Twisting the diamond: Liverpool vs Salzburg
Last night’s Champions League group stage game between Liverpool and FC Salzburg featured two modern, progressive coaches who set their teams up to play at breakneck pace and the result was a hugely entertaining spectacle over the course of 90 breathless minutes.
Liverpool were utterly dominant for the first half an hour of this game, racing into a 3–0 lead by playing some scintillating football and scoring two sensationally good team goals rife with quick combination play, positional rotation, and clever off-the-ball movement.
But shortly after this 30 minute annihilation had taken place, Salzburg head coach, Jesse Marsch, tweaked their system and it completely changed the game, allowing the Austrian side to draw level and complete one of the great turnarounds in recent memory, before the match slipped away from them again at the end.
That tweak was relatively subtle but it’s one worth examining as it altered the course of the game.
The initial set-ups
Liverpool started in their standard 4–3–3 shape, with Fabinho sitting as the deepest midfield flanked by Gini Wijnaldum to his left and Jordan Henderson to his right.
Salzburg also stuck to their guns by lining up in their typical 4–4–2 diamond shape. Takumi Minamino and Dominik Szoboszlai played the two wider roles, with Minamino operating from the right and Szoboszlai on the left, while Zlatko Junuzović and Enoch Mwepu played the two central roles. Those two rotated on who would push forward and who would sit, but generally Junuzović played at the tip and Mwepu anchored the base at the the start of the match.
Liverpool’s early dominance
The first and most obvious point to make is that setting up with a diamond in midfield leaves you vulnerable in wide areas; it’s an inherently narrow shape that leaves your full-backs to deal with two players if the opposition’s full-backs are supporting attacks (which is especially bad news if those full-backs happen to be Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson).
Salzburg tried to combat this by having Minamino and Szoboszlai shuttle out to the wings in order to collapse their diamond into a flatter, more conventional 4–4–2 shape when Liverpool had possession in their half, as was evident in the build-up to the opening goal:
Mané dribbles past Kristensen with ease and neither Minamino or Mwepu can get across quickly enough to stop him exchanging passes with Firmino and they suddenly find themselves 1–0 down.
The problems this set-up caused Salzburg were even more apparent in the second goal:
Given Salzburg’s focus on occupying central areas, Mwepu and Junuzović are sitting extremely narrow in the middle of the pitch, which leaves Minamino isolated with the Liverpool LB when he rushes out to close him down. Robertson recognises the opportunity that this ocean of space affords him and effortlessly dribbles past his opponent.
Robertson carries the ball into the heart of the pitch as both Mané and then Salah drop deeper to provide passing options. Robertson ignores Mané and nudges it inside to Jordan Henderson, who plays a quick one-two with Salah and then spreads it out to Alexander-Arnold, who has been so neglected by the Austrian side that someone really should’ve called the NSPCC about it.
The above image is a good example of just how narrow Salzburg were playing and how the diamond generally functioned for them: Mwepu and Junuzović playing in the same vertical lane, with Mwepu concerned with protecting the area in front of his back four and his Austrian team-mate more advanced than him in order to connect with the front two.
(It’s easier to get an grasp on how this midfield structure shifted and how easily it was exploited by Liverpool’s passing and movement for Robertson’s goal in the full clip):
This was compounded by some problems centrally. Junuzović’s lack of pace meant that he struggled to get close enough to Fabinho to adequately close him down and, in the opening period of the game, the Brazilian’s passing shredded Salzburg to pieces, including a superb long ball over the top that created a one-on-one that Salah skewed wide. The other issue arose from Mwepu’s passing; when Salzburg did manage to turn the ball over and regain possession, they struggled to get up the pitch effectively due to sloppy passing from the central defenders and Mwepu in front of his back four.
Liverpool scored a third after Firmino’s header from a Robertson cross resulted in a rebound for Salah with 35 mins on the clock. All 3 of Liverpool’s goals had originated in the wide areas and it was clear that something needed to change or things were going to get even uglier.
But rather than make a substitution before half-time to try and shore things up, Jesse Marsch decided to reshuffle the players he had out on the pitch into a different configuration.
Salzburg didn’t abandon their tactical approach or even their formation — they simply altered the roles and areas that their midfielders were playing in. Junuzović dropped to the base of midfield, Minamino shifted to the tip of the diamond, Mwepu filled in on the right, and Szoboszlai stayed on the left (although he and Mwepu did play on opposite sides of the pitch until half-time, where things were presumably changed and explained in more detail).
It worked a treat.
Shifting Mwepu into one of the wide shuttling roles allowed him to use his athleticism and tenacity to aid his LB, Ulmer, in trapping and dispossessing Jordan Henderson in the build-up to their first goal:
Coaches who advocate an aggressive pressing system often talk about using the touchline as an extra player to hem in opponents in order to restrict their movement and limit their passing options. After their rocky start, Salzburg used this to good effect to turn the ball over and get themselves on the break quickly. While Minamino is fast, he perhaps doesn’t possess the same level of defensive diligence or tackling technique that Mwepu does, and allowing the Zambian to play one of the wide CM roles helped Salzburg be more effective in executing this aspect of their game plan.
With that said, putting Minamino in the most advanced role in the diamond was the real difference maker for Marsch’s team:
Minamino takes up a smart position in support of Mwepu as he carries the ball forward which forces Fabinho to be caught in three minds: does he press the ball? Does he step out to steal a yard on closing down Minamino? Or does he drop and hold his position to protect his defence? Fabinho hesitates for a moment and then plants his feet before taking half a step out towards Minamino. That momentary hesitation opens up the passing lane into Hwang onto the edge of the box and the South Korean striker takes it from there, chopping Virgil van Dijk into next week before slamming a shot in to the back of the net.
The Austrian side’s second goal came from a hopeful lofted pass down the line by Ulmer into the chest of Szoboszlai, who wins a cheap free-kick. He then takes it quickly to release Hwang in the channel before Liverpool can get set in position. Minamino’s pace, intelligence, and more advanced starting position enabled him to support the attack by arriving into the box to get on the end of his team-mate’s deep cross. Once there, he executed the finish perfectly, drilling a controlled volley into the ground and back across goal past Adrián.
Hwang shrugs off and turns past Wijnaldum at the start of the move for the third goal. The striker knocks it out wide for Mwepu (playing on the right side of the pitch for the second 45), who looks after the ball well, patiently waiting for an opening before sliding an incisive pass into the box that completely wrong-foots a static Liverpool backline:
Minamino’s the fastest to react and his pace and anticipation lets him slip between Fabinho and Virgil unmarked. Once there, he’s composed enough to find a pass across the face of goal for the substitute Haaland to draw his team level at 3–3.
But it wasn’t just in possession that this positional tweak aided Salzburg’s comeback efforts. Minamino’s mobility higher up the pitch allowed him to get much closer to Fabinho, which stopped the Brazilian’s raking passes over the top and when he couldn’t press outright, Minamino shut off van Dijk and Gomez’s access to their DM with some smart positioning. All of that caused Fabinho’s influence on the game to wane to the point that he was virtually a non-factor in the second half. It also had the knock-on effect of forcing Liverpool’s CBs to look to the wider areas to progress the ball — as they found their passing lanes to Fabinho cut off — which helped with Salzburg’s attempts to win the ball back higher up the pitch, as we saw with Hwang’s goal.
(As an aside, this is a tactic that was utilised to great effect by Mauricio Pochettino last season against Chelsea. Spurs set up with a diamond in that game as well and used Dele Alli in the most advanced midfield role so he could use his combination of physicality and intelligence to hound Jorginho at every possible opportunity. It ground Sarri’s system to a halt and Tottenham ran away with a 3–1 victory. Using a number 10 in a more overtly defensive role is a great way to disrupt sides who are reliant on a deep-lying midfielder to progress the ball)
The adjustment proved useful in Salzburg’s own attempts to build from the back and to play on the counter, too. Junuzović’s composure, experience, and distribution from deep allowed his side to transition rapidly from defence to attack as they sought to fight their way back into the game.
Jesse Marsch’s reshuffle worked wonders as Liverpool created virtually nothing from open play in the second half until the 4th goal, where a sloppy bit of control by Szoboszlai just outside his own area and a momentary lapse of concentration/poor piece of positioning by central defender Jerome Onguéné allowed Firmino to create a second goal of the night for Salah with his head. That proved to be death knell as Liverpool strangled the remainder of the game and emerged from the match bruised, but not quite broken.
It’s often the big, sweeping, dramatic tactical changes that grab the attention and get heralded as masterstrokes, but last night was a perfect example of a coach recognising an issuing on the pitch and finding a solution that rectified that problem quickly and effectively, without compromising the team’s principles or throwing the gameplan completely out of the window.
It was also a great example of the benefit having tactically intelligent and positionally versatile players in your side, as Salzburg were able to make this change just by rearranging their players instead of burning an early substitution. As simple as it sounds, good coaching and management is often about putting your players into areas/positions/roles where they can be most effective and maximise their influence on the match.
Salzburg didn’t do that from the start at Anfield, and you could perhaps argue that it took them slightly too long to adjust (the damage had already been done by the time they changed things), but last night Jesse Marsch showcased some impressive on-the-fly thinking to dig his team out of a hole. They didn’t quite get the result in the end, but it almost worked. This Salzburg team are going to cause problems in this competition and Marsch has displayed his tactical acumen on the biggest stage of European football for all to see.
Both he and his teams are ones to keep a close eye on in the future.