If ever a night encapsulated a team. Liverpool took their season to new heights with a thrilling, brave, brilliant performance at Anfield, smashing Roma to all four corners of the ground as they took a 5-0 lead in a European Cup Semi-Final. And then, well, you all know what happened next. Lovren switched off, Karius got beaten at his near post, Milner put his hand in the wrong place and suddenly we’re all nervous again. And there it was, in a nutshell. This Liverpool team. Their strengths and their weaknesses laid out bare. Everything we love, everything that frustrates us.
One argument that I’ve seen is that a better team would have shut the game down and won the game 5-0. To that argument, I say…well duh. Obviously a hypothetically better team would have picked up a better result, and obviously, this Liverpool team aren’t the single greatest team in the history of football. You could just as easily, with a significant amount of justification, point out that a worse team would never get 5-0 up in the first place. So this Liverpool team are worse than a hypothetical team that beat Roma 5-0, but better than all of the worse teams in football who wouldn’t have got to the position to slip a couple of goals either.
If that paragraph comes across as slightly facetious, it’s because the argument itself doesn’t deserve any further examination, because it’s a bad argument. Pointing out that Liverpool have flaws and that those flaws were on display last night is a tedious exercise, and one that realistically, is mostly being trotted out by people who don’t want to acknowledge how incredible the majority of Liverpool’s performance was last night. However, the question behind the argument is an interesting one.
To briefly put into context Liverpool’s victory in the first leg. Roma haven’t conceded five goals in a game since Barcelona put them to the sword 6-1 in November of 2015, and have lost just twice more by three goals since then: 3-0 to Porto in UCL qualifying in August 2016 and of course, 4-1 to Barca a few weeks ago. Some other recent heavy defeats for Roma in the Champions League include a blistering 7-1 win for Bayern in October 2014, and of course, Man United’s quarter-final win by the same scoreline in April 2007.
So there’s some pretty elite company there. But it’s the manner of the late goals that is what raises the question. I mentioned at the outset that the strengths and weaknesses of this Liverpool team were both on display for all to see. The strengths of course being the workhorse pressing that gets into teams’ faces and their heads, and the blistering pace of the counter-attacks that can put teams to the sword once the indecision and pressure sets in.
The weaknesses of course being lapses in defensive concentration, massive individual errors, a lack of a calming and controlling head in the midfield and a susceptibility to referees giving terrible decisions against us (something that keeps happening this season).
Briefly on that latter point. Better teams don’t let themselves get into situations where referees can give bad decisions against them repeatedly. Fine. But it’s definitely harder to establish yourself as an elite side when you get absolutely nothing from officials. Twice in a week, Liverpool have shipped two goals to make a comfortable situation less so. In both of those situations, the referee has played a huge part, getting no less than four big decisions wrong against West Brom and giving a very soft penalty to Roma in midweek after denying Liverpool one at 4-0. This is just one example of how the very top teams generally have luck on their side, and generally get the rub of the green with referees.
But moving on, the question I want to raise is twofold. Are Liverpool’s strengths and weaknesses inherently intertwined through their system? And if so, should they adopt a different system?
To elucidate those questions further, I want to talk about Jürgen Klopp. Specifically, his tactics and the question of whether he got it right or wrong last night. Klopp’s strategy has been very much live by the sword, die by the sword at times, and last night was the perfect example of that. Klopp wanted his team to keep pushing, to press and to harry and to force Roma back, and at times that led to Liverpool getting torn apart at 5-1, which is, bluntly, not necessarily the best plan.
The commentary team asked an interesting question though. “He’s going to three at the back at 5-2. Why not do it at 5-0?”
Thanks, Captain Hindsight.
Klopp could, as noted, switched to three at the back at 5-0. He could also have switched at 4-0. Or at 3-0. Or if we’re being honest, 2-0. 2-0 would have been a fantastic result and other managers would have shored up the ship at 2-0 and taken (or tried to take) that result. Klopp didn’t. Because he knew Roma were there for the taking. Liverpool had the game the way they wanted it and were completely in control.
The point is that from a tactical point of view, maybe Liverpool should have managed the game better at 5-0. But equally, if we’d managed it differently (or “better” to use the wording at play), we might have only won 2-0 or 3-0. And on top of that, if we’d managed it better at 3-0, we might have conceded anyway and only won 3-1. Klopp’s Liverpool have an attack is the best form of defence mentality, and there’s no guarantee that a tactical shift at 5-0 would have made a difference; going to a back three against West Brom didn’t help.
Klopp is a gambler and his teams will keep on gambling. If Gini Wijnaldum gets his toes to his big chance seconds after Roma score then we’re back at 6-1 and it’s a risk worth taking. If the ref doesn’t give Milner’s handball and we hang on to 5-1, then it’s a terrific result. If Dejan Lovren acted like a competent defender for 90 minutes instead of 80, we win 5-0.
The point is moot. Gambles will always be judged as good or bad by their results. Klopp gambled at 2-0 in the second half, and that was good because it worked. He continued to gamble slightly at 5-0 and it didn’t, so that’s bad.
That said, of course, there can be improvements to be made, and ways to mitigate what happened against Roma. Buying a better central defender than Lovren means errors like the one that cost us the first goal don’t happen (this remains easier said than done to be fair, centre-backs are hard to gauge, especially in a system as demanding as Klopp’s). Having a midfielder who can change gears, slow the tempo, seize control of the game and calm everything down at 5-1 or even at 5-0 would have been critical. But Liverpool don’t have either of those things at the moment.
So are Liverpool’s strengths and weaknesses intertwined? To a large extent I think that they are, especially with the squad that we have at the moment, and whilst there are ways to improve this team (as there are with any team and I mean we’re only third in the PL for a reason), I do think that stylistically, we are going to have to accept that occasionally things like this are going to happen. Klopp’s philosophy seems to be at this moment that you play the game the way we’re playing it and more often than not you’ll get the right result. And I think to even hint that 5-2 isn’t the right result is just being overly negative.
So the second part of the question is – should Klopp tweak or adjust his tactical set-up or philosophy in order to make Liverpool more defensively secure?
This second part is much easier to answer than the first, at least in my opinion. Because whilst there are ways that Klopp could improve, I don’t think that his underlying philosophy or set-up are the issue. If Klopp’s way of playing means that we get more nights like last night, then I’m absolutely okay with the West Brom results of the season.
Liverpool’s aim is to win the Premier League, and get as close as they can to perfection on what is by Premier League standards a second-rate budget but with a unifying ideal and philosophy behind it to compensate, as well as extremely intelligent scouting.
Mo Salah was a crucial piece of Klopp’s puzzle, so was Virgil Van Dijk, and so will be Naby Keita, who will certainly be a vital addition who will stop the sorts of issues that we’re talking about. Klopp is getting closer and closer to plugging the gaps in his system, whilst finding players who fit his philosophy. As I’ve said before, it makes sense we didn’t buy a midfield player to fill the Naby Keita role this season, knowing we’ve got the best possible version of that player coming in the summer.
So the big question remaining is can Liverpool have both? Can they fix their weaknesses without compromising their strengths? I think it’s clear that they can, and I’ve tried to explain how already, pointing out certain elements of our game that do need improvement and how to do that without necessarily losing what makes this team so explosive.
That said, I don’t think it’s as easy to completely eradicate the defensive issues as some people believe. Liverpool have already shown marked improvement this season in terms of their defending, but the problem is that often it feels like two steps forward, one step back. I don’t think this is ever going to be a Liverpool team that is as excellent defensively as the likes of Man United or Chelsea have been at their best, and the evidence supports that in terms of Klopp’s career at Dortmund.
However, I don’t think Liverpool need to massively improve their weaknesses to win trophies, as results like the last one prove. If your strengths are strong enough, and your weaknesses can be mitigated, then you will win trophies. As I said at the outset, this Liverpool aren’t the best football team ever, but they don’t need to be. The Reds are in red-hot form, they just need to build a touch of consistency over the course of a thirty-eight game league season.
Live by the sword. Die by the sword. Up the sword-wielding Reds.