Much has been made in recent months about Jurgen Klopp’s stubbornness. From slow in-game changes to persevering with persistent underachievers. However, Klopp has come out fighting since the Spurs game and stuck the proverbial fingers up to the critics, with his team showing some really good form. This form culminated in what was a largely magnificent tactical performance against Man City (despite our defenders’ best efforts to throw the game away!).
The City game showed Klopp’s ability to go head to head with a quality rival and absolutely bamboozle them. Even if City knew what was coming, they struggled to contain it. We exposed a soft underbelly that has been lurking for some weeks. Unfortunately, what prevents Liverpool being in this year’s title race is the fact that we’re probably the only team in England that could do what we did to Guardiola’s men.
This team is undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than we sometimes give it credit for. New additions should address some of the flaws that still hold this team back.
Nevertheless, I was concerned some months back about the number of draws the team was picking up. I made the case that Klopp had to get this team winning more consistently. Whilst there is still work to do, the signs look good as we slowly approach the run-in. The synergy formed between our short-lived Fab 4 played its part, without question.
In this piece I will go through some of the points I made in this article, in terms of improving the team’s on-pitch performance, and look at how Klopp is faring.
Signing a centre-back
Well, Klopp has made mugs of us all, hasn’t he? Without wasting any time, Virgil Van Dijk became a Liverpool player on 1st January 2018. Klopp’s first choice, a top quality centre-back, brought in with no frills.
While VVD cannot be seen as a single panacea to the team’s defensive woes, his impact will nevertheless be significant. Not just through his own performance, but by the way he inspires others also. A massive tick in the box to all involved at the club.
The signing of Van Dijk gives a whole new dimension to this team. The impact and presence he demonstrated in such a high profile debut match against Everton certainly bodes well for him.
We just have to wait for Keita now and the team’s defensive structure becomes far superior.
Utilising the sweeper keeper
This is the most difficult situation to assess right now. VVD’s ability to play a high line suits Loris Karius down to a tee. In theory, it’s a real tactical opportunity.
The higher the line this team can play, the easier our attacking play, as we can create overloads in advanced zones. A confident Karius could make the kind of impact Emerson has had in his sweeper role at Man City. Alongside the centre-back to complement him, Karius’ game could really flourish with the big Dutchman’s arrival. In fact, I think this was Klopp’s plan all along.
Klopp has shown a bit more faith in Karius in recent games. Sadly, that faith has not been repaid.
Karius may well not be a long-term solution to the keeper spot as elements of his game still need time and improvement. I feel his overall game nevertheless still offers us more than Mignolet (who has become stale between the sticks).
Despite Karius being far from convincing, Klopp seems to see him as a short-term sweeper keeper solution. I believe it is justified for how it helps our tactical play.
Equally, one could have understood Klopp going with either Mignolet or Karius moving forward until the summer. The sweeper keeper that we really need may have to wait until then, with Klopp working with what he has for now.
Creating width through the full-backs
The efficient wide play is such an important exponent of breaking down the parked bus. I feel Klopp still has work to do here, although results have picked up. The left-backs, in particular, have added good width to our play, but the end product has been a little hit and miss.
Our wide patterns of play have, for the most part, been weak under Klopp. I don’t think it’s his area of expertise, as evidenced at Dortmund as well. The tendency is for the team to play narrow and through the half spaces. We also lack a natural playmaker that makes the best choices with the passing. This has been evident in a number of frustrating draws this season.
Graham Hunter alluded to the latter point in his recent appearance on the Nina Kauser AI Pro Euro Incision podcast. If we compare ourselves to City as the standard we need to aspire to, we are still light in terms of midfield creativity. The timing and variety in City’s passing mean that balls are fed to the fullbacks and wingers to create well rehearsed but lightning quick wide overloads.
It is vitally important for the full-backs to help the attackers provide overloads and width in the opposition third. Beyond that, it is important to not cross needlessly into the box. What is important is to build moves that lead to cutbacks and focused crosses with an end target and end product.
Copy and paste?
Guardiola at City gives a good blueprint of how to build a width-packed attacking system. Something that can be sustained against defensive teams. Pep has achieved an incredible advantage over his rivals this season, by using predominantly the same set of players. But his innovative and captivating tactical approach, combined with the high technical ability of his squad, has seen them hit Premier League era highs.
Klopp could do worse than borrow a few ideas from his brilliant rival, while still maintaining his own unique brand of football. Whatever Klopp does though, it is worth bearing in mind that formation per se is not the be-all and end-all. Ultimately much comes down to player roles and how well those roles are executed, regardless of the starting shape.
There has been a lot of criticism of Klopp’s reactive in-game changes. I do think his assistants can do more to help him spot problems sooner. Particularly when the manager is so emotionally involved in games. No doubt he must miss things.
However, recent subs seem to have worked quite well. Furthermore, in recent games, we have seen some much anticipated later goals. Without doubt a welcome improvement.
Goals and wins aren’t always a function of tactics or team selection. Football is such a chaotic game, by nature, that randomness plays a big part. However, the more suitable the in-game tactics and players to match the game conditions, the better you can manage randomness. Klopp has shown his versatility in recent months. Long may that continue, as the team continues its long-overdue upward trajectory.
Results will always be the acid test for the manager and, as long as these are good, the manager will take the plaudits. For all the flak Klopp gets, he deserves to take credit when we see favourable outcomes from recent games. In particular, four back to back, single goal margin wins show that that this team has character as well as flair.
There is no doubt that this team is on the right track and the rest of the season holds very exciting possibilities. The departure of Coutinho presents a big blow but Klopp may remedy this before the end of January. And if not, Phil’s departure gives the existing group an opportunity to take more responsibility and ownership on the pitch.
With or without Phil, one senses this team is going places.