The tactical battle between Liverpool and Villarreal was one of contrasts.
It was attack versus defence, width versus narrowness, high pressing against a deep block.
But above all else, it was about tempo. Liverpool wanted a high-intensity, 100mph game. Villarreal attempted to slow it down whenever possible. A key factor in Liverpool’s eventual breakthrough was Jurgen Klopp’s side not allowing Villarreal breaks in play.
An important feature of the first half — more specifically, the second half of the first half — was the number of fouls Liverpool committed. While some high-pressing sides foul deliberately to break up counter-attacks, this didn’t seem to be a key part of Liverpool’s approach. It was more about overeagerness, with Villarreal’s players happy to go to ground to break up the game, and a slightly fussy referee.
Therefore, between the midway point of the first half and the half-time whistle, Liverpool made seven fouls.
First, Sadio Mane fouled Francis Coquelin at a corner. Villarreal used up 30 seconds to take the resulting free kick.
Then, Virgil van Dijk fouled Samuel Chukwueze as Villarreal attempted to launch a break, and was shown a yellow card. Villarreal burned 35 seconds taking the free kick.
Shortly afterwards, Jordan Henderson tried to avoid Etienne Capoue but was adjudged to have tripped him. Villarreal took 14 seconds over the free kick — and if that sounds unusually quick…
…it’s because this produced their only shot of the half, with Dani Parejo launching the resulting set piece over the top of the defense…
…for Giovani Lo Celso, who couldn’t direct his attempt on target. Villarreal barely threatened in open play.
When Thiago fouled Lo Celso on the far side, Villarreal took 17 seconds before the free kick.
A minute later, Luis Diaz fouled Parejo in the Villarreal box. The Spanish side let 20 seconds tick by before taking this free kick.
Then less than a minute later, Diaz fouled Juan Foyth on the opposite side of the visitors’ box. This time, it took them 26 seconds to restart play with the free kick.
And then, finally, in stoppage time at the end of the half, Mane fouled Capoue and Villarreal frittered away 26 seconds taking the subsequent free kick.
All this meant that, between the 23rd and 46th minutes, Liverpool made seven fouls, which allowed Villarreal to spend two minutes and 50 seconds slowly pushing their players up the pitch before hammering the ball downfield.
That time doesn’t include other reasons for the game being stopped — primarily when the ball went out of play — but does illustrate how much time can be wasted by committing needless fouls. Partly, as a result, Liverpool were unable to increase the pressure on Unai Emery’s side.
It was a different story after the break.
Liverpool didn’t make a single foul between the start of the second half and substitute Diogo Jota’s challenge on Raul Albiol after 74 minutes. By that point, Liverpool had long since put themselves 2-0 ahead, not necessarily with an obvious change in their attacking approach but by steadily building pressure.
Notably, even when Liverpool stopped committing fouls, Villarreal still wanted to play like they were making them. When Diaz and Andy Robertson challenged Lo Celso by the touchline, the ball hit the prone Argentinian in the head. He stayed on the ground, and the referee stopped the game.
Robertson furiously protested he hadn’t made a foul but referee Szymon Marciniak indicated he’d actually stopped the game because it was a head injury…
..and that was an important distinction, because at the restart the ball was dropped to Liverpool, who built another attack.
Liverpool were piling on the pressure at this point: Mohamed Salah was fouled in a dangerous position. Pau Torres accidentally flicked on a cross into the arms of his goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli. Fabinho had a goal disallowed for offside at a corner. Diaz had a decent headed chance — and eventually, the breakthrough came through a fortunate goal when Henderson overlapped and his deflected cross drifted over Rulli into the far corner.
Equally importantly, though, Liverpool were preventing Villarreal from getting out.
Emery’s side completed just three passes between the start of the second half and Liverpool’s opener on 53 minutes, none into the opposition half. They completed only five in the two minutes between Liverpool’s first and second goals, with only one of them played into Liverpool territory. They couldn’t get out and they couldn’t relieve the pressure.
In situations like this one, in the first half Liverpool might have committed a foul. Here, they didn’t.
Four — arguably five — players gathered around a Villarreal player attempting to launch a break, and Trent Alexander-Arnold calmly put his foot in to win back possession. Liverpool, again, were back on the attack.
A couple of minutes later, Mane made it 2-0 from Salah’s pass.
Analysis of fouling tends to concentrate on the “moral” arguments: Were the fouling side being deliberately dirty? Were the side getting fouled making too much of the challenges?
But this wasn’t about that. It was simply about the tempo.
When Liverpool kept their discipline and ensured the game was played without unnecessary stoppages, they increased the pressure, found the breakthrough, and put themselves on the brink of reaching a third Champions League final in five years.