We’ve all been used to winning, and winning comfortably over the last three years.
This Liverpool squad has been at the peak of its powers for almost the entire time. Nothing, it seemed, could go wrong.
But as elite level sport teaches you, a champions’ rivals always hit back with a mission to knock you off the top. And defending a title really isn’t helped when your squad sustains critical, significant injuries. This is not an excuse, it’s a fact.
Absentees are a huge reason for Liverpool’s current demise. Among them are some of Liverpool’s primary leaders, players able to score a scruffy goal to open up a game or nail a set piece to break a deadlock, forcing opponents to come out and play. Those spaces aren’t appearing anymore as opponents are forced to chase matches and it’s magnified Liverpool’s minor deficiencies.
The low block
Although Liverpool’s players were on ‘holiday’ and waiting for the inevitable to being crowned champions after Project Restart, it was clear the rest of the league had the chance to have a good look at Jurgen Klopp’s side.
It’s clear Liverpool are facing a lower block this year – whereby teams are sitting deeper and allowing Liverpool more low value shots from outside the box – and although Marcelo Bielsa’s swashbuckling man-to man system is easy on the eye, it was never the philosophy to counter Liverpool’s strength when Leeds went to Anfield on the opening weekend of the season. In an open game, superior quality generally comes through, and so it did on that particular day.
Teams now, in particular at Anfield, have denied Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane the space to run into, and when they do get in behind from time to time, the opposing keeper generally cuts it out. Packed defences are set up to receive balls into the box, and even the delivery from Liverpool’s full-backs looks so predictable.
Liverpool lack players with the ability to break a deadlock with a long-range screamer as it stands, it’s not how they play. They don’t have a Philippe Coutinho any more – Klopp could perhaps argue the likes of Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could fill that void, but how many times did we see the little magician open up a game with a wonderful strike?
Both Ox and Keita have shown glimpses of good form but they cannot avoid long, niggling injuries to make a real impact on the team – so Klopp has been forced in playing his more conservative players in midfield. The emergence of Curtis Jones has helped, but most young players need to be protected as dips in form are more regular compared to seasoned pros.
Sit tight, sit deep
Teams are following the new blueprint: sit deep, stay compact, and when the ball breaks loose, counter attack at pace.
It’s clear Liverpool are not playing with the same intensity as previous years. The front three, who are the main components of the high press, are not exerting the same amount of energy as they once did, and Liverpool are suffering as a result. We saw Brighton bypass an already weakened press earlier this week by providing more options to escape, and it worked for them. You’d expect we’ll continue to witness it going forward.
Working the angle
This is where Klopp needs to adapt his 100mph football philosophy, and maybe take a leaf out of Pep Guardiola’s school of thought. The third goal in the recent win over West Ham was a perfect example of Liverpool being capable to play small triangles and work the angle – and when they do, the attack increases in tempo, and they get in behind via the channels.
This style of play needs Roberto Firmino on his game; the catalyst to our attack who we like hit on the halfway line and play off. When he’s not on it and you’re chasing a game, you need a few others who are comfortable playing with their back to goal – it begs the question over whether it was actually wise to send Takumi Minamino on loan to Southampton.
His form has been sporadic to say the least, but he occupies spaces where centre-backs are reluctant to follow, and if they do, Taki inadvertently creates space for others. Only time will tell if Klopp’s decision was the right one, but it’s fair to say he could have been useful in a 4-2-3-1 formation – even if it meant making an impact from the bench.
Liverpool fans will be hopeful Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain can stay fit and healthy for the second half of the season, and although they’re not in the same mould as what you’d call a traditional ‘number 10’, they do possess the ability to break the lines and make late runs from midfield.
The knock on effect to the counter press
The extraordinary misfortune of injuries has seriously effected the spine of team.
Mikel Arteta, who recently spoke about the ability Liverpool posses to beat a press, said: “We tried to put them under as much pressure as we could, but (Virgil) van Dijk plays 60 yard passes to Salah and they are out.”
Van Dijk is a Rolls Royce, and his pass to the wide-men is a serious weapon Liverpool have lost. Many opposing fans have foolishly labelled it as a ‘long ball’, but it’s much more than that – it’s a skill nobody else has. The vacuum left in defensive areas has meant Liverpool’s midfield generals, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, have found themselves at centre-half. This has affected Klopp’s counter-press.
Klopp sets his team to squeeze the opposition high up the pitch, block the passing lanes, win the ball and mount fast-paced counter attacks – nobody does this better than Fabinho & Henderson.
Liverpool’s play involves their full backs bombing forward in tandem, but the loss of recovery pace, and the inability to defend in one-on-one situations without the regulars has meant Klopp has had to put the handbrake up to an extent. In many matches this season you have seen Trent Alexander-Arnold not making overlapping runs, as he’s under instruction to be in a position to counter press and protect Liverpool’s fragility.
Team selection and decision making
Jurgen Klopp is human and will make mistakes, but some of his calls must seriously be scrutinised. In a season where we’ve seen Klopp‘s top three forwards go through a bad patch of form together, the introduction of Diogo Jota was a player he could rely on to take the pressure off the misfiring attackers. But his decision to play Jota in a dead rubber fixture has really come back to haunt him.
That was during a period when Klopp was voicing his concerns publicly about the need for five substitutes in order to protect players. Some would argue the Portuguese was still knocking on the door to cement a starting place in the team and Klopp was right to play him at the time, but Jota was so much in Klopp’s head that he forced his hand in playing a 4-2-4 against Manchester City away.
He instantly became an instrumental figure in the team and Klopp, although he may not admit it, must deeply regret his decision. Jota was exactly what Liverpool needed right now.
A player who is versatile across the forward line, a player who is comfortable in receiving the ball in tight areas, who can run in behind and provide movement for the playmakers, and most importantly possesses a rare knack of being in the right place at the right time.
The manager opted for a diamond against Spurs and it seemed to work, yet strangely changed to a different formation against Brighton. It wasn’t to much about the formation either, it was more down to personnel in some positions – Milner and Shaqiri were never going to provide the width on the left or the skill level required to upset Brighton.
Now Klopp faces a dilemma in when should he integrate the new signings? The call could be crucial in deciding if Liverpool are to find their mojo in midfield. Thiago was brought into provide something different and has come in for criticism in his spell so far. Does he slow Liverpool down? Is he more suited to the Tika-Taka style of play? It’s obvious players of the class of Thiago can adapt to different principles but he needs time further up the pitch. I’m sure he will provide the magic when he has the right protection behind him.
So where does this leave Liverpool?
Liverpool may need to revaluate their ambition for this season.
Anfield needs to become a fortress again. They’ll have no problem in facing teams who are willing to go toe-to-toe with them but nights like Wednesday are becoming far too frequent. Players coming back from lay-offs will inevitably make them stronger but Klopp needs to find a solution to break down the bus.
Teams are finding it far too easy to smother attacks constructed by Liverpool but they’ve not become a bad team overnight, and all great teams come back and find a way. Jurgen Klopp is a world class manager and with some tweaks, he and Liverpool will be back.