SOCCER

What Fabinho and the Liverpool defensive line do when the team presses

ADVERTISEMENT

If we asked you to think about Liverpool’s pressing under Jurgen Klopp, what image would come to mind?

I guess it’s one of their attacking players chasing an opposing defender or goalkeeper – think Sadio Mane on Zack Steffen in the FA Cup semi-final last season or the composure of ‘Ederson under pressure from Diogo Jota during the Etihad Championship match.

ADVERTISEMENT

But that’s just one aspect of Liverpool’s pressing machine, and further down the pitch there are many other moving parts that are just as vital.

This piece attempts to shine a light on the less glamorous parts of the Liverpool press…


Our attention is often distracted by the movement of Liverpool’s front three, their more attacking midfielders or their flying full-backs. According to FBref, when it comes to the number of pressures on the attacking third last season, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson ranked fifth and sixth of all Premier League defenders who played more than 900 minutes…

…and first and third in terms of pressure percentage in the attacking third.

There are times when Liverpool’s pressing program centers on Fabinho pressing the opponent’s No.6 (as was the case against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2019-20), but when one of the full-backs push to press, Fabinho stays behind to cover them.

Here is an example against Villarreal. Mohamed Salah is keeping tabs on Villarreal left-back Pau Torres, meaning Alexander-Arnold is the one pushing forward to put pressure on Villarreal left-back Pervis Estupinan. Behind the right side of Liverpool, Fabinho covers Alexander-Arnold and marks Francis Coquelin.

And here’s an example from last season’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. Narrow press from Liverpool’s front three forces Steffen to go wide at Oleksandr Zinchenko…

…which is the trigger for Alexander-Arnold to leap. This time, however, Zinchenko wins the lead and passes it behind Alexander-Arnold…

…and that’s where Fabinho is positioned to cover the right-back and win the ball for Liverpool.

And here is Liverpool at home against Tottenham. Again, Salah’s narrow pressing role means it’s Alexander-Arnold who has to push to press…

… and once again it’s Fabinho covering behind him. Ben Davies tries to find Son Heung-min in space behind the Liverpool right-back…

…but Fabinho’s proactivity in covering Alexander-Arnold puts him in a good position to intercept Son’s ball.

Covering Liverpool’s right side during the pressing phase is one of Fabinho’s main tasks off the ball, but he also covers the left side when needed. As here against Inter Milan, the Liverpool press forced Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to go wide towards Denzel Dumfries…

… which is the trigger for Robertson to advance, as Fabinho is already backing up to cover before Dumfries even wins the header…

… so when the ball drops behind Robertson, Fabinho is in the right place, beating Arturo Vidal to the ball and halting Inter’s attack.

Liverpool are using Fabinho as a backstop in the wide areas in case the press is bypassed. Klopp’s side also protect themselves by moving the defensive line to the side they are aiming from.

So when Liverpool plan to press on their left side, as in the example below against Southampton, their right-back Joe Gomez starts moving inside before the press has started – and even before the press has started. Southampton right centre-back Jack Stephens took a touch…

…and as play develops on the other side, Gomez is still moving inside the pitch and Liverpool left-back Kostas Tsimikas pushes forward to get into a position where he can press Mohamed Elyounoussi or Kyle Walker-Peters, who is by the sideline. The ball reached the latter after a fine combination of passes from Southampton…

… but Tsimikas is facing him with several Liverpool team-mates nearby, forcing Southampton to fire the ball before sending it back for a throw-in.

Now the important part here is how the Liverpool defensive line moved to cover Tsimikas as the ball reached Walker-Peters. Ibrahima Konaté is already in left-back space, with Joel Matip in the center and Gomez near the center circle.

There is another example of this in Inter’s game at the San Siro. Robertson is at the top of the pack pressing Dumfries, who stays long behind Robertson and roofer Fabinho…

…but Virgil van Dijk is there to clinch the lead. Again, Liverpool’s defensive line has shifted to be in the right place to cover the advanced full-back, changing to something resembling a back three.

On the right side, the situation is the same every time Alexander-Arnold pushes forward to help Salah press and the opponent goes far to get around the press…

…Liverpool right centre-back Konate in this example against City is there to replace Alexander-Arnold…

…and the whole defensive line shifted, with left-back Robertson tucking inside.

These methods – Fabinho moving wide and the defensive line moving to the side the team is pressuring – help defend against long passes in wide areas, so what about long central balls?

Klopp’s side are notorious for playing a high offside line, but that’s not the case when opponents play long center balls deep after forward pressure from Liverpool. Instead, they fall behind in the aerial duel in anticipation of the second ball. Take this example against Norwich City – Angus Gunn plays a ball towards the center circle because of the Liverpool press…

…and as Gomez is ready to fight for the air ball, Konaté falls for cover instead of pushing up…

Gomez wins the lead but if he had lost the aerial duel, Konaté was there to contest the second ball.

This approach is best exemplified in their Champions League match at Porto. The high pressure of the front line forces the goalkeeper of Porto Diogo Costa to go far…

…and while the ball is in the air, Matip prepares for the header. But keep your eyes on the rest of the defensive line. James Milner, replacing at right-back, will fall next to Van Dijk, as will Robertson…

…forming a back three behind Matip to contest the second ball in case he loses his head.

That’s what happened against Benfica. Liverpool attackers force the opposition into a long clearance in the middle…

… which Matip is about to attack with Konaté and Gomez in cover. Matip loses the aerial duel…

…as does Konaté, but Gomez’s earlier movement puts him in position to win the third ball and stop Benfica’s attack.

Facing AC Milan, a long ball from Franck Kessie sets up the aerial duel between Konaté and Zlatan Ibrahimovic…

… and it’s the click for Nathaniel Phillips and Tsimikas to give up…

…so when Ibrahimovic wins the lead, they’re there to cover.

In Liverpool’s pressing machine, the defensive line and Fabinho are just as important as the front three and other midfielders.

While the focus may be on the intense, harassing stalking of attacking players, the cogs at the back help it all work.

ADVERTISEMENT