How Liverpool’s speed and set-piece prowess was key to winning the Champions League

3 September 2019

Liverpool’s road to the Champions League final saw them employ speed and a much-improved set-piece ability to outrun and outscore their opponents.


The Reds sealed an unlikely triumph in the European Cup last season after coming back from the brink against Barcelona in the semi-finals to set up a clash with Tottenham in Madrid.

Their victory over Spurs in the final was largely comfortable, but it showed the quality and control Jurgen Klopp‘s side have developed in recent years—and particularly, the improvement they had made since the start of 2018/19.

Liverpool’s comeback against Barcelona was largely attributed to the power of Anfield, but in UEFA’s technical report for the campaign, it was detailed how their Champions League success was based on speed.

In fact, Virgil van Dijk recorded the tournament’s fastest sprint in the semi-final first leg, at 34.5km/h, ahead of the likes of Leroy Sane (34.4km/h), Kyle Walker (34.2km/h) and Gareth Bale (33.8km/h).

But it wasn’t just in the recovery that the Reds’ lightning speed was key, with their ability to quickly transition and find the back of the net crucial.

The tournament average time in possession before scoring was 12.5 seconds, with an average of 3.89 passes in the buildup; for Liverpool, it was just 7.81 seconds and 2.51 passes.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, May 7, 2019: Liverpool's Sadio Mane during the UEFA Champions League Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Liverpool FC and FC Barcelona at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Furthermore, the relentlessness of their approach was noted, with Sadio Mane averaging the third-most sprints per game (54.38), behind only Jose Callejon (55.83) and Dusan Tadic (62.25).

And James Milner, at 33 no less, averaged the fifth-most distance covered at 135m per minute.

Liverpool’s “energy and intense pressing” was praised by UEFA, but in the final, Klopp was noted to have opted for “a safety-first, sit-deep approach,” with Spurs able to play out defence but finding themselves swarmed around the halfway line.

Six of the Reds’ regulars made the 20-man squad of the season, with Alisson, Van Dijk, Mane, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum included.

Interestingly, of the top-16 teams in the Champions League last term, Liverpool averaged the fifth-lowest possession, at 50 percent, with their ability to win the ball back quickly and punish their opposition a major threat instead.

But UEFA also highlight how Klopp employed set-pieces to his side’s advantage, though also that they could have fared even better from free-kicks and corners.

This involved goals from inswinging and outswinging corners, with Van Dijk netting one from each against Porto and Bayern Munich, and only Robert Lewandowski (2.25) posted a higher xG than the Dutchman from set-pieces (1.88).

Credit: UEFA

Though Van Dijk outscored his set-piece xG, however, Liverpool (5.12) did not, with only Spurs’ higher (5.83); the Reds scored four goals from set-pieces, while Tottenham netted two.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah‘s positioning in corner situations was deemed “noteworthy.”

“The Egyptian was positioned on the edge of the penalty area and carried a threat from there, having five shots on goal when latching on to balls cleared to the perimeter of the box,” the report reads.

Given the departure of Zeljko Buvac and the appointment of Pepijn Lijnders as his new assistant manager, there was a clear change of emphasis in Klopp’s approach last season.

The meticulous work of the German and his backroom staff paid off, and UEFA’s two examples of natural and developed speed and well-worked set-pieces are testament to the hours that went into plotting Liverpool’s success.

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