Tuesday 23 October 2018

Comment: Jurgen Klopp looking for control to match madness

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Sportsfile
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

AFTER England were knocked out of the World Cup by Croatia, a rather cruel montage appeared online of Jordan Henderson giving the ball away.

In the 59-second clip, the Liverpool midfielder concedes possession on 10 occasions including hopeful chips into the box caught by the goalkeeper, long punts which go for a throw-in, taking a touch and then hoofing the ball from the edge of his own box or lashing a shot over the bar when he had three team-mates at the back post.

A charitable way of looking at it was that Henderson was following managerial orders to get the ball up the pitch quickly and expose Croatia’s lack of pace at the back. A more realistic assessment is that, at the elite level of a World Cup semi-final, Henderson was nowhere near the level required of a central midfielder in possession.

For most of the tournament, England’s tactics were similar to those employed by Liverpool last season, where the opposition would be overwhelmed by the ferocious combination of speed and strength thrown at them from the first whistle and wilt under the pressure. The problem was that, when the power faded, there was no control to back it up.

Liverpool have a better front three than England but, in Henderson’s defence for both club and country, there is rarely players near him looking to provide a simple option. With England, it was Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard, both of whom are more adept at finishing moves rather than instigating them while, at Liverpool, composure wouldn’t be high on the list of strong points for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or James Milner.

In the latter, successful part of last season, Jurgen Klopp’s tactics were relatively straightforward, usually starting with an unconvincing goalkeeper, an improving back four, a trio of athletes in midfield and three dynamic, different threats up front that could win the game for them.

Every outfield player worked ferociously to test and often break the technical ability of the opposition who were then drilled into the ground by Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino or Sadio Mane.

The reason why Liverpool found themselves 25 points behind Manchester City, however, is because when they weren’t able to beat the door down, they usually had no idea how to pick the lock.

When Jose Mourinho famously steered Inter Milan past Barcelona in 2010, he admitted that he didn’t want his team to have possession.When they did get it, there were to be no passes played from the wings into the centre because that risked a player being pressed, a turnover created and gaps being exploited in his defence.

It was exactly the same method which he used to comfortably take five points from Klopp last season when, at Anfield, Liverpool had 62pc of possession but never really threatened a goal in a 0-0 draw while, in March, they had 68pc in the course of a 2-1 defeat.

There’s no team in Europe that thrives in the chaos of an up-tempo, full-blooded battle like Liverpool simply because it plays to their strengths as Manchester City and Pep Guardiola discovered in the Champions League when they were overwhelmed and dumped out.

Mourinho didn’t do many things better than Guardiola last season, but playing against Liverpool was certainly one of them. This summer, however, Klopp has signed players that should allow him to bring composure among the chaos – both when trying to find a goal, and defending a lead.

Klopp might have idealistically spoken in the past about not wanting to be successful by spending lots of money but the reality of the modern game is that trying to grow organically will result in things going stale as they did for Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.

Instead, compared to the opening day of last season in which they drew 3-3 against Watford, Klopp has upgraded in goal with Alisson replacing Simon Mignolet and Virgil Van Dijk now partnering Dejan Lovren in central defence instead of Joel Matip.

It has cost them £140m for those two signings alone but at least those two areas shouldn’t cost them as dearly on the pitch as they did last season.

Yet it is in midfield where the greatest difference should be felt this season with the energy remaining but quality added which, with the best will in the world, Henderson is never going to bring.

Against superior opponents, teams will usually pick out a few players who they will allow to be on the ball because they won’t hurt them. It’s an indictment of Liverpool last season, that most of their midfielders would feature pretty highly.

Against Manchester City, this task is almost impossible because paying too much attention to Kevin De Bruyne means potentially allowing David Silva to create. If you want to stifle Raheem Sterling’s threat, it means Leroy Sane can get you on the other side and, all the while, somebody has to watch Sergio Aguero.

In contrast, once they lost Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool’s threat came almost exclusively from their front three which is why it was so straight forward for a game-plan such as Mourinho’s to stifle them at Old Trafford because there was so little threat coming either from deep or wide.

When opponents such as Manchester City and Roma played into their hands by inviting pressure, Liverpool were ruthless but, in between those Champions League games, there were draws against Everton, West Brom and Stoke City, which can’t be countenanced this time around if they are to have any hope of closing the gap to City.

Guardiola’s team have raised the bar to the extent where there is now no longer such thing as a good point away from home against a team outside of the top six and, when they play Liverpool, every one of those teams will set Klopp’s team challenge of trying to break them down.

To combat that, Klopp has spent a fortune to finally have options.

If teams want to sit back and deny space to the front three who did so much damage last season, Liverpool now have Naby Keita whose dynamism can produce a penetrating run into the box, with or without the ball,  or a powerful long-range shot which poses a greater threat than anything their midfield summoned last season.

Rather than having Henderson playing the basketball-style point-guard role of setting the tone for the attacks, Klopp now has Fabinho as player who is both aware enough to see a pass and technically good enough to deliver it.

If teams clog up the middle of the pitch, Klopp has the option of Xherdan Shaqiri, whose shape and ability to produce wonderful moments of skill means he has Anfield folk hero written all over him. If he can keep him fit, Daniel Sturridge remains a far greater threat than Dominic Solanke.

The three new men should also provide a calmness in possession which means that, if Liverpool do take the lead, they can make the opposition chase them which should then create gaps for Salah, Firmino and Mane to exploit.

Liverpool aren’t suddenly going to turn into Manchester City but being confident and competent on the ball is a far more effective method of defending a lead than sitting back, inviting pressure and hoping to hit on the break.

In their inevitable descent towards ‘Arsenalisation’, Tottenham added nobody to a team that seems only one or two players away from a serious challenge, Mourinho spent most of the summer complaining that his United squad wasn’t good enough while Arsenal and Chelsea will probably take time to settle under new management.

After nine games last season, Klopp’s side were 12 points behind City which is why their opening games against West Ham, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Leicester are so crucial in building momentum and proving they’ve solved the issues from last season.

All four will attempt to sit back and stifle which gives Liverpool the chance to prove they aren’t the one-trick pony of last season when they could average 72pc of the ball against Burnley, Everton, West Brom and Swansea yet manage to drop nine points from 12.

Klopp has placed himself and his team under pressure but there’s no obvious reason why they can’t be a better version of the team that was good enough to reach the Champions League final last season. All they have to do now is deliver.

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