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Liverpool’s biggest weakness will make Mike Bassett go all weak at the knees

Liverpool fans will be waking up with an unfamiliar feeling this morning.

Besides crashing out to Aston Villa in the League Cup featuring personnel barely old enough to buy a lottery ticket, this was their first taste of defeat in over five months in any competition.

In both instances – last night’s 1-0 loss at Atletico Madrid and September’s 2-0 reverse against Napoli – they dominated possession but were ultimately undone by one of football’s most historic tactical plays.


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Not his night

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Not his night

The Reds are unbelievable but they are human and both Napoli and Atletico have exposed a chink in their armour.

And that Achilles Heel really is Mike Bassett’s wet dream.

Why? Well both sides lined up 4-4-f***ing-2, didn’t they?

Since the start of last season, Liverpool have lost just seven games in the Premier League and Champions League.

Salah couldn’t find a way through

Reuters
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Salah couldn’t find a way through

Four of those defeats – Napoli twice, Red Star Belgrade and Atleti last night – came when Liverpool were tasked with outmanoeuvring a dogged, resolute 4-4-2 shape.

In truth, despite it being a very anglicised school of thought, English football doesn’t really have an answer to Diego Simeone’s ways. Burnley, maybe?

So is this the way to unpick Jurgen Klopp’s mean machine?

Well Atleti set the blueprint last night – and more – by turning back the clock to rediscover their identity of old.

A team bound by their love for defending

Reuters
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A team bound by their love for defending

Never have a club’s players, fans and manager all sang so seamlessly from the same hymn sheet than with Los Rojiblancos.

Simeone is their orchestrator, their puppet master, stirring up a frenzy from the touchline with contagious energy and passion.

Atleti have their limitations but collectively, no matter the personnel, they are a monster and the living embodiment of their manager’s principles.

Two banks of four in front of Jan Oblak – the best shot-stopper in the world – is a daunting prospect for anyone and Liverpool just couldn’t find the answer.

The strategy sounds simple but it still takes executing and Atleti did that to perfection.

They managed to both swamp the midfield with bodies, making the game as stodgy as possible, and double up on Liverpool’s flying full backs.

Trent Alexander-Arnold struggled to stamp his authority in any way at all, stifled by the impressive Renan Lodi at left-back and first Thomas Lemar and then Saul in front of him.

Trent was marshalled out of the game

AP:Associated Press
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Trent was marshalled out of the game

Liverpool were left rudderless; the proof is in the statistical pudding.

They had 75% of the possession yet failed to test Oblak once with a shot on target.

Simeone’s side may have defended like dogs but their shape also allowed them to pose a threat on the counter attack.

As Napoli did with Dries Mertens and Hirving Lozano in tandem back in September, they lined up with two nimble strikers in Alvaro Morata and Angel Correa.

Mertens and Napoli equally found a way past Liverpool

AFP
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Mertens and Napoli equally found a way past Liverpool

The hosts could have had more had Morata been more clinical as Liverpool left themselves exposed chasing an away goal.

This is by no means an easy template to replicate but Atleti have set the benchmark to Premier League sides in how to frustrate Liverpool.

It takes courage, discipline and an unhealthy commitment to defending to pull it off, but it is doable.

Whether they can reproduce similar heroics at Anfield is a different question, though.

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