Liverpool beat Russian side Anzhi 1-0 in a cagey affair at Anfield. This win took them to the top of Group A after the first three rounds. Stewart Downing scored from left back in the 53rd minute, and it was enough for Liverpool on this occasion.
There were few chances in the first half, but in after Liverpool took the lead in the second half the game opened up a little bit.
For much of the first half, Jonjo Shelvey struggled with his movement in and around Luis Suarez. With Suarez’s ability to turn in tight spaces, and his desire to receive the ball to his feet when he drops deep, he requires a certain amount of space to enable him to do so.
This is where Shelvey struggled. Often he was static in these areas where Suarez likes to drop into, meaning that area of the pitch was congested. This meant the line of pass from midfield or the central defenders was not available and Liverpool could not penetrate Anzhi.
In the 6th minute, Shelvey received some strong words from manager Brendan Rodgers, who encouraged him to keep on the move in order to take away defenders and allow Suarez to receive passes from deep.
As seen above, Jonjo Shelvey (circled) is static and being closely watched by a defender. This meant, when Daniel Agger had the ball, he did not have an option to hit Suarez as he dropped deep, because this area of the pitch contained Shelvey and an Anzhi defender. Agger was then required to pass to Şahin, and Liverpool failed to penetrate.
Instead, Shelvey should have been on the move and aware of how his positioning would affect the players around him. If he had pulled away, it would have taken the defender with him and allowed Suarez to receive the ball in space – where he has the ability to turn and run at defenders.
This problem continued throughout the early stages of the first half, but Rodgers persisted with his communication with Shelvey, and the best chance of the first half fell to him in a similar situation.
In the 23rd minute, Shelvey had vacated the space in which Suarez would drop into, creating a direct line of pass from midfield into the feet of the striker. Suarez was then, as he does so often, able to turn the defender who had positioned himself too tight to Suarez. Suarez could then run into space and play a square ball to Shelvey, who had supported – but Shelvey could not keep his shot down. Shelvey received generous praise from his manager after this move.
Moving into the second half, the score was 0-0 and Rodgers made a tactical switch – replacing Glen Johnson (who had seemingly picked up a knock) with Raheem Sterling, meaning Stewart Downing moved to left back.
This move paid dividends, with Downing scoring the all-important first goal in what was a cagey match. Downing had cut inside onto his weaker right foot, and when he was not closed down, he had time to shoot. The ball swerved away from the keeper and into the far side of the goal – giving Liverpool a 1-0 lead.
After that goal, Liverpool had a spell of about 10minutes of attacking dominance where they pinned Anzhi back. During this time, the Shelvey/Suarez combination showed signs of vast improvement.
When Assaidi had the ball on the left wing his options were cut off. As seen below, Shelvey (circled) was in the space where Suarez likes to drop into. As Assaidi passed inside into Gerrard, Shelvey burst away, allowing Gerrard to pass directly into Suarez as he came deep. Suarez was then able to turn and drive into the box, however on this occasion his touch was too heavy and Zhirkov was able to recover and clear the ball.
As has become a regular occurrence, Liverpool did not increase their lead during their spell of dominance and the introduction of Lacina Traore helped Anzhi come back into the match. Anzhi increased the tempo, pressed higher and attempted to equalise.
Their best chance in the second half came from pressing high up the pitch and winning back possession – with the knowledge that Liverpool will attempt to play out from the back with nearly opportunity.
On this occasion, the Anzhi defenders did a great job of pressuring Stewart Downing and making him decide what to do – either hit a longer pass forward (as all his options down the line where unavailable) or to play inside where Anzhi could then press.
Downing decided to pass inside, however chose to pass to Skrtel rather than Brad Jones. This allowed Samuel Eto’o and the left winger to aggressively close down Skrtel, forcing him to clear the ball. Possession was then won back by Anzhi and Samuel Eto’o had his shot saved by Brad Jones.
With Anzhi now looking to equalise and Liverpool holding onto a tight 1-0 lead, Brendan Rodgers chose to make a substitution, replacing Shelvey with Joe Allen. This was done in order to solidify the Liverpool midfield, however Anzhi was still able to have half-chances to equalise.
This time, Liverpool scrapped out a 1-0 win, and with the other result in the group going their way, they now find themselves top of the group.
Brendan Rodgers will be pleased with the result, as the decision to line up with a very strong XI paid off. This win leaves Liverpool in a strong position to qualify into the latter stages of the competition, with 6 points from three games.