Wednesday 17 January 2018

Brian Kerr: There's more to Klopp than chaos theory

Record against better teams explodes myth that defence is vulnerable - but it is too inconsistent

Sadio Mané is more important to this Liverpool team than Philippe Coutinho – he offers strength, goals, aggression, skill and he can defend a little more. Photo: Getty
Sadio Mané is more important to this Liverpool team than Philippe Coutinho – he offers strength, goals, aggression, skill and he can defend a little more. Photo: Getty

Brian Kerr

Anfield would not have been able to fall silent had it tried last Wednesday but still every Liverpool supporter could make out what the feverish dervish was saying as he jigged upon the touchline.

"That's football."

After 21 minutes of the most exhilarating, scintillating play that produced three goals confirming Champions League progress, his was a precise declaration of a vision.

You get the sense from Jurgen Klopp that it is his dream to be a manipulator of a team to create magnificent goals and excite people. An existence which is about producing a singular type of joy.

A lot different to, say, the pragmatism of a Jose Mourinho whose primary aim is to produce results based on structure and organised performance with little interest in arousing anyone's excitement, most of all his own.

Few United supporters are quibbling about their style of play these days.

Indeed, both Klopp and Arsene Wenger, whose sides meet tomorrow, seem to exist within their own utopia, alongside Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola, magnificent teams that play outstanding football that people love to watch.

Unfortunately, these days, results, while not always the bottom line, are more important than the style of football.

There has been a lot of flak flying about in the opening weeks of Liverpool's season, not without good reason, based on their defensive weaknesses but, as they prepare for their sternest Premier League test tomorrow, ahead of their trip to Manchester City, it is instructive to analyse their efforts against the better teams last season.

Unbeaten

In matches against other top six rivals - or the "top six plus Everton" as we could now term the elite - they were unbeaten in all 12 games, winning seven and drawing five.

A perfect exhibit would be February's 2-0 success against a then rampant Spurs, where a more disciplined, defensive outlook from the whole team gave a platform for Sadio Mané's quick-fire brace.

And if you exclude the two Arsenal games - when they won 4-3 on the opening day after being 4-1 up, before winning 3-1 at home - against Manchester City and United, Everton, Chelsea and Spurs, they only conceded six goals in 10 games.

So that indicates to me that they can demonstrate a little more resilience against the really top teams when they need to do it in the Premier League, and as they will almost certainly have to do in their Champions League group.

Liverpool's downfall in terms of mounting a credible title challenge was actually their inability to defend against the lesser teams. Palace, 2-1. Leicester, 3-1. Hull, 2-0. Swansea, 3-2. Bournemouth, 4-3. Burnley, 2-0.

Defensive lapses cost them dearly in these games but not in isolation to their inability to produce enough from their attacking unit, so it is a little simplistic to focus merely on their problems at the back.

Still, these remain glaring enough to persist as an issue and the goals they often concede are akin to last Wednesday, an unusually mad game for a Champions League, which tend to leave you as open-mouthed with shock as those that they score at the other end.

Hoffenheim's manager was a replica of Klopp but even more reckless. The game was so open, with no sense of consolidating a position in the game, from the Germans throwing players forward from the first minute, with their three centre-backs, two midfield players holding but not really doing so.

It was all-out attack from the Germans and the German responded in kind; his Liverpool were just so more devastating with it.

It seems like an ingrained mentality that when they are playing the better teams, they understand, and this extends to the midfield, that everybody has to offer more resilience.

The overall impression is that they consistently fail in this regard but as I have explained, they can do it when it suits them. This season, the challenges of playing in two competitions will challenge not only their squad but their defensive responsibilities.

I wouldn't be writing them off as league winners. If they can match those 26 points picked up against the top teams and then be more ruthless against the others, they may have a shout. Still, it looks unlikely given their current squad.

On the face of it, they have been handed a Champions League group that shouldn't be overly taxing although the presence of Sevilla, who utterly exposed Liverpool's anarchic approach in the Europa League final two seasons ago, will deter any complacency.

The criticism has been of Klopp's inactivity in terms of shoring up his defence. They have one new recruit here, Andy Robertson, a player who was good on the ball for Hull and he has made rapid progress considering he was only an amateur with Queens Park five years ago.

I thought he would have started midweek based on his performance last weekend. He wasn't tested defensively against Crystal Palace and again on Wednesday Alberto Moreno, while contributing to his side's blistering early spell, was at fault for the first goal.

There is a clamour to bring in new players but it's not easy for them or anyone else to get better players than what they already have.

Spurs have been the only side who have successfully recruited centre-halves and given all the millions available to the top sides, they have hardly been able to identify one centre-half between them.

It isn't easy to sign a centre-half with old-fashioned qualities of heading, tackling and kicking the ball - or man - and helping his fellow defenders do their primary aim; then again, Arsenal and Liverpool to a degree have followed City in abandoning these fundamental principles.

Sure they ask can he head it and run but more importantly can he start the play, maybe in a two or a three man defence with only one holding midfield player and two advancing full-backs.

Defenders need to be more athletic these days and they are having to deal with different types of tricky forwards.

At Liverpool, Ragnar Klavan is not agile or clever enough and remains prone to error. Dejan Lovren looked the best centre-half at Southampton and now they are looking to the south coast again but there is no guarantee Virgil van Dijk would be significantly better in the hothouse.

As well as requiring more restraint in their style, their concentration on set-pieces - 12 goals conceded last season, already two and counting this term - needs to improve.

These broach issues far more fundamental than just throwing money at a solution. You need good organisation and structure. Have they got that? I don't think so.

I don't like zonal marking. It crept into the game when I was a manager but I dismissed it. I liked to have the biggest and best headers of the ball in defensive positions with specified roles.

Liverpool look too loose. There is so much space, you can't control where opposition players are going. You're jumping when they already have a run on you. Some teams use it effectively but you usually find they have huge, aggressive defenders and can head the ball.

You also need loudmouths, who can bark instructions at players to perform the rudiments. You need bravery, and sometimes forwards who come back to take responsibility, like Diego Costa, Harry Kane and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would for their sides.

Liverpool haven't got those players who can aggressively win the ball. And you need a competent, trustworthy goalkeeper who can make the right decisions but Simone Mignolet still spreads doubt in situations where they should be none.

It may sort itself out with a few good results in succession; the optics of their opening games haven't been favourable but positive results often smooth over the creases.

They know the intent of opponents through over-analysis so that should makes a lack of organisation inexcusable - but then how do you excuse Lovren getting out-jumped and out-muscled for the second goal against Hoffenheim? That's just poor.

But there are two sides to the game and, as much as they thrilled on Wednesday, those league defeats last season resulted from their inability to break massed defences. The lesser teams would leave no space knowing Liverpool attacked mostly down the narrow, middle channels, with the width provided too often by the full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner. This leaves the centre-backs and holding midfielder exposed.

And, unlike others who can adapt and bring on a target man to change things, Klopp seemed to eschew this option when he off-loaded Christian Benteke.

They have subtly adapted though. Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah play from the touchline in and Liverpool now use more of the pitch.

The elephant in the room remains Philippe Coutinho. If a player wants to go, he usually goes and every club admits every player has a price. Despite their desire to make a stand, it will get to the stage where the price becomes too ridiculous to refuse.

Otherwise, what do you do with a player on your books who wants to be somewhere else? The irony of Liverpool pursuing a Southampton player - again! - who shares similar feelings is inescapable.

The players would be happy if Coutinho stayed but are also envious of his chance to go to Barcelona. If he doesn't get the opportunity now, he would be a bit less committed than he was.

Luis Suarez is cited as a precedent but he was a different player and Barcelona is a different club now.

Important

For me, Mané is a more important player. He offers strength, goals, aggression, skill and he can defend a little more.

He gives them more options. Salah is their record signing but not their best. He is not entirely convincing but he gives them a winger's width and can replicate how Raheem Sterling provided that pace and directness to the game. He can give them the edge against the top teams.

That's why City signed Sterling and Leroy Sane to replace Jesus Navas and Nolito. Liverpool should sell and use the money wisely.

While Klopp has cleverly absolved himself of any direct influence, Wenger seemingly has so much power that he is prepared to lose Alexis Sanchez next year for nothing

He seems to be dictating the transfer policy and, effectively, the economic policy of the club.

On the field, Wenger has perennially struggled with the dilemma facing Klopp, getting that balance between defence and attack.

Wenger has tried to improve by switching to three centre-backs but they still struggle to find that balance and they remain exposed too often against the better teams and the early evidence suggests they haven't corrected these flaws.

Defeat at Stoke indicates the 18-point gap to Chelsea won't be narrowed sufficiently and they are winless on their last 12 league visits to the top teams under Wenger.

Liverpool respect Arsenal but don't fear them. Klopp doesn't need to. He will settle for some defensive resolution knowing the space for devastating counters will emerge as before.

He will approach this game as he did Hoffenheim, a sign of Arsenal's growing irrelevance, with every indication that this will be as free-flowing an affair as their recent meetings.

Irish Independent

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