My good friend Zach knows I am a hard core red and so when he asked me to do a preview for this upcoming series between Villarreal and Liverpool, I jumped at the chance.
As most folks remember, these two have met recently in Europe. The only time they have ever met was back in 2016 in the Europa League semifinal. While Villarreal led 1-0 after the first leg, Jurgen Klopp in his first full year led Liverpool to a 3-0 win on the return leg.*
It’s great to see that 6 years later, it’s the same two teams in the same round, but in a much better tournament. It’s a huge statement as to how both clubs have changed over the past half-decade for the better.
While I am definitely biased, Liverpool is currently one of the best teams in the world and is playing on fire. In the league, they have drawn against Manchester City and other than that, that’s the only points they’ve dropped in the league in two months. Liverpool in Europe look to have struggled a bit more but they’re still getting through the tournament in a very professional manner.
Let’s dig in and see what Villarreal will face starting next week.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Sadio Mane has regained world renown by being an excellent left winger. He has paired with Andy Robertson and come in from the left, spent most of time over there and been an excellent scorer. But since Mane spent a month with Senegal during the African Cup of Nations, his location has completely changed.
I picked a couple heat maps from games before AFCON and after. As you can see from the Chelsea game on January 2nd, Mane did what we expect. Most of his play was off to the left, spent time in advanced positions pushing forward. While the Liverpool front three do move around quite a bit, his focus was to the left.
Now look at the heat map from the Manchester United game from this past week and we see the difference. Mane spends most of his time centrally. In the past, Roberto Firmino has played a false 9 role but with his injuries and drop off in play, Mane has slotted in there. He plays as a mix between an central advanced midfielder and a central striker. He now does what Firmino used to do. He drops deep, he connects play between the midfielders like Thiago and Jordan Henderson and connects the play to the forwards.
As Villarreal fans know, Manchester United stinks – and Villarreal got to enjoy beating them to win a famous trophy. And y’all all know how poor Harry Maguire is. So maybe take this with a bit of salt but one of the key plays that shows what Mane does is his set up for the goal. But look at this video clip here and you’ll see the change.
He’s in the middle of the field. He gets the ball and that forces Maguire to step up. As soon as Maguire does, he sends the ball over and Salah and Trent Alexander Arnold basically have a race to see who gets to get an assist on the board. He frees both of them up and he does so because he draws attention further up the pitch. That opens up holes behind. And within 5 minutes, Salah and Luis Diaz take advantage to score and put Liverpool up early. His locations will be something Pau Torres will need to keep an eye on carefully. Because of Salah’s speed, getting caught out attempting to take Mane out could cause problems for Villarreal.
Liverpool’s recruiting department has been one of the best in the world and the production line has just continued. Luis Diaz came to Liverpool this winter for 45mm euros. Since he has come in, he has absolutely hit the ground running. It’s only been 6.5 90s but in that limited time, he’s averaging 0.45 xG per 90 and 0.2 xA per 90. Which means in a very short period of time, he’s already averaging 0.65 xGA per 90 and fit completely into this front 3. What he brings is different than what Mane and Salah bring though.
While he is scoring, what he does is move the ball extremely fluidly in the front 3. Again, all of this is with a small sample size but he currently leads the front three in shot creating actions with 4.62 per 90 (only Trent Alexander Arnold averages more).
As well, what he does differently than the other two in the front three is his success dribbling. He is dribbling 4 times per 90 and succeeding at 67%. That’s incredible and his ability in 6.5 90s to be so important to such a free flowing offense says quite a bit about his talent and skills.
For Villarreal fans, here are the things I’d say to watch for. Currently, Liverpool are built to be very flexible. Their primary playmakers are Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold. But if Villarreal decide to stop them, Thiago is in the middle of the park and might be the best passer in the world.** Finally, once you get to the final third, you have Mane, Mohamed Salah and Luis Diaz wreaking havoc. The way to beat Liverpool is to frustrate them. Bring out your inner Diego Simeone, slow the game down, and make Liverpool make mistakes. When they have control of the ball and the game, they don’t make mistakes anymore. They’re so well drilled. So take control and the mistakes will start to pop out. That’s how Manchester City have slowed Liverpool down. Get inside their head, slow things down and hope for mistakes.
Either way, what I do know is this will be a cracker of a tie and while I’m clearly hoping for a Liverpool win, Villarreal is a team that I love watching play and if they do get by, I’ll be cheering for them to win it all!
*Editor’s note: Klopp went on to lose to Unai Emery in the 2016 Europa League Final.
**Sir, have you met San Dani Parejo?