Jurgen Klopp won the tactical battle with Mark Hughes to earn Liverpool an advantage in their Capital One Cup semi-final, writes Mark Holmes.
Tuesday night’s game at the Britannia Stadium was a hard one to call. Both sides had won their games over Christmas before disappointing in defeats at the weekend, both sides have enjoyed most of their success playing on the counter-attack this season, and both sides set up without recognised centre-forwards in their starting XIs.
A tight game did indeed ensue, but Klopp got his tactics spot-on to ensure that Liverpool claimed a lead which they rarely looked in danger of surrendering.
The story of the game was established immediately. Liverpool did not touch the ball for the first 27 seconds, but then a misplaced pass from Erik Pieters set up Roberto Firmino, who forced Jack Butland into action.
Stoke spent most of the opening 10 minutes camped in their own half, barely managing to string more than two passes together as Liverpool pressed high up the pitch. Time and time again they forced the hosts into a mistake, with Adam Lallana demonstrating their threat on the counter a second time when stinging the palms of Butland.
When Stoke finally managed to get hold of the ball for more than a few moments, Liverpool got men behind the ball, completely cutting off space in the final third for Bojan and co. Then, within seconds of possession changing hands, the Reds were back in the Stoke box, with Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho exchanging passes.
Coutinho again ran towards goal shortly after after the hosts gave up possession before yet another Stoke player, this time Glen Johnson, was forced into a mistake which led to a Liverpool corner. After 13 minutes, 55% of the play had taken place in Stoke’s defensive third.
If Hopes hoped that the injury suffered by Coutinho in the 18th minute may stem the tide, he was mistaken. Liverpool’s dominance was based on their system and their pressing rather than any individual players.
Hughes acknowledged that Klopp’s tactics worked to good effect in the first half, saying: “First half, sometimes you have to give credit to the opposition because they did restrict space for ourselves and did that to good effect.”
However, as good as Liverpool were, Stoke were bad.
Hughes first used Bojan as a false No.9 against Manchester City on December 5, when it worked to outstanding effect, but the Potters have now won only two of six games since that having stuck with the striker-less system.
It worked against Manchester United and at Everton but certainly not against Crystal Palace or West Brom, who both played with deep defences and played on the counter-attack. Stoke scored only through a penalty against the Eagles and via Plan B at Albion when Jon Walters headed in a cross from fellow substitute Joselu.
Really, Hughes ought to have learned his lessons against a Liverpool side that he should have known would play in a similar way. But, without a centre-forward looking to stretch the Reds’ defence down the middle, one made up of Kolo Toure and Lucas Leiva from the 35th minute, all of Stoke’s attacking players were behind the ball rather than making runs off it.
It made it easy for Liverpool. With plenty of numbers back at all times, the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic were being asked to beat two players at a time to fashion a possible opportunity.
It was a challenge which too few of Stoke’s players took up. Shaqiri in particular was guilty of passing it back too often rather than taking on his man, while Arnautovic on the opposite flank was one of the few that did look to take the game to the visitors, only with little success.
With Bojan up front and little height elsewhere outside of defence, Stoke were not even able to put Toure and Lucas under pressure from the high ball, but Hughes looked to change that at half-time when he introduced Jon Walters in place of Geoff Cameron.
He later brought on Joselu and Peter Crouch, too, with Stoke virtually playing 4-2-4 by the end, but from a defensive point of view, Klopp’s tactics were just as effective in the second period as they successfully defended the lead given to them by Jordon Ibe.
The high pressing eased off as the game wore on, but neither Ryan Shawcross nor Philipp Wollscheid looked to carry the ball out of the back for City. Liverpool were happy to cede possession, enjoying only 36%, but they simply got men behind the ball and cut off the passes into midfield, often forcing a long ball.
Walters won more than his fair share of aerial battles – six, to be precise, which was two more than any other player despite him only playing 45 minutes – but not until stoppage time did the Republic of Ireland international manage to get beyond the visitors’ defence. Liverpool fans may have feared the worst, but Toure and Lucas could hardly have enjoyed an easier evening.
Football is a game of fine margins, of course, and Stoke had the better opportunities after Ibe’s opener. Arnautovic headed wide a good chance almost immediately, Bojan miskicked when shooting from a clever corner into the box, Glen Johnson forced Simon Mignolet into a good save before half-time, Arnautovic miscontrolled when almost going clean through in the second half, while Walters will have been disappointed not to score with his last-gasp opportunity.
Had Stoke scored a couple of those, the story this morning could just as easily have been about Liverpool’s lack of possession and defensive approach, such is the nature of football reporting based around a result.
But anything other than a Liverpool win on the night would not have reflected the performances of the two teams and their managers.