulated the ball too slowly in the middle to find players in the gap. By the time a passing lane opened, a defender stepped in front of the server.
The Reds conceded possession by collapsing their shape, but they only needed a couple chances to win, playing away from home in poor weather. Southampton’s sustained first-half pressure dwindled, and Liverpool created four goalscoring opportunities in the second half to the Saints’ three.
The home team’s best spell of combination play down the middle came in the 50th minute. A series of one-touch passes set Graziano Pellè up with enough space to turn and fire toward goal, but he rolled his weak shot wide from about 23 yards out.
Coutinho’s strike and Sterling’s late finishing touch after a poor defensive giveaway in a series of Southampton errors sealed the victory. Good teams take advantage of their opportunities, sporadic as they may be in a match in which they don’t have control.
Southampton outshot Liverpool by more than double, 13-6, but the Saints failed to create dangerous chances through their possession. Only low-percentage long balls provided flashes of potential.
The quality of play was low in a chaotic match, but the Reds’ suffocating defensive shape paid off. It wasn’t pretty football despite its moments of energy and entertainment, but it was one of Liverpool’s most important victories of the season, drawing within two points of the top four ahead of a showdown with Manchester City next weekend.