There was no greater example of Liverpool’s strength in depth this season than their comeback victory at Villarreal in their semi-final second leg.
In coming from behind to record their record sixth away victory in this season’s competition, the Paris-bound Reds showcased their wealth of attacking options via a fantastic display from half-time substitute Luis Díaz. In this article presented by Fedex, the UEFA technical observer panel puts Colombian winger under the spotlight.
As it happened: Villarreal 2-3 Liverpool
1-0: Boulaye Dia (3)
The move began with neat combination play from Villareal on the right leading to an overhit cross from that side. Villarreal duly worked a second crossing opportunity from the left for Pervis Estupiñán. Etienne Capoue made a good run into the box and from the far post turned the ball across goal where Dia, showing excellent anticipation, sneaked in front of Virgil van Dijk to score.
2-0: Francis Coquelin (41)
In the first half Villarreal found space behind Liverpool’s last line, as showed in the lead-up to their second goal. Pau Torres played a diagonal ball down the right side where three home players were looking to make a run in behind; one of them, Étienne Capoue got on to the ball and crossed it back from the byline for Coquelin to head past Alisson Becker.
2-1: Fabinho (62)
In the first leg Mohamed Salah had supplied Sadio Mané to score; this time he slipped a pass to Fabinho on the right side of the box and the Brazilian drove a low shot through the legs of Gerónimo Rulli, the home goalkeeper. The key to the goal was the fact Liverpool had Villarreal pinned back in their final third. In the preamble, Liverpool saw one attack break down but were able to recover the ball straight away, Fabinho sticking out a long leg to beat Dia to the loose ball. Within 12 seconds, the Brazilian had driven the ball forward and combined with Salah to find the net.
2-2: Luis Díaz (67)
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s crossing ability was the key to Díaz’s fourth UEFA Champions League goal of 2021/22. The Liverpool right-back delivered 11 crosses last Tuesday night (seven from open play), completing five of them. This one, swung in with his left foot from the right, brought his third assist of this European campaign. Díaz’s clever run, ghosting into space between Raúl Albiol and Juan Foyth, and header did the rest.
2-3: Sadio Mané (74)
Mané’s 15th UEFA Champions League knockout stage goal for Liverpool followed a rush of blood to the head from Rulli. The goalkeeper raced out of his penalty area to try to reach a Naby Keïta ball from deep but Mané got there first and duly carried the ball past Foyth before rolling it in.
Player of the Match: Luis Díaz
Liverpool’s left winger scored their second goal and was instrumental in turning the tide after his 46th-minute introduction. The UEFA match observer said: “He made a major impact that changed the game, scoring and proving to be a constant threat.”
Villarreal set up in their usual 1-4-4-2 formation. Without their leading scorer in the competition, Arnaut Danjuma, they had Boulaye Dia (No16) up front alongside Gerard Moreno (No7), back in the team after missing the first leg. Where they had dropped back at Anfield, now they pressed from the first minute. They did this starting from the front through Daniel Parejo (No5) and the two forwards, with Parejo pushing on to Fabinho to put him under pressure and force Liverpool into playing longer. Capoue (No6), the deeper of the two central midfielders, then set about challenging for the second balls and winning duels.
With the ball, Villarreal looked for combinations and to play between the lines. Left-back Estupiñán (No12) provided plenty of forward runs with Francis Coquelin (No19) leaving space for him to break into down that flank. He was involved in the first goal, with the cross and, in the eyes of the observer, competed well with Mohamed Salah, the player he was marking.
The visitors set up in their customary 1-4-3-3 but Jürgen Klopp made two changes from the first leg, first with Diogo Jota (No20) who came into the attack in the place of Díaz and operated inside as Mané (No10) started on the left. In midfield, meanwhile, Keïta (No8) took the place of Jordan Henderson.
Liverpool changed in the second period as Díaz (No23) replaced Jota and took up position on the left wing, with Mané moving inside. In midfield, Thiago Alcántara (No6) played deeper and got more involved in the build-up.
As the video above shows, the UEFA technical observer panel were impressed by the role of Díaz in inspiring Liverpool’s comeback success. With his speed and direct running, he was a constant threat to the Villarreal defence, their captain Albiol reflecting afterwards that the 25-year-old had “changed how they [Liverpool] played”.
Since his midwinter arrival from Porto, the Colombian has played in all six of Liverpool’s knockout-round matches, starting three and appearing three times off the bench. On his first start at Benfica in the quarter-final first leg he scored one goal and set up another. It is arguably his ability to run with the ball which is proving most impressive, as highlighted in the first clip as he collects the ball ten metres inside his own half, turns and then carries it to midway inside the Villarreal half before playing a crossfield pass. In the second clip, we see his directness as he cuts in from the left, evading two yellow shirts before aiming a shot past the far post. As Virgil van Dijk commented last Tuesday night: “It doesn’t really matter who he’s facing, he just goes at you.”
The statistics underscore Díaz’s impact. All four of his take-ons were successful at Villarreal. Overall in the knockout stage, meanwhile, from 380 minutes on the pitch, he has carried the ball forward ten metres or more 20 times. That leaves him level with Mohamed Salah (20 carries of 10m+ from 454 minutes) and second only to Andrew Robertson (22 carries from 439 minutes) among the Liverpool team. Moreover, his average carry distance of 6.8m is the best of that trio.
The UEFA match observer offered praise too for Villarreal. In the first half they produced their best half in this tournament, pressing intensely and showing confidence on the ball. There was specific praise for Capoue who, prior to his red card, had played an influential role. Against Liverpool’s midfield three, though, it was hard to cover so much ground across 90 minutes and Villareal’s midfielders ran out of steam as the second period progressed.
Where Villarreal pressed high and forced 1v1s before the break, they fell back after it as they struggled to maintain their tempo against a Liverpool side who upped theirs and showed once more their formidable winning mentality. They have quality in every department and, crucially, impressive strength in depth, as evidenced by the fact a winger of Díaz’s quality could be summoned from the bench to spark the turnaround.
Unai Emery, Villarreal coach: “The first half we really were exceptional. It was a display to truly give us hope. At half-time we knew Gerard Moreno was struggling and feeling his injury, but we really wanted to keep him on for as long as possible. But he couldn’t sprint. And our efforts lost force a little.
“We needed to be on the ball more, we needed to control possession. But in the second half we didn’t quite have the capacity to respond to a really impressive Liverpool. Without Danjuma available and then without Gerard we lost a great deal. We didn’t have that capacity to fight back – we had fewer answers.”
Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool coach: “At half-time I told them that they had to play better in the second half than we did in the first. I told my assistants to find an example of something we did right in the first half that we could show the players to remind them, but my guys told me ‘Nope’. So I just told the guys that they needed to find more space, we needed more flexibility and to stop playing into their hands on their man-marking tactic.
“I couldn’t respect more how Villarreal played in that first half. I didn’t talk about their physical capacity to continue like that to my players – I talked about football solutions, how we needed to change the game, to force our own football through.
“Respect to Villarreal. The stadium, team, coach – it was unbelievable what they set up. They put us under pressure but we didn’t play football at all. We had to start playing football, and all of a sudden when we broke the lines, we were in the game, scored goals and made it happen.”