Airbenders: How Liverpool skip the midfield and break opposition lines in the air

In this article, I’ll be analyzing Liverpool’s unique style of play, and how it helps break down opposing defences in unconventional fashion. 

Liverpool have recently been crowned champions of the Premier League. They did it spectacularly, brushing many challengers aside en route to their first English top-flight championship in thirty years.

But just how did they do it?

Well, Jurgen and his buccaneering Reds were in “flying” form throughout the season, literally.

You might have noticed Virgil van Dijk throw some brilliant passes into the forwards from the defence, or maybe you’ve noticed Trent Alexander-Arnold switch the play quickly with a long diagonal to Andy Robertson.

Well, it’s no fluke.  If you look close enough, you realize those actions happen again, and again, and again. The Reds weren’t just displaying a brilliant range of passing because they wanted to, it’s all part of the game plan.

In football, the ultimate aim of all actions on the pitch is to score a goal. The actions that lead up to a goal being scored are numerous, but when broken down can be easily understood. One of the aforementioned actions is the concept of “breaking the lines”.

The concept is simple enough, in a football team, there are three lines of opposition; the forward line, the midfield line, and the defensive line. A pass or dribble in between one of these lines to break down the opposition’s defensive shape is known as “breaking the lines”.

A line-breaking run/pass is one that occurs in between opposition lines to break down their shape. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY SOCCER COACH WEEKLY.

Teams that have more possession of the ball often employ orthodox line-breaking methods to breach opposition defences. Liverpool however have a peculiar, yet effective style.

They do make use of the method above when the opportunity presents itself, but the ace up their sleeve is up above.

Liverpool make use of long balls, high passes, and quick switches of play to unsettle opposing defences.

You’re probably thinking “Liverpool? Long balls? Really?” Well yes, they do play a long ball style whilst dominating possession, and they do so effectively and efficiently.

Per data from FBREF and the Premier League, Liverpool have played 2,396 long balls this season, the fifth most in the division.

They don’t just lump it forward randomly though, instead, they take a more calculated approach, switching play when they sense the opportunity to exploit spaces vacated by the opposition between the lines.

The plot above illustrates the number of long balls played by PL teams against switches of play. The higher up a team is the more long balls they play, and the farther right a team is the more often they switch the play. Liverpool play a large number of long balls and have switched the play the most this season.

Liverpool have switched the play 857 times this season, the most of any side in the division.

They also tend to play high passes more than most, in a bid to exploit the spaces in behind enemy lines.

The plot above illustrates the number of high passes each PL team has played this season. The farther away from the center a team, the larger the number of high passes they’ve played.

They tend to “skip the midfield” in a sense. One of the midfield three (usually Jordan Henderson) is often tasked with dropping into the defensive line, taking opposition markers with him, and making space for Liverpool’s flying full-backs to exploit.

Once the opposition is slightly out of shape then Liverpool either;

a. Play a long ball above the midfield into an attacker who has inhabited the spaces between the lines.

Liverpool tend to "skip the midfield" and get in behind opposition defences with long balls.
Liverpool tend to “skip the midfield” and get in behind opposition defences with long balls. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY SKY SPORTS.

b. Quickly switch the play from one flank to another, advancing the ball on that side and unsettling the opposition.

Liverpool often switch the play to create overloads.
Liverpool often switch the play to advance the ball. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY SKY SPORTS.

Using these methods, they advance the ball very quickly across the length of the pitch and are able to orchestrate deadly attacks.

One moment you’re closing down Virgil van Dijk on the halfway line and the next moment Sadio Mane is through on goal.

Not many teams are able to defend these situations well and with the quality Liverpool have up top, they take advantage of this in devastating fashion.

Consequently, Liverpool have won the league, and they quite literally flew to the top in the process.

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