Unai Emery and Aston Villa’s high line malfunctioned

Unai Emery and Jurgen Klopp have differing in-possession principles — the former more patient, the latter more vertical — but without the ball, they are profoundly alike.

This meant the outcome of a game between the two would depend on which side was more effective in exploiting the other’s high line while enforcing their own.

Villa’s steadfast shape, and how they stay high irrespective of where the ball is and the amount of pressure applied, was inevitably going to be tested. Emery’s defenders are required to hold position and catch runners offside, sometimes leading to dramatic examples, as the one shown below in the pre-season friendly against Valencia.

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If executed correctly, the high line instantly becomes effective. It is a shortcut in turning over possession due to the increased number of offsides. For instance, Villa caught Son Heung-min, Tottenham Hotspur’s main exponent to overcome the high line, offside four times in a 2-1 victory in May last season.

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Liverpool are more adept at overcoming such issues, given they adopt similar methods and therefore understand the shortcomings of the approach.

In retrospect, it was an unfortunate storm for Villa at Anfield. Klopp described the 3-0 victory as “perfect” with Liverpool fresh and energised.

As he made clear after the defeat, Emery’s players are still fine-tuning their structure in and out of possession and injuries to defensive players — Tyrone Mings on the opening day against Newcastle United and crucially, Diego Carlos in the first 20 minutes at Anfield — does not help.

Liverpool returned to their most ferocious and aggressive pressing traits, minimising Villa’s time on the ball and turning over the ball high. This was especially pertinent in negating opportunities to play over Liverpool’s high line and, such was the number of red shirts committed to their press, preventing the ball from reaching Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins who would be two versus two against the centre-backs, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez. The corner that created Dominik Szoboszlai’s opener came after Pau Torres was dispossessed in his box.

“We thought Ollie Watkins might be quicker than Joel,” said Klopp. “If you leave them (Watkins and Diaby) alone, the pitch is too big to defend. That’s why we were really compact.”

Emery opted for the same structure that was clinical in the win away to Burnley, with Matty Cash ahead of Ezri Konsa. This enabled Villa to build with a back three with the ball and a 4-4-2 without it, due to the latter consequently shifting to right-back.

But Konsa’s natural tendency to defend in positions akin to a central defender meant Liverpool soon exploited the space. Before Carlos’ injury forced a reshuffle, Luis Diaz, Konsa’s direct opponent, had received the ball 12 times in the opening 20 minutes. In comparison, Mohammed Salah and Darwin Nunez had received four times between them. And Liverpool just kept sweeping the ball out to high and wide areas where Diaz was stationed.

Without pressure on the ball, Trent Alexander-Arnold had licence to drift into midfield and make raking diagonal passes to Diaz or over the top of Villa’s defence.

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Carlos’ injury did give Emery the opportunity to address structural wounds, with Cash dropping to right-back and Leon Bailey in his position.

Villa’s frontline curbed their pressing. When Diaby did try to apply pressure on Andy Robertson, he cut a frustrated figure with Bailey, staying deeper and tasked with dropping alongside Cash to cut off the pass into Diaz, not backing up his endeavours.

Quickly, though, Liverpool began to open up other angles. Attacks became a matter of footraces in which, against Salah and Nunez, the odds were rarely going to be in Villa’s favour.

Both combined for the second goal. It was an unfortunate deflection off Cash but served as a case in point as to what happens if there is no pressure on the ball against a passer of Alexander-Arnold’s quality taking aim on a vulnerable backline.

The malfunctioning of the high line began to dishevell those individually. Torres is still acclimatising to the pace and physicality of the Premier League while Lucas Digne was in a perpetual state of stick or twist.

If he decided to press Salah out wide, Szoboszlai ran inside him. If he stayed tucked in alongside Torres, Salah had the same amount of space as Diaz on the opposite side. Digne’s day was summed up, aptly, towards the end when trying to avoid another corner. The Frenchman ended up swiping hot air as the ball hit the corner flag and deflected away from his kicking arch, resulting in a set play.

Aside from Nunez hitting the crossbar instead of the post and not ending up in the net, a replica of Liverpool’s second made it 3-0. This time Villa did catch Salah offside, but without him interfering in play. Nunez, initially deeper, instead got on the end of another whipped pass into the left channel. Liverpool’s patterns of play were similar and constant and hammered Villa’s high line into submission.

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“I was trying to practice the last 25 minutes with changes and some players like Nicolo Zaniolo and Youri Tielemans because we are now in the process of trying to build a team and after some injuries, (even) more,” said Emery.

As Emery rightly pointed out, Villa did concede two goals directly from set plays, which indicates the high line was not the sole factor in defeat but an accompaniment.

Yet, the initiative was seized in open play and caused chaos to the visiting players, who chased a lot of passes over their heads by the end.

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