Tactical Watch: Exploiting the high line

By SFC Media time Mon 16 May Saints vs Liverpool

Sam Tighe previews Southampton's final home game of the season, as title-chasing Liverpool travel to St Mary's in the Premier League. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.

Southampton’s final home game of the season serves as both an opportunity for St Mary’s to send the players off in style – and to play the part of spoiler in Liverpool’s chase for the Premier League crown.

The last time the Reds made this trip, back in January 2021, they lost 1-0 and Ralph Hasenhüttl sank to his knees in tears at the final whistle, the evening’s incredible exertions taking its toll and producing an iconic touchline moment.

To achieve victory here, it will undoubtedly take another Herculean effort. The last few months have shown that you have to play exceptionally well for 90+ minutes to beat Liverpool. Take your eye off the ball for one second and it can undo all of your good work – as Aston Villa, Villarreal, Tottenham Hotspur and even Manchester City will attest to of late.

Southampton do boast a small advantage heading into tomorrow night, though: they’ve had over a week to prepare for this clash, whereas Jürgen Klopp’s mind will undoubtedly have been fixed on the weekend’s FA Cup final against Chelsea until Sunday.

Klopp will have to continue rotating his squad effectively as he takes on his tenth game in the space of just over a month. It means the makeup of the XI he fields – particularly the front three – will be a complete mystery until the teamsheets are handed in, but the team approach is well drilled no matter who plays.

Liverpool will press and try to engage Southampton high up in their build-up phase. The pressing isn’t as ferocious as it once was, but it’s extremely well-coordinated, hunting in packs and baiting sideways passes to pounce upon. Sadio Mané and Naby Keïta have been especially good in this area, forcing mistakes and converting them into chances.

The dynamic of how Liverpool attack has changed a little following the January signing of Luis Díaz. He regularly takes up the left-wing berth, pushing Mané into a new centre-forward role, and both look to run in behind the defence regularly – whereas before, Liverpool’s centre-forward would often drop deeper.

Having forward runs from left, centre and right has opened up opportunities for Thiago Alcântara’s luxurious passing range. He’s hit his best-ever level in Red recently, his long diagonal strikes in behind causing so many problems. Add that to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s usual wicked crosses from deep and Luis Díaz’s bamboozling skills and runs, and it hammers home how varied the threat this Liverpool side carry is.

Armando Broja
Attack stats
goalGoals
9
Total shots
46
Shots on target
27
Conversion rate
19%
Mins per goal
250
See all statschevron right

Defending against all of this is tough. Pushing up and pressing plays into Thiago’s hands; he wants to spin you and then loft a ball in behind for a runner. Sitting deep allows the full-backs to creep forward and create, while Mané has developed into a top penalty-box poacher who gobbles up half chances. You also need to put yourself in a position to be able to attack and test Liverpool’s high defensive line, which must be taken into account when setting your defensive stance.

Liverpool almost force you to play games on the precipice; stepping out and trying to disrupt them is extremely dangerous, but it’s the only way to put them on the back foot and put you in with a chance of testing the space in behind – space Southampton’s strikers will relish running into.

But that space is there by design. Klopp leaves it open on purpose, trusting the 1v1 and recovery ability of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, and betting that when teams try to take advantage of it, they expose themselves at the other end.

It’s a delicate dance on the edge of a cliff; Southampton need to be resilient at one end, combative in the middle and über clinical at the other if they’re to manage what almost everyone has failed to do this season: beat Klopp’s Reds.

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