Liverpool v Watford: the need for flexibility


Quique Sanchez Flores –

Just as one Europa League-winning manager could lose his job, another manager could become a Europa League winner, after Liverpool’s 3-1 aggregate victory over Villareal.

The standard of that competition has previously been criticized, but the semi-final Spaniards have conceded a similar number of league goals to Real Madrid and Barcelona. For Liverpool to put three goals past them and dominate like they did is an indicator of the team’s potential under Jurgen Klopp.

Most English teams look static and disjointed in Europe yet Liverpool were anything but. They pressed their opponents back relentlessly and moved the ball quickly, culminating in a high-intensity display.

Watford have not been playing at anywhere near the same intensity in recent months. They have only scored thirteen league goals since Boxing Day, top scorer Odion Ighalo without one since January. The reason Ighalo is not scoring is, in a sense, because he and Troy Deeney are the only players responsible for scoring.

A four man midfield entails every player to drop deep and compensate for a numerical disadvantage in the middle by being narrowly compact. The problem with this setup is that midfielders do not have the licence to break forward and there is then no scope for attacking flexibility, which is what creates chances for strikers. It is not surprise that Ighalo has looked an isolated figure in the second half of the season.

The advantage Liverpool have over Watford is that they possess multi-functional players. James Milner can play anywhere across a midfield and combine an exemplary work ethic with elite level technique, the latter evidenced by the fact he is one of the highest assisting players in the top flight. Roberto Firmino and Coutinho are capable of scoring impressive solo goals, but they also commit themselves to Klopp’s pressing system. This theme is beginning to translate even to Daniel Sturridge, who ran tirelessly on Thursday night despite previous criticisms of his work rate.

A big factor behind these energy levels has been Klopp’s passion and by extension, his ability to instil passion in the Anfield crowd. Although not a central midfielder, he is influentially and symbolically a replacement for Steven Gerrard, which the club and its fans have craved.

Unsurprisingly, Watford’s main leaders tend to be players who had been with the club last season, Deeney and Ben Watson to name two. The former scored two late goals to see the Hornets beat Aston Villa last week, but the latter was also unlucky not to score with an excellent long-range strike in the first half. Watson provides battling qualities in midfield and offers a lot of defensive cover, but the question is whether Flores picks too many players in his mould.

Despite the good work that the Spaniard has done for much of the season, it is arguable that he has also stifled the team’s sense of attacking spontaneity. Liverpool are equally hardworking but crucially, there is a lot more dynamism and fluidity about their play.