Villarreal the latest to be placed in Liverpool choke hold and tap out

They’ve such varied attacking talents to mete out punishment when they win it back

"People might say I'm obsessed with the counter-press," Jürgen Klopp began, going over the 4-0 Anfield win against Manchester United on the Tuesday before last, a game in which there had been so much to admire about his Liverpool team's performance, particularly in the first half.

So much, in fact, that their work off the ball felt almost secondary. Not to Klopp. “The counter-press was absolutely, completely, different level,” the manager continued.

So, yes, Jürgen. People might say you are obsessed with it. But there really is no need to be self-conscious because it is worth obsessing over, especially after the latest Anfield illustration on Wednesday night when Villarreal were placed in the choke hold and eventually tapped out.

Unai Emery’s minnows had reached the interval of the Champions League semi-final first leg at 0-0 and the manager would profess himself satisfied at how they had defended. But it took a toll; everything does against Liverpool. Take Villarreal’s attempts to play out from the back. There were times when the centre-half Pau Torres looked a picture of composure in possession, stepping up past an opponent, playing a nice pass. Ditto the midfielder Dani Parejo.

They helped Villarreal to construct encouraging sequences, even if they felt risky, moments when they withstood the initial waves of Liverpool pressure. They were up and moving. And then you realised that they had not even made it to halfway. And then Liverpool won the ball back.

It is draining for opponents, mentally as much as physically, and it said much for Villarreal’s resolve that they did not panic in the first half when the Liverpool counter-press forced turnovers, even high up. They continued to stick to their gameplan – the basic tenet of which was to remain compact in a 4-4-2.

But when teams cannot get out, their ambition is crushed. And when the pressure is so intense, it feels inevitable that they will crack, particularly when Liverpool have such varied attacking talents to mete out punishment.

When Villarreal did so in the 53rd minute, Jordan Henderson's cross taking a deflection off Pervis Estupiñán to sail in, they could not shake their heads clear to prevent an immediate second. They did not engage Mohamed Salah – a manifestation of the effects of the onslaught – allowing him to turn and play in Sadio Mané.

One shot

“We wanted to play a better game over the 90 minutes, create better chances,” Emery said, mindful that his team’s only shot had come late on from the substitute Boulaye Dia, and it was a tame one. “We needed to be able to win the ball and counter or suck them in and get out. We wanted to avoid that heavy pressure and get away from our goal.

“However, we didn’t do that as often as we would have liked. It is difficult to get out of the pressure that they put you under. We tried to play our game but they didn’t let us.”

The principal positive that Villarreal's management and players seemed to identify was that it was only 2-0. It could have been worse, already over. Some of them conceded in private that it might have been 5-0. The return next Tuesday at the Estadio de la Cerámica will be different, they believe, in front of their own fans; possibly with the key striker Gerard Moreno back from injury. What if they could score first? They retain hope. They will also draw on how they were able to beat Juventus and Bayern Munich over two legs in the previous rounds.

“Liverpool did not feel any threat from us, we have not made them suffer but we know we can create some problems for them,” Emery said. “Next week, we are going to be able to get more out of our attacking play. We will take the game to them more.”

The goalkeeper, Geronimo Rulli, promised that he and his teammates would give their lives in the effort to reach the final in Paris against Manchester City or Real Madrid. “No doubt you will see a different Villarreal next Tuesday,” Rulli said. “We have every confidence in the world.”

But what is plain is that they will need a remarkable turnaround, something even more dramatic than what they produced in the second legs at Juventus and Bayern, which they had entered at 1-1 and 1-0 up respectively.

Emery said Liverpool were a “big step up” from Juventus and Bayern and there is an acknowledgment at Villarreal that Klopp’s squad are on a different level to them in sporting terms.

The numbers are against Villarreal. Liverpool have missed only one result that has mattered since January 2nd – the 2-2 Premier League draw at Manchester City on April 10th – and the last time they lost by two or more goals was in the 3-1 defeat at Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final first leg last April.

What ought to concern Villarreal even more is the mentality that Klopp has instilled. Juventus and Bayern were overconfident against Villarreal, with Bayern, especially, making it clear that they expected to advance, which served to rile their opponents.

There was zero chance of Liverpool being guilty of complacency and so the question is whether they can show the same energy and remorselessness away from Anfield. Klopp said after the first leg that 2-0 was not his favourite scoreline. Then again, his team were 2-0 up at half-time against United and he said the same. He need not have worried. - Guardian