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Remember Freshman year of college? OK, do you remember the people at least? You probably knew that guy/girl who came in as Pre-Med and four years later, ended up barely squeaking through with a Communications degree. Great guy, but keg races and frat house hijinks were more his thing than Friday nights in the Library.
Liverpool is that guy. They’ve come into the season cocky, planning to compete for trophies on four fronts by playing one of the more demanding systems in the world. Ten weeks later and we’re going to the Dean begging to change majors.
At full strength, with one game per week and no outside drama to distract us, we can play a pressing game intense enough to compete for top four. But, with Champions League games mid-week, Coutinho with one foot in Barcelona, Can flirting with Juve, Clyne nursing the back problem Phil claimed to have and Lallana out with an incurable case of Liverbird Flu, we’re miles off of being able to play and compete for anything in the style that the manager wants to play in.
The crazy thing is, up until Spurs 4-1, Liverpool and their manager seemed blissfully unaware that they lacked the tools necessary to play a pristine high press. The fact that Dejan Lovren was alone in space, marking Harry Kane, 40 yards from goal to even be in the situation where he’s trying to make a hero play to head the ball away… that tells you everything you need to know about the club right now.
Our plan is to play the way we can at the best of times. An idyllic pressing system. Our reality is that the Klopp system requires that every player closes down space with ferocity all over the pitch but we’re missing Lallana, Mané and Clyne and are not getting the same performance levels out of Coutinho and Can. We’re playing a centre-back at right back, which helps when the press ultimately fails but doesn’t help the continuity of the press itself. And those left who can normally press effectively are being stretched beyond their limits by the demands of Champions League football in midweek.
So like the millions of drunken freshmen around the world that are already realizing in late October of their first semester that they’ve made a terrible miscalculation, Liverpool are having a conversation with themselves this week about how to salvage a season. A communications degree is still possible to salvage while doing the same thing might see us flunk out by March.
And what do the best booze thirsty college kids do to scrape by? Find that a nerdy kid to copy off of. Thankfully Liverpool just had an up-close and personal look at the dedicated, focused kid from North London.
Where we blew off a chance to sign a smooth, young, centreback named Davinson Sanchez after “watching him 500 times,” Spurs must have done the extra work and watched him 600 times because they snapped him up and put him right in the middle of their defense.
Where Liverpool have submitted a failing turn-paper, titled “Why pressing is impossible while playing with a striker,” Tottenham showed us that they can do it with two.
While Jurgen Klopp can’t figure out a way to safely deploy two attacking fullbacks at the same time, his counterpart plays Trippier and Aurier at wingback positions as part of a 3-5-2 formation.
The excuse making phase for Liverpool seems to have transitioned into telling our teachers that we humbly admit our mistakes, accept blame and promise to make changes. What will that look like? Nobody knows. Will we play Grujic in front of the defense and a recognized striker and risk looking like our rebel days are over? Klopp will be balancing pride and pragmatism throughout the week.
There’s a new test waiting for us with Huddersfield Town coming to Anfield on Saturday. It is a test that the rest of the league sees as tough but fair, while we’ll be sweating through our khaki’s all morning.
Another failed grade will make it almost impossible for Liverpool to recover, but if we can change direction, recognize our faults and just do the normal things well we can remain in the Champions League for another season. Just staying in the competition may not be thrilling, but it gives us another 12 months to figure out who we are as a club, if our idyllic visions of ourselves are possible, or if we need to permanently recalibrate our expectations.