Thursday 27 April 2017

Brian Kerr: Title reality bites for Jurgen Klopp

It is 27 years since Liverpool won the league and while it looked promising in December, Klopp's current squad just isn't good enough

The last Liverpool title-winning side of 1990, which had no shortage of quality players – unlike the class of 2016/17 under Jurgen Klopp. Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images
The last Liverpool title-winning side of 1990, which had no shortage of quality players – unlike the class of 2016/17 under Jurgen Klopp. Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

Jurgen Klopp was in a reflective mood. Just a couple of weeks earlier he had talked about his dream of winning the last 14 games of the season and bringing an end to a 27-year gap that had been eating away at both his, and his club's, soul.

There was little reference to dreams this time, though. Instead, in the aftermath of a 2-0 defeat at Hull - the same Hull City who had won just two of their previous 22 league matches - the likeable German manager of Liverpool FC was openly engaging in a bout of self-analysis.

"You cannot believe how many questions I ask myself," Klopp said. "Even when we win 6-0, I don't think I am perfect. Things like this don't change that. I feel much more responsible for defeats than for wins. It has been like that my whole life."

In management, there is always the danger that the man who questions himself can be perceived to doubt himself. With this in mind, Klopp followed up his brief period of introspection by immediately scrambling for a positive amid the negativity. "When I get up tomorrow, I will only be solution orientated," he said. "There are solutions, 100 per cent."

But those 'solutions' do not exist within this current Liverpool squad. Instead, the harsh reality is that there are no simple answers to the problem Klopp is faced with right now. Whereas Antonio Conte was able to tinker with Chelsea's formation, and Jose Mourinho had enough options to juggle with his personnel to change the direction of their campaigns, Klopp is stuck - until the summer - with what he has.

And those players are clearly not up to the job.

Or rather, they are not consistent enough. Against fellow members of the top six, indeed other inhabitants of the Premier League's top half, Liverpool's record this season is very impressive: played 12, won seven, drawn five, lost none.

Tighten those statistics up to focus solely on their games against the top six and the figures - four wins and five draws - are the kind you would expect from a side who are going to win the league. But Liverpool won't be winning any titles this season, not after what has happened them since New Year's Eve.

Collapsing Having collected 43 points from 19 games up until December 31, they have won two and lost six games out of 12 since then, exiting both domestic cup competitions in the process, while facing the possibility of their season collapsing completely.

And it's just been such a strange twist of events, how a side that can defeat Manchester City on New Year's Eve can then fail to beat Sunderland, Plymouth or Southampton in their next three games, before holding Manchester United to a draw at Old Trafford.

If that suggested a turning of a corner, then we hadn't taken into account the fact they would lose their next three home games to Swansea, Southampton and Wolves. Chelsea were the next side to visit Anfield. Liverpool held them to a 1-1 draw.

And that has been an overriding theme of the Liverpool reign under Klopp. They are a team who sandwich a pair of defeats to Hull and Leicester in between a 2-0 win over Tottenham.

They can stay unbeaten in the league against the top six but lose five and draw two of their 14 league games against the bottom ten.

Last year was eerily similar. West Ham beat them twice, Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Watford, Leicester, Southampton and Swansea also got the better of them. But Manchester City didn't. Nor Chelsea, Arsenal or Tottenham. In their 10 games against the so called 'Premier League big six', they lost just twice, each time to Manchester United.

How do you explain this?

With great difficulty is the short answer, although when you delve deeper, and examine the five league defeats they have suffered this season - to Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull and Leicester - a familiar theme occurs.

In all of those games, they dominated possession. Against Burnley, for example, they lost 2-0 despite having 80.4 per cent of the ball, restricting their hosts to just 130 passes while they completed 765 passes over the course of the game. Liverpool forced 12 corners that August afternoon at Turf Moor, Burnley just one. Yet Burnley won.

And they did so because they - like Hull, Swansea, Bournemouth and Leicester subsequently - all used the same template. Each side were prepared to defend with depth and with numbers, all the while knowing that when Liverpool attacked, the narrow positioning of their five forward players, and complete absence of wingers, meant they were easier to mark.

What's more, because their attacking wide players, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane, prefer to drift infield, I've felt Liverpool's attackers were positioned so closely together that you could throw a big blanket over the lot of them.

Funnily enough, against the league's better sides, this didn't seem to be an issue. Possession in those games was shared more evenly, thereby allowing Liverpool to counter-attack, which they can do quite effectively, and also for their forward players to enjoy more space.

Yet against the league's weaker sides, the congested area around the opposition's penalty box have denied Liverpool's forward quintet - I'm including Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum along with Mane, Coutinho and Firmino in this grouping - have found it hard to thread passes through the defensive block of eight players they have come up against.

Essentially, once a team's wide midfielders deal with the forward runs of Liverpool's full-backs, a formula to beat them is evident, particularly as the five attacking players often leave Jordan Henderson and Liverpool's centre-backs isolated to deal with the threat of a counter-attack.

They aren't the only team to have suffered this problem. Manchester City, too, have endured frustrating afternoons and evenings when teams have sat in and sought to counter-attack.

Stretch But the essential difference between Liverpool and City is that Pep Guardiola's side have real wingers - Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane - which has made it easier for his team to stretch opposing defences. Then again, another essential difference is that City can afford to spend £49m on a 20-year-old winger, Liverpool can't.

Furthermore, City, and other members of the top six, also have a focal point. Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus, prior to his injury, are Pep's go-to guys, full of movement and pace. Chelsea have Diego Costa, Harry Kane is at Spurs, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is at United, Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud at Arsenal.

Between them, you always think they will find a goal. But can you say that about Roberto Firmino? Would you describe him as an effective focal point of a team's attack in the way Zlatan is for United? He isn't a troubleshooter like Costa or a guy like Kane who'll get his head to a cross and conjure a goal out of nothing.

If he was surrounded by better players - or even by traditional wingers - then he might fare better. But the two wingers most recently on Liverpool's books - Sterling and Jordan Ibe - were sold. As was striker Christian Benteke - who didn't impress Klopp with his work rate or ability.

So he too was shown the door last summer - helping Liverpool post a profit in the transfer market in the close season. What looks good on a balance sheet, though, does not necessarily look good on a team sheet.

Evidently, Liverpool lack depth in their squad and when I wrote extensively about them in October, it's worth revisiting the point I made then, about how their team had a settled look, which - at the time - was benefiting them.

Since then, it has become clear that there was a distinct reason why Klopp was so consistent with his team selections, as deep down he realised his squad lacked quality. Thus far this year, he has used 18 players in the league who have played more than four games.

And out of those 18 players - eight have not been up to scratch: goalkeepers Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, as well as Ragnar Klavan, Alberto Moreno, Lucas, Emre Can, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi.

This was exposed when Klopp rotated his team for the FA Cup match against Wolves. Tellingly, Liverpool crashed out - but Arsenal, Manchester United, City, Chelsea and Spurs are still in the Cup, despite also utilising a similar policy in their team selections for the early Cup rounds.

Throw in the other factors that have gone wrong - their poor defending from set-pieces, the fact that Klopp has had more centre-back combinations (20) than months in charge at Anfield (17) and you can see why there are problems.

And yet even though they are in the middle of a meltdown, even though they exited both cup competitions before they should have, and even though they lost two finals under his watch last year, I still feel he is the man to turn things around.

endured Significantly, this year is the 27th since they last won the league and there are people of a certain generation who will remember the trauma Manchester United fans endured between 1967 and 1993, the 26 years that separated their seventh league title from their eighth.

Liverpool's famine is now longer than that. Although it has to be pointed out, that within those 27 supposedly barren years, they have won the UEFA Cup, Champions League, as well as two Super Cups, three FA Cups and four League Cups. United, by way of contrast, won just three FA Cups from 1968 to 1990, while also suffering the indignity of relegation in 1974.

By 1993, though, they were on a charge, having won four trophies in their preceding three seasons (the FA Cup, Cup Winners Cup, Super Cup and League Cup). You could sense the league title was going to return to Old Trafford. Can you sense the same thing happening with Liverpool now?

Not this year. Not until Klopp obtains a squad capable of delivering strong defensive displays against the weaker, as well as the stronger, teams in the league. And until he unearths a decent Plan B to consider when Plan A fails. Since January 1, it's failed consistently.

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