Liverpool’s webbed feet: Is this a new solution for Liverpool’s attack?

In biology, adaptation is the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment. For example, many animals have developed certain body parts to adapt to their environment.

Most aquatic animals have adapted and evolved with webbed feet to aid swimming. Webbed feet provides security from predators by allowing these animals to move faster in water.

In football, it’s a similar scenario. Transfers, injuries and suspensions at times force you into new decisions and approaches. Creating solutions to overcome these circumstances is a form of adaptation.

Liverpool’s injury woes coupled with the hectic schedule this season have played a big part in their drop. A snowball of poor finishing and facing clever and strong defensive structures have also affected their goal scoring numbers. In 11 league games since the home game against West Bromwich Albion, Liverpool have scored only 9 times with an xG of 17.27 according to Understat’s xG model.

Liverpool are definitely creating chances but the injuries in the defensive line have also hampered their midfield by moving Jordan Henderson and Fabinho one line backwards.

The absence of Henderson in particular affected Liverpool’s right side due to the decrease in combinations with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah.

The environment has forced Juergen Klopp and Liverpool’s hands. So did the Sheffield United game provide a glimpse of adaptation from the German manager?

Liverpool’s 4–3–3 has regularly seen Roberto Firmino drop to aid the midfield three. That’s nothing new, but his positioning yesterday was exclusively in the right channel.

Roberto Firmino’s heat-map vs Sheffield United via WhoScored.com

In possession, Firmino moved to the right channel as Curtis Jones advanced higher in the left channel. It was more of a lopsided 4–2–3–1 rather than the regular 4–3–1–2 shape that is formed when Firmino drops.

Firmino’s presence in the right channel provided the role that Henderson used to play. Helping Alexander-Arnold and Salah through triangular combinations and making runs in behind the defence. In this example, Firmino’s run freezes Enda Stevens for a split second. Allowing Salah to drop and receive the ball comfortably from Arnold.

The time Salah had meant that he could play the forward pass into Firmino easily because Stevens isn’t that close to him.

Once Salah passed to Firmino and started his run, Oliver Norwood moved to double up with Kean Bryan and press Firmino. As a result, that freed Gini Wijnaldum to make a run into a free space in midfield.

Firmino smartly saw that and played the ball into the space for Wijnaldum to commence. Firmino’s presence in the right channel was the catalyst behind this move. Firstly, freeing Salah, and then playing Wijnaldum into the space.

The positioning in the right channel from Firmino also allowed the Brazilian to make late runs in the box. From this position…

….he managed to combine with Sadio Mane and Thiago Alcantara after the Senegalese brought down the long ball.

The initial ball from Thiago was meant for Mane…

….but Firmino made a late run from midfield, picking up the lost ball from the aerial duel between Mane and Ethan Ampadu. Firmino missed a great opportunity to open the scoring as his shot was saved by Aaron Ramsdalde.

Another example illustrates how Mane is the central player here as Firmino is moving towards the right channel. Here, Thiago finds Mane with a diagonal pass…

….while Firmino was making a run from deep in the right channel towards the box. Mane’s pass was too heavy for the Brazilian to catch though. It’s also noticeable here where Jones is positioned in comparison to Wijnaldum and Thiago.

The English midfielder was regularly making runs into the box in the left channel, providing Liverpool with an additional threat inside the box. Something that they have been missing of late due to Wijnaldum’s change of position because of the recent injuries.

The runs from Jones gave Alexander-Arnold another target in the box. An accurate far post cross from Arnold here found Jones’ run….

….but the midfielder wanted to control the ball instead of striking it after it hit the ground, which gave Ramsdale time to react and close down.

Firmino’s presence in the right channel and Jones’ runs dovetailed together to present a new solution to Liverpool’s attacks. Here, Firmino offers a passing option for Thiago after a couple of right sided combinations from Liverpool.

Then Jones’ run means that Firmino has another option other than Mane and Andy Robertson. The pass here from Firmino was slightly far from Jones, putting Robertson in a worse shooting position outside the box rather than inside the box if Jones had controlled the pass.

Another attack sees Firmino dropping into the right channel to provide Alexander-Arnold with a progressive passing option.

Firmino then chested it down for James Milner who replaced Thiago….

….before a combination between Milner, Mane and Salah put the Egyptian in this crossing position. Making a late run into the box was Jones, but Salah opted here for a cross towards the far post for Robertson.

There were also multiple times when Liverpool should have risked a ball behind the defence towards Jones. On the ball here it was Firmino, dropping into the right channel to help Liverpool progress through their right side, who could have played the pass.

Eventually, Liverpool came out victorious and their two goals summarized the approach in attack. In the first, Jones could be clearly seen in his advanced position….

….which puts him in a good position to strike the ball past Ramsdale after the ball was circulated down the right hand side.

The second goal featured the second half of the equation, Firmino. In the build up of the second goal, his positioning worries the Sheffield United midfield and both John Fleck and Ben Osborn shuttle across to block the passing lane into the Brazilian. Which allows an easy pass into Thiago

With both Sheffield United midfielders away from Thiago, he progressed forward easily and found Firmino with a simple ball into the right channel. After that it was all magic from Firmino as he combined with Jones and then Mane to double the lead.

This approach might have been custom made for Sheffield United, but it also might be a new approach in attack. An adaptation to the circumstances.

Ernst Mayr, one of the 20th century’s leading biologists stats that “adaptedness… is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking”, meaning that the question of whether something is an adaptation can only be determined after the event.

For Liverpool, time will tell if that’s an adaptation or a mere tweak.

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