Tactics writer Sam Tighe examines how Saints' next opponents have kept pace with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, and identifies potential vulnerabilities to exploit at St Mary's...
This season there have been two clear, standout, cut-above-the-rest teams in the Premier League.
Each week they go blow for blow, carving out results while hoping the other slips up, swatting each other’s arms away as they reach for the trophy.
Or, in other words, there’s a title race – you know, that thing we’ve been starved of in England since 2014.
In the blue corner is last year’s champion and 100-point record-setter, Manchester City, attempting to retain the Premier League trophy for the first time since Manchester United did in 2008.
And in the red corner is Liverpool, foot pressed down hard on the gas in pursuit, and next up at St Mary’s on Friday…
In order to challenge City, the Reds have had to seriously up their game. Now 13 points ahead of where they were this time last season (after 32 games), they’re no longer just an offensive animal, capable of raining goals, but a balanced one that can marry that with a defensive solidity.
That, more than anything else, has been the key to their sustained success so far.
They’ve scored the second-most goals (72) and conceded the fewest (19). In real terms, that’s Mohamed Salah and co. still wreaking havoc, but the back line doing their bit too, and in fact lessening the burden on those further forward. Three goals aren’t needed to win a game now; two, or sometimes just one, will do.
Virgil van Dijk’s had a big part to play in that, improving the quality of Jürgen Klopp’s defensive line tenfold since January 2018, but summer recruit Fabinho’s not far behind him with regard to the impact he’s had on this side.
Quite why Klopp remains hesitant to start the Brazilian in the “big” games is a mystery, and if Sunday’s win over Tottenham Hotspur reminded us of anything, it was that Fabinho’s progressive forward passing from the base of midfield can really get the Reds moving. Unsurprisingly, control of the game was wrestled back and a winner was found.
It seems bizarre to be substituting a defensive midfielder on when you’re in search of a goal, but it worked. The question is why he didn’t start in the first place.
There’s a clear onus in Liverpool’s play to switch the ball from side to side early in the build-up phase, trying to work space for full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to run into. Fabinho, along with the other midfielders, is crucial to that, as it needs to move fast.
From there, both full-backs’ excellent crossing comes into play – something Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané have profited from greatly – while loose balls are often expertly turned home by Salah and co. They patiently probe, build pressure, then strike with quality.
Pressing with purpose
This is all much-changed from 2017/18’s effort, which was offensively brilliant, but much more chaotic, focused on speed and counter-attacks, and far more aggressive in the defensive phase, leading to openness.
The Reds’ pressing has been dialled down notably now; they still use a high stance, but focus on shepherding the opposition into difficult positions rather than tearing forward en masse.
All of this, together, has helped Liverpool achieve balance. Across the pitch, from defence to attack, from wing to wing, they can call upon so many strengths, and as such, there’s no tangible, on-pitch weakness to pick out.
sam tighethe stresses of this title race are visible in this team and its performances when things don't go their way.
Quest for silverware
Instead, Liverpool’s greatest vulnerability is their own mental state, how they cope with the pressure of every game being a must-win.
The stresses of this title race are visible in this team and its performances when things don’t go their way. When opponents sit in and frustrate them, an element of desperation enters both the fans’ voices and the players’ actions.
It’s this that Southampton must look to prey on and punish, and given the excellent record against the top six Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men boast (eight points taken, second only to Wolves) one might argue the scene is set for a title-tilting evening.