Liverpool beat AS Roma 5-2 at Anfield in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. Braces from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino along with a goal from Sadio Mane ensured the Reds had a commanding lead of 5-0 before Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti gave the Roman a glimmer of hope before the second leg in Italy. We analyse the game tactically and bring the perspective as to how Roma were terrible defensively which was well exploited by Jurgen Klopp’s men.
The above image shows us the formation with which both teams began the game. It was quite evident that Roma coach Di Francesco was trying to play a “Liverpool way” of high press, but with high wing-backs and compact midfield high up the pitch. And for what it’s worth, the away side had the better off the home team in the early exchanges and we were all thinking, “this might be the way to counter Liverpool’s early pressure game.”
Though, as the Reds figured out the Roma formation, they got behind their back-line at will. There were many times in the second part of the first half that likes of Mane, Salah and Firmino got space to run in behind with Roma having a narrow back three and their wing-backs way high up to catch the wide runs. This is when Liverpool began creating opportunities which ultimately led to two goals by the end of the first half.
The first goal was a pure strike from Salah, he got the space and time to cut the ball onto his left foot and unleash an unstoppable shot. The second goal was a simple ball clearance from Virgil van Dijk but the first touch from the Egyptian to lay off for Firmino was exceptional and then his run to become an option for the Brazilian was something out of ordinary.
As we can see in the above image, once Salah laid the ball to Firmino, the Brazilian rode the challenge of Manolas to make it a 2 v 2 situation at the back. The thing to behold here was the dual run in a single move made by the Egyptian. He first made an outward run to drag Jesus out with him, then he suddenly changed the direction of his run with pace inside the defender right through the middle. Now, Firmino picks him out with a perfect ball and with Allison coming out to deal with the situation, Salah was cool enough to chip the ball over the goalkeeper to make it 2-0.
The theme of that first half performance from Liverpool was adjusting to what Roma was doing at first and then playing direct balls into their forward line in transition, which would leave their opponents’ wing-backs out of the game, and it basically became a game between back three versus the front three.
The Roma manager didn’t make a change in the second half as well in terms of his team shape or the defensive line. The first 20 minutes of this half was also the repeat of Liverpool, especially Salah making in behind runs down the sides of the wide centre-back Juan Jesus. Kolarov was far too high on that side and the Reds from midfield or wide areas easily picked him out with over the top or direct passes.
The Reds scored three more goals in the second half, two from that ball towards the Egyptian who turned creator for Mane and Firmino. Off the ball, the home side were very jointed in pressing from midfield and in high areas. On few occasions, they allowed Roma to have the ball in their own half before pressing them in lower block and catching their defensive line incredibly high. A big mistake made by Di Francesco, maybe he was too confident on his defenders to pick the runs or trusted in his midfielders to close the ball throughout for the whole game.
If we the heat-maps of Roma’s wing-backs, we can clearly understand about the tactics we were talking about above. Both of Kolarov and Florenzi’s main impact in the game have been higher up the pitch and they have had the least amount of touches in their own defensive areas. They actually had more touches around the centre line area, which suggests there was a plan from the manager to be that high.
In contrary, if we see the heat-map of Salah, he actually has attacked the space most which was left by Kolarov. He was mainly playing on the shoulder of the wide CB Jesus, giving him the dilemma whether to stick with him wherever he goes or stay deep, the latter was obviously not the option as per their manager’s tactics. Sticking with the man means he had to defend well 1 v 1, which he obviously did not.
Despite going 0-5 down, Roma were very resilient in the last 12 minutes of the game. A clipped ball from Nainggolan caught Lovren out, who, at first thought to get the header but got underneath, his back-tracking meant Edin Dzeko was onside behind the Croatian. The striker then brought the ball down and scored past Loris Karius.
As soon as the midfielder got his eye up to look for the run of Dzeko, Lovren back-tracked and the other three defenders were almost on the same line playing the striker offside. So, there were two small mistakes from the Croat which led to the opening goal for Roma. First is to play him on side and the second is to misjudge the flight of the ball.
If we see the bigger picture, a score 5-2 in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final is not at all even close to being a bad result. It is a fantastic result for Liverpool with one condition that now they have to score at Rome to stay clear of the panicky situation next week. With the kind of attack Liverpool have and the kind of job Roma has next week, there will be chances for likes of Salah to score the away goal. On the other hand, the Reds will have to defend much more. All in all, a close to perfect first leg from Klopp’s men.