Thursday 18 January 2018

Aidan O'Hara: It's time for Klopp's Reds to show they won't be bullied

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It's a form of sporting bullying that any weakness, real or perceived, will be ruthlessly tested by an opponent until the person under pressure proves they can cope.

It's only when, for example, a rugby full-back counter-attacks after catching a high ball, a tennis player whacks a backhand winner or a cricketer hooks a bouncer with authority to the boundary that such basic tactics will be shelved and a different option employed.

At the elite end of football, it should take something more elaborate to unlock a defence, but, occasionally, a team like Liverpool come along whose weaknesses against basic attacking puts them under the sort of pressure that will continue to plague them until they prove they can cope with the bullies.

Handball alley

When the likes of John Terry, Nemanja Vidic or Vincent Kompany were at their best, the opposition must have felt like they were playing in a handball alley where every hopeful ball punted forward came back at them just as quick.

All three struggled at times against better teams, but there's no shame in losing the occasional one-on-one battle when faced with one of the world's best strikers; yet it's impossible to thrive in the Premier League without being able to dominate the air defensively.

This season, Chelsea have Gary Cahill, who is a relatively limited player, but relishes the physical battle which nullifies the threat of so many teams in the division. At Tottenham, both Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are similarly powerful and although some of the lesser teams have improved technically over the years, the foundation of winning the league is still the ability to swat away the battering ram teams.

In Spain, Germany or Italy, even the weaker teams are technically excellent, meaning that the elite teams in that league face roughly the same tactics most weeks and, because they have better players, are able to find a way to win.

In these divisions, it's easy to imagine Liverpool's defence thriving, given what appears to be a preference for playing against better players.

Romelu Lukaku is the Premier League's top scorer, but he couldn't find the net in three hours against Liverpool as they beat Everton twice. They also twice held Harry Kane and Dele Alli scoreless.

Liverpool beat Arsenal twice, with Alexis Sanchez shackled by what is meant to be a weak defence.

Sergio Aguero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa each scored once against Liverpool, but those three goals only yielded two points in draws against Manchester City and Manchester United. The three also played in the return matches and failed to score in games where again Liverpool were unbeaten. Eden Hazard, too, could be put into the mix, with no goals against Liverpool in one full game plus 72 minutes at Anfield.

Between them, Lukaku, Kane, Alli, Sanchez, Aguero, Ibrahimovic, Costa and Hazard have scored 150 Premier League goals this season, with a grand total of three coming against Liverpool, despite each of them playing at least one-and-a-half games against them.

Ordinarily, those sort of numbers against opponents at the top end of the table would have that team running away with the league, but the inability to cope with the basics means, somehow, Liverpool are still battling to finish in the top four.

In 16 matches against teams in the top half, Liverpool average 2.25 points per game which, were it their average across a season, would see them finish with 86 points, comfortably in the top four and in with a chance of winning the league.

Against the bottom half, however, that number falls off a cliff to 1.67 points per game in 18 matches played - which, across the season, would give them 63 points and a comfortable spot in seventh.

It's a measure of the six games that Liverpool have lost this season that Bournemouth were the shortest odds of any of their opponents to beat them at 4/1.

It's rare to see a poor bookmaker, so their odds are generally reflective of what's meant to happen, and for a team whose manager speaks for a betting firm in a television ad, the chances of Liverpool losing the games they have this season should make Jurgen Klopp (pictured) wince.

Had you had a €1 accumulator on Burnley (6/1), Bournemouth (4/1), Swansea (15/1), Hull (7/1), Leicester (5/1) and Palace (6/1) to win their games against Liverpool, it would have returned €188,160, giving you the opportunity to live like a Premier League footballer for a couple of weeks.

Direct

If you wanted to try and get it up to a million, you could throw the lot on Watford tonight who, at 11/2 shouldn't win, but probably will if Liverpool can't cope with the inevitable physical test coming their way.

In Troy Deeney, they have a player whose direct style shouldn't concern the league's best defenders, but, having conceded to Jonathan Walters in both games against Stoke and twice to Christian Benteke against Crystal Palace last week, Liverpool should know what's coming.

Deeney was disgusted with Watford's performance in losing to Hull last week and after being hammered 6-1 at Anfield earlier in the season, Watford won't want for motivation.

Deeney will be the spearhead for every punted ball and set-piece, which should at least give Liverpool's defence the chance to prove they won't be bullied.

It's not the sort of issue they'll face in the Champions League, but if they can't solve it, it's getting there in the first place that might become a problem.

Irish Independent

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