Balance The Key Issue For Defensive-Minded Reds
Right now, Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp are in really good shape. They’re playing largely well, they look incredibly defensively solid, they’ve got strength in depth, quality across the pitch and most importantly, they’re winning football matches.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t issues. Liverpool aren’t quite firing on all cylinders in an attacking sense so far, particularly in the last few weeks as they’ve scored just three goals in their last five games. And a lot of that is down to the balance in midfield, which with Naby Keita and Fabinho not yet playing regularly and finding their stride, is increasingly struggling to influence the game and hasn’t drastically improved on last season.
But I don’t think that “fixing” the midfield is going to necessarily be easy, and I don’t think that ensuring Liverpool score more goals is necessarily going to be the default position either, for a number of reasons.
The first thing to note is that the only thing that will improve this Liverpool midfield at the moment is time. Both Fabinho and Keita will definitely improve the balance of this Liverpool side once they’re at full strength and will enable the Reds to maintain their defensive solidity whilst also improving in attack. But we cannot expect either to instantly thrive, especially with Keita struggling with injuries, and time is the only solution to this issue. In many respects, Liverpool have to be patient, and that patience can be afforded even more when the team is still delivering the results.
But the question of pressing, the question of the balance in the midfield, is one that certainly keeps raising its head. Xherdan Shaqiri is a huge part of that equation. In both games where he has featured, he’s offered some creativity and guile in the midfield, but at the cost of the defensive stability that has been the cornerstone of Liverpool’s start to this Premier League season.
And that’s got to play a huge part in any thought of pressing, tactical tinkering and personnel changes. A lot of people think of pressing as a defensive style because it’s off the ball, but primarily for Klopp’s Liverpool it’s an attacking tactic, and the fact that it’s being utilised less this season, and as a result the Reds have looked more solid but less dangerous, cannot be a coincidence.
It does seem as though the midfield, in particular, are committing less to pressing, which is partly tactical and partly I suspect down to personnel, with Ox and Emre both missing from the midfield this season. But with less pressing in the midfield area, the Reds are committing less, which in turn means fewer transitions. And with fewer transitions, the Reds aren’t able to create as many chances, as Klopp himself says that counter-pressing is the best playmaker. But equally, as Chelsea showed, a good team can work its way through Liverpool’s press, and when Liverpool are pressing, they can be more defensively vulnerable when the opposition find a way to bypass Liverpool’s press.
As such, any change to the way Liverpool are pressing will have consequences for both the attack and the defence. It’s not the case that we can simply turn on the press and score more goals, whilst simultaneously maintaining the high levels of defensive solidity that we’ve had so far this season. This isn’t to say that Liverpool shouldn’t change the way that they’re pressing, but it’s a more difficult balance and one that Klopp is having to navigate, than simply pressing more and winning by more goals.
Likewise, changing up the men in the midfield is not as straightforward as it might appear. As mentioned above, Shaqiri has impressed on the ball when he’s started, which has tempted many fans to call for him to start. But Shaqiri has struggled off the ball in both games he’s started for LFC and it’s clear that that’s an element to his game that is concerning Klopp, as he pulled him off at half-time against Southampton, and didn’t appear happy with his off-ball performance against Huddersfield either.
Similarly, there have been games where Liverpool fans have been crying out for Naby Keita to start, in particular, the Chelsea match that ended 1-1, but I have felt that with him not fully integrated yet, what he’s bringing on the ball simply doesn’t offset the worrying aspects of the defensive side of his game. For all the complaining about Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner, they offer the most stable side.
There are, of course, other issues with the front three, none of whom have quite been at 100% yet this season. And the balance of the side is not necessarily the primary reason that Liverpool’s attack isn’t yet sparkling. But there remains a trust and faith in the defence to do their job that hasn’t existed previously, and that means that Liverpool finally can sit comfortably on one or two goal leads.
And this is many respects is the core tension at the heart of Liverpool’s game right now. The question of how to score more goals, without compromising the strength of our defensive game so far. And as I’ve intimated above, I feel that the only solution to this issue is time – time for Keita and Fabinho to find their feet. Until then, Klopp’s absolutely doing the right thing and prioritising the result above all else. And the proof is in the pudding.
Keep winning, keep defending well. Sooner or later the goals will come. But don’t compromise what’s working in order to fix what isn’t. And that’s the tricky balancing act that Klopp faces over the next month or so. It’s going to be interesting to see if the style of play that has seen us do so well and yet struggle at times offensively continues, or whether we will revert to a more 17/18, chaotic, attacking style. But it’s not going to be as easy as turning back on the attack. Not yet anyway.