In the wake of Liverpool’s frustrating 1-1 draw against Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday, manager Jurgen Klopp and his men were left with more questions than answers.
2 points dropped against the Clarets added a run-of-the-mill seven days for the Reds, following a 6-0 harrowing at Manchester City followed by a 2-2 draw against Sevilla in their curtain raiser Champions League match at Anfield. And on Tuesday night, the club compounded a dreadful fortnight with a disappointing 2-0 defeat in the Carabao Cup away at Leiceester.
Unfortunately, all of these fixtures will only serve to underline the side’s explicit deficiencies at the back as well as wastefulness going forward – as a result, social media and radio stations have become rife full of pundits/supporters asking a damning question: what has Jurgen Klopp changed at Anfield since his predecessor Brendan Rodgers’ departure in October 2015?
To hear rival fans & Reds fans on social media suddenly believe that Klopp is oblivious to the Merseysiders’ defensive frailties or question how he has changed the aura around for the red half of Mersyside does sound foolish, in itself.
There is no doubting that Klopp has changed the mood around Anfield from doubters to believers, from Europa League obscurity to a potential force in Europe – as well as taking the club on the cusp of two domestic & continental pieces of silverware in his first seven months at the club. Since March, Liverpool have only lost on two occasions in the Premier League.
However, the bottom line is he, like any other manager, does not deserve to escape the attention of supporters/the media for being too stubborn with the system and personnel, and as a result, pay the price. I have been supportive of Jurgen Klopp since he took the helm, and the comparisons to him and Rodgers are futile, but there are several holes remaining that he is yet to plug.
If he doesn’t sort the deficiencies out soon, the season is already in danger of derailing. Here are the three factors that have contributed to Liverpool’s slump of late, and what he must change as soon as possible.
The Back Four
Probably the most prominent arguments we see in the media today is Jurgen Klopp’s side’s defensive ineptitude, this has been the stock narrative of the mainstream media . Go back to the 2011/12 season – Liverpool had finished 8th in the Premier League.
Despite having scored the second least amount of goals in the top 10 (with the likes of Norwich City and Fulham scoring more), Kenny Dalglish’s-then Reds had the third best defence in the league. With Rodgers taking over the helm starting the following season, Liverpool went to to conceded 61 goals in his first 85 games as Liverpool manager, as well as on average conceding 1.1 goals per game. The Northern Irishman’s side’s defensive record was the worst in 2013/14 out of the top 6 – and 2nd worst in 2012/13 and 2014/15.
Contrast that to Klopp’s first 85 games, and the stats actually suggest Liverpool’s defensive record under the 50-year-old was worse; under the German, the Merseysiders in contrast conceded 1.3 goals per game on average.
Additionally, average goals per shot for opposition against the side is highest it has been in five years – hitting around the 14.0% mark.
In no way does this imply that Brendan Rodgers did a better job than what Klopp, but this again only emphasises his pertinacious attitude to rectifying Liverpool’s defensive malaise, remaining adamant that his high defensive line & current personnel is in good stead to mount a challenge for the domestic cups/the Premier League. There’s no doubting Klopp’s amiable character, but his refusal to admit that his current defensive personnel isn’t good enough to compete on four fronts doesn’t reflect well on him.
Refusal To Change Formation
Another factor that has been regularly discussed, with social media being rife of these comments, has been Jurgen Klopp’s failure to accept when the system is ineffectual as well as his insistence to play players out of their favoured positions to suit his system.
The 4-3-3 system has been the German’s preferred tactical blueprint since the beginning of the 2016/17 season, after tinkering with the 4-2-3-1 system at times in his first seven months at the club. This proved effectual for the first five months of the Premier League season, until it became apparent that, without wide players with an end product similar to Mane’s calibre, it proved one dimensional and too reliant on central play. Whilst the Reds addressed this with the summer signing of winger Mohamed Salah from Roma – if either of the aforementioned duo are unavailable, this would mean that the likes of Roberto Firmino/Daniel Sturridge/Philippe Coutinho would be forced out wide; this hinders their development as all three prefer to occupy central positions in midfield and attacking positions respectively.
So much has also been made about the side’s defensive issues, especially at centre-back. Following the Merseysiders’ failure to land the much-sought central defender Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton in the summer transfer window, this led to many pundits/supporters already writing the side off, three games into the new Premier League season. The general, and explicit consensus has been that the side is lacking a competent CB who can lead from the back and use the ball well. This theory is true, but it is entirely unsustainable.
Following Liverpool’s 3-3 draw away at Watford on 12 August, the opening day of the season, Jamie Reknapp was quick to slate the lack of leadership in the back four, saying:
I look at that Liverpool back four and there’s a reason why they concede so many goals because they’re disorganised and they have no leaders at the back. Who wanted to head that ball there? Only Watford players.
Fellow Sky Sports Jamie Carragher, though, rightly disagreed with Redknapp, stating that Klopp’s oblivion to Liverpool’s centre-back problems and his system exposing them was instead proving pivotal to the side’s defensive issues.
On set pieces it’s not about the defenders. The way Liverpool are set up – set piece wise – they will always concede goals. No matter which defenders they buy or how much they cost – it won’t make a difference.
The 50-year-old has been renowned for setting up with a high defensive line, to complement his high pressing style, acclaimed as “gegenpressing” to force the opposition in mistakes. This, however, is not a long term ideology that can land the club domestic/league silverware on a daily silverware, especially taking into account the defensive personnel Liverpool have.
The likes of Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan are simply not good enough to play in Klopp’s high defensive line, with their positioning and use of the ball regularly lax as well as lacking the concentration that the manager always harps on about. Mamadou Sakho’s defensive ability has been overrated by some Reds fans, despite some impressive displays towards the backend of the 2015/16 season – but the Frenchman ultimately suffered from the same malaise in the ex-Dortmund manager’s system.
Even if alternatives for the Dutch international Van Dijk are sounded out, it will make little bearings on the defensive lapses the Anfield side are currently suffering. The midfield system in the 4-3-3 system has also proved problematic. Lovren, at Southampton, played with two midfielders in front of him that offered him better protection. It may be time for Klopp to do the same. It’s not guaranteed a quick fix like that will solve it, but perhaps a change to a 4-4-2 diamond, 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3 could pay dividends for the side and the Croatian international.
Liverpooll looked far more direct v Crystal Palace at home following the change to the 4-2-3-1 in the latter stages of the game, with the CMs sitting deeper and offering better protection for the CBs as a result. It would also facilitate central players such as Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge better – as opposed to being forced out of position regularly to cater for Klopp’s system.
Until the German is find the ideal balance in midfield and protection for defence, if he continues to be stubborn with his system & personnel, expect no change in domestic fortunes.
Time Management & Substitutions
Late substitutions have proved to be problematic for Klopp, dating back to his Dortmund days from 2008 to 2015. This also become particularly evident to Liverpool fans towards the backend of last season – with his substitutions ultimately not proving proactive enough, nor having the desired effect.
From 17 matches of which the Reds were trailing/losing against the opponent last season, in six games at least one substitute was brought to the fray in the 58th minute or before – one two occasions Liverpool went on to win the games (away at Swansea and Stoke). In contrast, when subs were made past the 58 minute mark in games in which Klopp’s side were trailing, only one in eleven games were won. This was the Merseyside Derby win back in December.
During Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat away at Leicester in the Carabao Cup, it wasn’t the late substitutions that necessarily let the German down, it was the choices that ultimately changed the trajectory of the game. Substituting arguably one of the visitors’ most influential attacking players on the night, Philippe Coutinho & Georginio Wijnaldum in favour of Ben Woodburn and Danny Ings was an illogical decision, especially with the former looking rusty following a long injury lay-off. This meant the likes of Dominic Solanke were left at odds with the system, and it was no surprise neither of the aforementioned duo ere unable to make an influence on the game in the second half, as Liverpool’s high defensive line was exposed.