Soccer

Champions League breakdown: How Trent Alexander-Arnold returned to form as Liverpool dominated RB Leipzig

Perhaps Jurgen Klopp had such difficulty puzzling out RB Leipzig’s formation ahead of kick-off because he could not really have imagined that Julian Nagelsmann was going to match Liverpool’s attacking trident with just a back three.

“We can identify the offensive and defensive players, but how they set up, we will see,” said Klopp. Leipzig’s one constant in European football has been fluidity of approach. When it pays off the Germans have the intensity to match any team in Europe. But when it backfires, results like the 5-0 shellacking they received at Manchester United’s hands earlier in this group stage follow.

This was not quite as bruising a defeat. According to expected goals (xG), a metric that assesses chance quality it was rather a close game with Liverpool tallying 1.39 to Leipzig’s 1.32. Of course the German’s racked up many of their best opportunities after their opponents had established a two goal lead and opted to sit off, and additionally Roberto Firmino’s first-half header into an empty net is disqualified as the ball was ruled to have just rolled out of play before Sadio Mane crossed it. In truth this defeat could have been far worse than the 2-0 margin that leaves Nagelsmann with a scintilla of hope before his side travel to Anfield.

If they are to overturn that deficit next month one would suspect that they cannot rely on the same plan, one that saw wing-backs Angelino and Tyler Adams pushed high up the pitch to leave Nordi Mukiele, Dayot Upamecano and Lukas Klostermann in man coverage with the most devastating frontline in Europe.

That was of course a sizeable risk but one could at least see a logic to what Nagelsmann was planning, getting as many players as possible high up the pitch to pressure Liverpool’s ramshackle defense and cut the supply lines to Mohamed Salah and Mane at the source. What the Leipzig head coach had perhaps not planned for was the remarkably swift upturn in form by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Pardon the tortuous NFL analogy, but the youngster functioned as Liverpool’s quarterback as much as their right-back on Tuesday and when he had sufficient time on the ball to look up he could see a receiving corps ahead of him that were all facing man coverage.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s pass map in Liverpool’s 2-0 win away to RB Leipzig, where the England international rediscovered his best form with several aggressive passes to probe the gaps in behind the defence

Doubtless it helped that whenever the ball came to Liverpool’s right-back Angelino was already wheeling back, too late to offer support for his back three against the attacking trident. That gave Alexander-Arnold the time he needed to pick passes. It’s little wonder that he created two of the best chances of the first half with incisive through balls, first releasing Salah and then Firmino with passes into the box. 

All four of the chances he made came in the first half, a tally matched by the entirety of the RB Leipzig team, and these were deliveries of real vision to his forwards. Salah’s chance was denied only by goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi’s elbow when he might have known little about the shot. It was a through ball judged to perfection, spun around both Angelino and Klostermann just as his Egyptian forward was bursting in behind the backline.

Trent Alexander-Arnold plays a pass into the channel behind the Leipzig defence for Salah to go close
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Alexander-Arnold’s work in the build-up to Firmino’s chance — a rather tame effort from the Brazilian that rolled into the sidenetting — might have been even better. As a pass out of midfield flies towards him Liverpool’s No.66 flicks at the ball with the outside of his right foot, spinning it perfectly into Salah’s path. Even before he gets the ball back he has spotted where the space is to be attacked. Upamecano has been drawn out of position by the movement of the front three and there is no chance of Mukiele getting across in time if a pass can be found.

With one through ball Alexander-Arnold takes five Leipzig players out of the move
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A swift poke of the ball forward and five Leipzig defenders are out of the game. To his credit Mukiele is at least in position to challenge the shot if not stop the pass though really the fault lies with Firmino, whose first touch takes him away from goal and leaves him with little angle to work with. Alexander-Arnold would be entitled to demand something more from such visionary passing.

In the television studios Rio Ferdinand, a former defender who knows plenty about playing out from the back, was waxing lyrical: “You see some of the passes there, some midfielders would struggle to make those passes. But when you look at him high up the pitch with the ball, there aren’t many better full-backs in the world who can pass the ball like he does in that area.”

After a string of disappointing performances this was far more like the Alexander-Arnold of old, a player that is at his best on the front foot. There were fewer aimless crosses and lapses of positioning, he would push up the field but only far enough to allow him to make the right pass. He did so far more often than not, connecting with a team-mate in every one of his nine passes in the final third until the 83rd minute.

It doubtless helped that the defensive foundations looked significantly more secure with Ozan Kabak added to the defensive line and Georginio Wijnaldum, rather than Thiago, taking on the bulk of the shielding work. Suddenly the full-backs were able to push up the pitch in a way they have not done quite so consistently amid Liverpool’s recent struggles.

Liverpool’s pass network in their 2-0 win over RB Leipzig. The size of the player circle shows how involved they were in their team’s passing play whilst the width of the green lines indicates how frequently a particular pass was played
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No wonder that the old patterns began to flow again, Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson seeing more of the ball and in positions that allowed them to dovetail with Salah and Mane. As the full-backs clicked back into action so did those around him. The frontline were pressing with renewed vigour, perhaps a reflection of their trust in those behind them. For a time this felt like the Liverpool of the past two years, one many had assumed would go unseen until Virgil van Dijk returned.

It should not be forgotten that Leipzig made this a little too easy for their nominal visitors in Budapest – first failing to shut down the supply line to the front three from right-back and then in the second half submitting to panic when Salah, Mane and Firmino pressed them. But of late this Liverpool team and in particular Alexander-Arnold have not needed much of an invitation to squander good attacking positions. Tonight when those opportunities came his way he did not let them pass him by.



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