Liverpool's high defensive line assessed ahead of Merseyside derby at Everton

As debate continues about the ‘risk and reward’ dynamic of Liverpool’s high line, analysis by Sky Sports has found that the Premier League champions have pushed upfield by, on average, another four metres this season.

Already acknowledged as the leading practitioners of the ‘high line’ tactic, Liverpool’s line has been redrawn higher still since the start of the new campaign.

The starting distance of their passing sequences – the most reliable measurement of where a team is positioned on the pitch – averages over 49 metres from their goal.

Last season, Liverpool topped the league for this statistic, but with an average starting distance of 45 metres.

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So why play the high line?

In possession, a high defensive line compresses the pitch and allows faster passages of play – if a team can play through the opposition press.


Out of possession, the opposition has less space to play out and will often lose the ball under the press or counter-press.

Even when the opposition threads a pass through, or over, the high line, a well-drilled line often catches the runner offside – or pacy defenders are tasked with winning a last-man race.

A team that can pass under pressure, press, counter-press and frequently bursts from the blocks is well-suited to playing a high line and the graphic below emphasises how Liverpool excelled across these metrics last season.

The Reds’ high line helped catch opponents offside a league-topping 142 times last season – no other team surpassed three digits and the league average was only 64.

Liverpool also had an extra blanket of assurance upon the advent of VAR at the start of 2019/20: Stockley Park chalked off two goals against the Reds last season for marginal offsides.

The heatmap below shows Liverpool’s bell-shaped activity this campaign, starting midway inside their own half, concentrating in the central areas and spreading down the flanks.

Broken down, the graphic below shows the average positions this season, with the defensive midfielder dropping to shield the high-line centre-backs and the full-backs rampaging upfield.

Indeed, the zonal passing visualisation on the right-hand side reveals Jurgen Klopp’s side have attempted more passes down the left channel in the opposition half than any other area on the pitch.

But Liverpool are playing higher than ever?

To be precise, Liverpool’s passing sequences this season have typically started 49.2m away from their own goal – that’s just three metres shy of the standard halfway line.

According to this metric, Liverpool have actually pushed four metres further forward compared with last season, when they topped the league with an average start distance of 45.2m from their own goal.

However, it should be noted that while Liverpool have pushed further upfield this term, so too have Manchester City and both clubs are currently topping the Premier League charts for the highest-situated passing sequences.

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How did Villa exploit Liverpool’s high line?

Jamie Carragher was shocked Liverpool persisted with a high line during their 7-2 mauling at Aston Villa.

“I was almost laughing. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Carragher admitted after the game.

“In the first few minutes there was danger there for them and it was interesting listening to Ollie Watkins [in his post-match interview] saying they worked on Liverpool’s high line.”

Indeed, Watkins breached the line, held yards from the edge of the centre circle, to score his second – spinning from Trent-Alexander-Arnold after the full-back had committed to block the pass from Jack Grealish.

Seventeen minutes later, Ross Barkley found Trezeguet behind a strikingly high line from a free-kick, who whipped in a cross for Watkins to head home his hat-trick and Villa’s fourth.

“For me, even though Liverpool have got a good defensive record, I don’t like them trying to catch teams offside. I don’t agree with it,” added Carragher.

“Being a defender, and having played that position myself, this team play a lot higher up the pitch. They almost sacrifice one big chance a game with the opposition going through on goal.

“When someone beats your press around midfield, and they’re not far from your back four, you’ve got to get ready to go back.

“And I just couldn’t believe Virgil van Dijk didn’t say ‘listen boys the game’s gone, it’s 5-2, let’s just step back. Let’s not make this any worse’. And it did get worse.”

With 15 minutes left on the clock, Alexander-Arnold was Liverpool’s last man on the halfway line but failed to block John McGinn’s through ball, which gave Grealish a clear run on goal to seal the remarkable victory.

The high line: Risk or reward?

This season, Liverpool have already caught teams offside 13 times – level with Southampton and bettered only by West Ham’s 15.

The high line also provides space for their full-backs to push further forward, while often maintaining a safer distance for them to run back for defensive duties.

That has been a key component of the Reds’ success in attacking areas: full-backs Alexander-Arnold and Robertson notched 36 per cent of the team’s assists last term.

Liverpool’s high line helped deliver title-crowning success last season and contributed to facing a league-low 109 shots on target – but the Villa Park debacle reveals the risks involved when its unaligned or the midfield press is lost.

Everton will look to expose frailties on Saturday, having achieved a perfect start to the campaign and might also ponder a poignant omen: the Toffees last beat Liverpool exactly 10 years ago to the day and it was at Goodison Park.

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