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  • Writer's pictureMilton Ceita Da Costa

Liverpool : The Long Ball vs. the Long Pass

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

Graham Taylor, the great Watford manager, once asked “When does a long pass become a long ball?” He was describing how, depending on the player and the team, observers would be more or less willing to accept such play. It is a fair point.


Now, what would those spectators say about league leaders, European and world champions, Liverpool Football Club ?




 

The Reds, particularly with Virgil Van Dijk and Dejan Lovren, play a high volume of long passes. Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah are the habitual recipients although midfield runners are targeted as well. There are a few reasons behind this. One is a tactic almost synonymous with José Mourinho. Particularly at Chelsea with the devastating Didier Drogba and at Inter Milan with the underrated Diego Milito, Mourinho would send his men out in the first 10 to 15 minutes with the objective of sending long passes forward so as to push the opposition defensive line back. José Mourinho has gone on to do this with Romelu Lukaku at Manchester United and Harry Kane at Tottenham. The underlying theme is the type of center forward. Although each can do much more, these player shave the ability to be target men. Liverpool do not have anyone in that ilk and yet they have by far played the most long balls of any of the top six teams with Chelsea the closest but still approximately 200 behind*. Liverpool is closer to Everton, Southampton and even has more than Newcastle. The long pass is a staple of Liverpool’s tactics.


The 2019 Champions League Final was a fine example of this. The final itself was poor and lacked quality, but Liverpool were not bothered (although in the months following, Klopp mentioned that he would have preferred less direct play : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D4LI0-YkdE 13:30). Much of this was due to the constant passes from back to front completely bypassing the midfield. There is merit in this. The long pass is just that ; a long pass, not a long ball. It is measured and most of Liverpool’s backline is overwhelmingly capable of delivering them.


The Benefits of Liverpool's Long Game


The result of playing this way is that the opposition defensive line drops deeper to defend against prevent a pass over the top. This means then that the opposition midfield needs to drop as well to reduce the chasm between the defensive line and the midfield line. If not, Liverpool’s front line, particularly Roberto Firmino, will drop into the space between the midfield and the defense and wreak havoc. Mané with his creativity and directness, Firmino with his ingenuity and flair and Salah with his drive and power are all capable of being a danger in this area.


Salah’s pinning of Tottenham’s defense along with the possibility of a run in behind liberates Firmino in the hole. Firmino has time to turn and play a ball into Salah who then leaves it for an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross.



The opposition defense thus drops deeper to anticipate these passes. Mané and Salah each have blistering pace and so playing an offside trap is tactical suicide ; note AS Roma’s high line in the 5-2 defeat to Liverpool in the 2017/2018 Champions League Semi Final First Leg at Anfield. Although the high line was utilized to squeeze the space Liverpool had it resulted in the disastrous open spaces behind the Roman backline.


Liverpool’s relatively high stats for long passes, 1,378 (premierleague.com), stem from success and different types of long passes. The center backs regularly switch the field of play (Van Dijk to Trent Alexander-Arnold is common).

Salah and Firmino are positioned more infield to grant Alexander-Arnold more space.



Liverpool progress the ball up the field quickly. Their possession is never stale and the forwards are constantly prepared to make runs in behind the defensive line. The midfielders as well. The obvious consequence is that the defense is prevented from pushing farther up and thus squeezing the space between Liverpool’s midfield and Liverpool’s forwards. It also provides a constant option for Liverpool players which creates some unpredictability.


Although not capitalized, notice the space created in the middle by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s forward run.



A team will thus drop their entire personnel deeper to avoid letting Firmino drop into that space or allowing Naby Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain or Georginio Wijnaldum drive through the midfield.


Liverpool’s verticality in play and in positioning creates a pocket of space for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.


Liverpool’s midfield has been described as workmanlike (which does a disservice to these three in particular) but even a workmanlike professional can hurt a team when given space.


Most teams play in a low block against Liverpool. Intensely covered in articles as much as anything else Liverpool-related, until the last couple of years low blocks have been a massive thorn in Liverpool’s side. They would struggle to break down teams who would reduce distance between the lines and the space in the channels. This was somewhat mitigated by Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian is gone but Liverpool no longer fears this tactic. In fact, their long game promotes its use. Now, they are more comfortable getting past a low block with fullbacks who can cross as well as anyone, dribbles and off-ball runs from midfield, a center-forward who consistently drops into space and scintillating inside forwards. They also add numbers to attack with new confidence in their defensive structure primarily anchored by Alisson Becker And Van Dijk. This illustrates Liverpool’s evolution and progress. With Firmino often checking in and (even dropping behind some of the midfielders at times) Mané and Salah move infield concerning the opposition backline with the threat of their pace while at the same time allowing more space to the fullbacks.


There was a diagonal ball here and although less vertical than the other examples in this article, it is another illustration of Liverpool’s long game. Salah and Mané occupy four defenders with their positioning liberating space for Andrew Robertson out wide. By the time Kyle Walker gets out to Robertson it is too late.



Liverpool will usually try to play out from the back when pressed unless the play becomes unviable : passes into any of the options slightly further upfield are covered. That is when it becomes more of a long ball, than a long pass, if we want to split hairs. However, they also play more directly when there is an opening even if a shorter pass is available. The Premier League leaders know how to vary their play.


A shorter option into midfield was available but young Neco Williams chose to execute a cross-field ball to an open Divock Origi.



The long pass is also a transitional tool. Besides the fact that they can clear their lines and move forward and gain yards (here the long pass becomes a long ball), it also useful in pressing schemes. Although Liverpool does not press high up the pitch in the same manner as before, it is a transition from which they still benefit in those advanced areas.


Not the best example but nonetheless illustrates the usefulness of the Reds’ long game



It is not quite goalmouth incident, but there is a similar underlying concept. Send a calculated ball forward and, depending on the level of execution, positive things can happen. (1) Neither team acquires definitive control of the ball and the opposition sends it back to Liverpool.

The ball is sent forward and then back towards Liverpool. Liverpool in this case, like Tottenham, struggle to control the ball but the opportunity is there.



(2) The ball is, at best, only momentarily controlled by the opposition and in a vulnerable area. Liverpool reacts and pressures the ball carrier, forcing a mistake and recovering the ball in a dangerous area with the opposition’s defensive structure now less solid.

In this example, it was a completely unforced error and lively awareness and a gamble that rewarded Mané and Liverpool. However, notice Henderson begins his sprint forward in anticipation of the error.



(3) The ball is controlled by a Liverpool player and they evolve their attack in this new area.

That Liverpool goal vs. Bayern Munich. Effervescence. Van Dijk is once again the man to deliver the pass. Mané's pace, control and invention prove to be too much.


An ambitious, simple but pinpoint ball over the top for Oxlade-Chamberlain who invades the space left by Roberto Firmino


The pass is initiated higher up the pitch and on the left side but an opportunity is nearly created. With the entire backline capable of delivering these passes, Liverpool's attack is difficult to stop.



Liverpool’s formerly-(somewhat) maligned-but-now-lauded midfield is crucial in this. They are tactically excellent, flexible, mobile and have been drilled superbly. The team executes pressing traps and one of the midfielders is often the beneficiary, recovering the ball and playing quickly to a teammate in space or a 1 v. 1.


Liverpool are an exciting side to watch but not just for free-flowing football or for a high number of goals ; they are attractive because they blend styles, they can progress the ball on the ground methodically but also with speed and extreme verticality and they look to apply constant pressure on the opposition when on the ball and when transitioning.


The long pass has been ridiculed and, often rightfully so, been heavily associated with unattractive, fearful football. However, the best team in the world utilizes it and does so with intelligence and quality. As Graham Taylor suggested, maybe it is time to change our vision of the long game and properly define it. It is not just a tool of cautious minnows but a weapon of ambitious titans as well.


Graham Taylor, the great Watford manager, once asked “When does a long pass become a long ball?” He was describing how, depending on the player and the team, observers would be more or less willing to accept such play. It is a fair point.



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