And so we arrive at Liverpool’s final Europa League opponents in the group stage this season (although we of course have the return leg at Union St-Gilloise and home leg against LASK to come).
The Reds are sitting pretty at the top of Group E with two wins from two, and with Toulouse up next, a victory would see them all but confirmed in the knockout rounds of Europe’s secondary competition.
Unlike the other two teams in the group, Liverpool have previous with the Coupe de France winners, having played them in a Champions League qualifier back in 2007. Rafa Benitez’s side ran out 5-0 winners on aggregate thanks to a goal in France from Andriy Voronin and goals at Anfield from Peter Crouch, Sami Hyypia and two from Dirk Kuyt.
You could also say that Liverpool and Toulouse have current – as the southern French club are owned by Red Bird Capital, who also own an 11% stake in Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group (modern football, eh?).
Who are Toulouse?
Les Violets (The Violets, owing to their purple kits) were born out of an interesting story.
The previous side in the city, of the same name, existed from 1937 to 1967 – after which they sold all their players and place in the top-flight to Red Star (the Parisian side, not the Serbian one). This left the city without a football team to root for, at least until 1970 when Union Sportive Toulouse were born. Nine years later they reclaimed the name Toulouse FC, and with it some of their history.
It's been an up and down history since then, and much like LASK and Union S-G, they have bounced between the first and second divisions of their respective footballing pyramids. This season marks the sixth time in their history that they’ve qualified for European football, after winning their first ever major trophy in the Coupe de France after winning the final 5-1 against Nantes back in April.
On voulait encore plus de frissons, donc on a rajouté une musique épique sur nos cinq buts 😍. pic.twitter.com/RTDNQIcOH2
— Toulouse FC (@ToulouseFC) April 30, 2023
That marked the pinnacle of what has been an interesting and fruitful story since Red Bird’s majority takeover – 85% to be exact – in 2020. The project has been headed up by Damien Comolli, and if that name sounds familiar it’s because he was the man that brought Luis Suárez, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and more to Anfield in his just under two-year stint on Merseyside. The club use a data heavy driven model, signing lower value ‘project’ players and giving them the environment to thrive before being sold on for profit.
After winning promotion as league winners in 2022, they followed it up with the already mentioned cup win and comfortably avoiding relegation (finishing 13th and 13 points above the drop zone).
Playing Style & Tactics
They are currently Liverpool’s closest challengers in the Europa League group with four points, having drawn 1-1 away in Belgium and beating LASK 1-0 at home. They’ve also started the Ligue 1 season with 11 points in 10 games and are sitting 10th.
So, how do they play?
There was a managerial change in the summer, with Phillipe Montanier replaced with his assistant Carles Martínez, and a raft of changes to the playing squad. So far this season the Spanish manager has used a variety of different four at the back formations – including 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3.
It’s still early days in Martínez’s reign at Toulouse, and there is some overlap in style from the previous manager. There is an emphasis on being tactically flexible (displayed by their use of numerous different formations) dependent on the opponent they come up against. What is recognisable in their approach is that they like to focus on the wide areas – both as an area where they think they can win the ball back and where they can hurt teams.
Out of possession they are a fairly passive side, not overly bothered by trying to press intently and turn the ball over in dangerous areas (creating just 64 shooting opportunities from high turnovers this season, which is below the league average, via Opta’s The Analyst). Instead, they allow teams to come on to them in their set defensive shape before attempting to win the ball back.
Once they do regain that ball they’ll look towards the wide areas in order to hurt teams – as that’s where their dangerous players are. Toulouse play with one of the more traditional number nines in today’s game, in Thijs Dallinga. He isn’t someone who will press from the front or influence build-up. What he is, is a pure penalty box striker who will look to get one touch finishes or on the end of crosses. They are one of the quickest teams in the league in terms of how fast they move the ball up the pitch. In simple terms, they’ll draw you into them, attempt to win the ball back and if they do it’ll go wide as they try and gain an advantage from their opponent being out of shape and then get it into Dallinga.
As mentioned before, Toulouse had to deal with a lot of squad turnover in the summer, and in that they lost their talisman Branco van den Boomen on a free to Ajax.
In his absence there has been a step up from Moroccan winger Zakaria Aboukhlal. He can play on either wing and is both a goalscoring and chance creation. He has followed up his 15 goal contributions (10 goals and 5 assists) with three goals in five games so far this season. Fortunately for Liverpool, the 23-year-old looks to be suffering a knee injury that is likely to see him out for both group games.
That leaves the attacking threat to come from summer signing Aron Dønnum – another wide player – and Frank Magri, a centre forward. Both are young players with high upside, such is the Red Bird model of things. Liverpool will also need to be wary of the two fullbacks, Gabriel Suazo and Mikkel Desler, who have a huge influence in both how Toulouse defend and attack.
Game Plan vs Liverpool
Toulouse are a versatile team in their approach, and coach Carles Martínez will have a particular plan for Anfield.
It may be worth looking back to their 1-1 draw with PSG earlier this season to get a glimpse of how they could approach the game.
It was one of only two occasions this season that they’ve used a three-man defence, giving them further solidity at the back. They were happy to sit in and concede nearly all possession in the game to the Paris side (Toulouse had just 24% of the ball). Instead, they managed to stifle the attacking threat by cutting off any space that Luis Enrique’s team could penetrate. They then picked their moments to attack and managed to equalise through a late penalty.
If Liverpool play their game and don’t get frustrated at Toulouse’s attempts to stifle the play, then it should be a routine win for even a changed Liverpool side. However, if the Reds are off their game at all, Toulouse do have the tools to hurt Jürgen Klopp’s side.