Jürgen Klopp Must Learn Less Is More

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BREAKING NEWS: Liverpool need a defensive midfielder. Who knew, right?

Ah yes, we all did. The Reds got their 2023/24 campaign underway with a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge which recalled both the corresponding fixture there in 2022 and much of last season.

It also continued the theme from the pre-season friendlies, with Liverpool decent going forward (particularly early on) but too susceptible to being countered. Chelsea had five clear-cut chances, a tally they only topped six times in their 133 home league games across the preceding seven seasons.

The current iteration of the Reds can look so comfortable for long spells and then so porous in a matter of seconds when faced with transition. It’s pointless to shed tears or wonder what might have been had they been able to complete the Moisés Caicedo deal, but a player with his skillset is Liverpool’s must-have purchase in the next two weeks.

But then it’s fair to wonder if peak Claude Makélélé could solve the Reds’ defensive problems at this point, with the much-vaunted tactical shift to a 3-2-2-3 shape in possession coming in for serious questions from fans and pundits alike in recent weeks.

The game against Mauricio Pochettino’s side continued a theme which stretches much farther back, though. Something which has been an issue for the Reds since the days when Liverpool played a more standard 4-3-3 formation week after week and had one of the world’s best defensive midfielders on patrol.

Jürgen Klopp’s team selection last weekend was no doubt informed by the relative lack of midfielders at his disposal. As much as a midfield overhaul was clearly required, nobody would have thought at the end of 2022/23 that Liverpool would line up with a central trio of Cody Gakpo, Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai in their next competitive fixture. That they did meant that the Reds took to the field with four senior forwards in their XI.

With the quality of Liverpool’s attacking under Klopp, the natural assumption is that this would be an exciting prospect. A look at the team’s record in such situations proves that it is not. Listen to Niles Crane, not Frasier.

Niles: Whatever happened to the concept of “less is more”?

Frasier: Ah, but if less is more, just think of how much more “more” will be.

The idea of a Fab Four was first mooted for Klopp’s Reds in 2017/18. Mohamed Salah has just joined to play with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané up top, while Philippe Coutinho pulled the creative strings behind them. The Brazilian was not a striker, granted, but the results were not very encouraging, even by the standards of a team chasing top four rather than the title. While the Reds were unbeaten in the eight matches in which the quartet appeared together, just three were won.

Was the Four considered Fab the following season when Xherdan Shaqiri was on the pitch with the favoured front three? Not really, though 11 of the 13 matches were won; adding Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk may just have had more to do with that than the addition of another attack-minded midfielder to ‘replace’ Coutinho.

The era of fielding four first choice forwards really kicked off in 2020 when Liverpool acquired Diogo Jota from Wolves. In similar fashion to three years earlier, Liverpool were unbeaten in five games when utilising the Portugal international along with the three big guns, though only won twice. The draws with Manchester City and Real Madrid were hardly terrible results but scoring nothing beyond a penalty across the two games illustrated that more forwards does not automatically equal more goals.

And this is the interesting thing. Supporters used to shake their heads in frustration when Rafa Benitez’ Liverpool were chasing a game and he’d bring on a left-back for his final substitution. But the idea was to improve the build-up play and create more chances, when throwing more forwards on certainly doesn’t guarantee that will happen.

(Wouldn’t it have been fascinating/terrible to witness social media in the Benitez era?).

2021/22 saw draws with Brentford and Tottenham (twice), losses to Leicester and Real Madrid (sob) and a solitary win over Wolves when four senior forwards featured. The pack grew to five midway through the campaign with the addition of Luis Díaz, and though Mané then left, the Reds gained Darwin Núñez then Cody Gakpo the following season.

Results remained a mixed bag though. Home wins over Ajax, Rangers and Brentford would’ve been expected regardless, while dropped points against Everton, Bournemouth and Aston Villa were extremely frustrating.

It’s only fair to note that the Reds scored 10 goals and allowed three during the 455 minutes they played with four forwards on the pitch last season. Firmino came off the bench to score equalisers against both Arsenal and Villa, and the winner against Ajax came in similar circumstances.

It remains impossible to recall too many impressive performances when Klopp has used four senior strikers simultaneously though. Less is more, Jürgen.

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