I recently wrote a piece inspired by the positivity of the 6-1 victory over Southampton in the Capital One Cup. In that match there was a real feeling that Jurgen Klopp was starting to introduce his tactical concepts to the squad and that we would see the team go from strength to strength. Since then however the team has stuttered with a set of disappointing performances which continued on Sunday with the visit of West Bromwich Albion to Anfield.
To be clear I do not think that this performance was completely negative and there is again a body of evidence that Klopp is building towards next season. There were periods when the interplay going forward was smooth with the ball moving quickly between the lines of the West Brom defensive structure. There were also points in the game when the midfielders and the majority of the attackers rotated and exchanged positions very effectively, this is a process that we should see more and more as Klopp and his coaching staff imbed their concepts in training.
Tactically however the West Brom game felt disjointed with two specific aspects of play that we will look at – unfortunately these two aspects are linked by one player. In the build up phase Liverpool took up some poor positions and displayed an odd structure that slowed the game down and prevented them from playing as vertically as the coach would like. The positional and tactical awareness of Christian Benteke in the lone striker role also left a lot to be desired with the Belgian looking awkward in the system and displaying a worrying lack of effort.
Poor Structure in the Build Up
One of the aspects of Klopp’s style that I did expect to see transposed to the Liverpool squad from his days at Borussia Dortmund was the efficient structure with which they build attacks. At Dortmund, Klopp would often insist on his team positioning themselves in at least five distinct receiving lines across the pitch. This means that the team are able to connect easily as the ball is played from back to front quickly but also efficiently. This was something that we have seen in sections of Klopp’s tenure so far but not against West Brom.
This image is taken as Liverpool have retained possession and moved the ball from the right of the pitch to the left across the defensive line. Unfortunately the team has not reorganised itself efficiently and Coutinho has had to drop to a relatively deep position to receive the ball. The preferred pass at this point would be in to the shaded area of the pitch to connect with an attacking midfielder or striker higher up the pitch and break the initial defensive structure of West Brom. Unfortunately Coutinho himself would be the ideal player to be in position to receive the pass instead of making it. Instead Coutinho is forced to play a squad pass across the pitch slowing the pace of the play and allowing West Brom to reorganise.
This was a common feature of the match as Liverpool looked to isolate Christian Benteke at the back post and overload the near side to create a breakthrough. In this example we are actually very strong structurally with three passes available at different depths to change the point and emphasis of the attack. Unfortunately these easy passes are ignored as the ball is clipped towards the back post to attempt to take advantage of Benteke’s aerial superiority.
Interestingly it is the position of Milner coming across the centre of the box that we would expect to be taken by the lone striker in Klopp’s system. It is here that we would almost certainly see Daniel Sturridge were he playing in Benteke’s place. The run being made by Milner is actually a good one and if offers a fourth efficient option for the man in possession to play through the overload.
It is fair to say that the signing of Christian Benteke split the fan base. There were those that were positive that a proven goalscorer was signing for the club but there were others that pointed out that despite the goals the Belgian striker would not fit in to the framework of the Liverpool team. Unfortunately the latter group are being proven right at this point.
To this point Benteke has struggled to find a role within the pressing strategy of Liverpool under Klopp. Whether this is due to a lack of physical conditioning or a lack of effort it is unclear but against West Brom he negatively effected the defensive structure of the side when they pressed. In this example we are in a strong position without the ball with two players at most 5 yards away from the ball and three more positioned to press the simple forward pass. Benteke is in a poor and passive position at the top of the screen. He has failed to make a simple run to support the press and prevent West Brom from playing the simple pass back to escape the pressure.
This time Benteke has dropped off of the front line to create a new receiving line to take the pass from the man in possession. This is not inherently a poor decision and again if this was Daniel Sturridge then there would be no issue with the movement. Unfortunately the skillset of Benteke and Sturridge are very different. The ball is instantly bounced back to the central player but we should then see Benteke spin off of the ball to threaten the space in front of the West Brom defensive line.
A player like Benteke should be pressing right up on the defensive line of the opposition forcing them back and creating space in front for the more mobile attacking midfielders. Instead West Brom were able to squeeze their defensive line forwards denying space for Liverpool to attack in to.
This is captured just before Coutinho clips the ball in to Lallana to set up the first Liverpool goal. I have highlighted Benteke again but only to show that he is not effecting the play at all having dropped off to the left hand side of the pitch. What we do see however is how effective Liverpool can be when utilising quick and mobile players in and around the box. As one player moves towards Coutinho the central player in the attack moves in to the space that he has vacated on the left of the box. The defender tracks the run and as he does so there is a gap created between the two West Brom central defenders. That gap is then attacked by Henderson running from deep.
This awareness of not only their own positions but also those of the opposition and of their own team mates is something that Klopp will hope to develop over the course of the season. When used properly this type of movement can be devastating to the opposition.
A 2-2 draw against a team as awkward as West Brom is in no way a complete disaster but to lose the lead from what looked to be a commanding position is poor. Klopp will need to make a decision quickly when it comes to the position of Benteke in the team. He can be effective but only if the whole team structure is willing to play purely to his strengths. It may well be that we see more of Sturridge or even Origi as the season goes on and until a player like Danny Ings is fit to return. Any of those three players are better suited to this system than the big Belgian striker.