Monday 19 March 2018

Comment: Jurgen Klopp needs a Plan B - rivals have sussed Liverpool out

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp still has lofty ambitions for the remainder of the season
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp still has lofty ambitions for the remainder of the season

Paul Hayward

A reckoning is upon Jürgen Klopp. All managers have them. Mauricio Pochettino, his counterpart at Anfield on Saturday evening, had his when Spurs imploded at the end of the last title race. Antonio Conte’s came at Arsenal in September.

Now Liverpool need more than one tune from their violin.

Liverpool v Spurs is the battle of the wannabes, the should-bes: a game played in the waiting room of Premier League-winning clubs. Liverpool last won the title 27 years ago. Tottenham have not been champions for 56 summers. Both are enjoyable to watch. Yet, if you had to pick the stronger operation ahead of this weekend’s biggest fixture, you would have to come down on the side of Spurs.

Form supports that claim. Liverpool have one win in 10 in all competitions – an FA Cup replay against Plymouth. Tottenham are unbeaten in 11, with nine wins. Pochettino’s lot have the best defensive record in the league, with 16 goals conceded, and 11 clean sheets to Liverpool’s six. Spurs are five points better off than they were at this point last season. Liverpool have slipped to fifth (13 points behind Chelsea) and are without a league win in 2017.

At any point in a team’s stumble, you could compare them to teams playing better and reach dire conclusions. It is not all bleak for Liverpool. In 15 games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs, Klopp has lost just one, which is testament to his team’s talent for rising to an occasion – or, at least, matching opponents who play as they do, positively, rather than sitting back in giant sponge formation.

At the root of this is the need for “change” Klopp talked about after the 2-0 defeat at Hull. Liverpool have played more passes than any Premier League team – 14,645 (West Bromwich Albion are bottom, with 7,455). They have scored 52 times – the joint-highest with Arsenal. But their strength reveals their weakness.

Without the fluid, rapier counter-attack, Liverpool are thwarted. There tends to be two causes of this malfunction:

1. The opposition riposte of soaking up Liverpool’s enthusiasm in deep positions, and then attacking when the storm has abated; 2. Dips in energy among players asked to bust a gut in every game. Oh, and 3. Basic defensive errors, such as not jumping at set-pieces, that place extra pressure on the forwards to keep scoring.

Klopp’s intelligence and experience render it highly unlikely that he will persist with a one-plan strategy that has been decoded by opponents and places too great a strain on a relatively thin squad. So we await the outcome of his speech at Hull about “changing things”. Varying the tactics is well within the scope of a coach with his record.

Pochettino, you feel, is further down the road of acceptance and adaptation to Premier League demands. His team and his squad are better balanced. The rear is solid and he can switch with ease between three and four at the back. Spurs display consistency and confidence. They appear prepared for whatever each game might throw at them. And in Dele Alli, of course, they possess an emerging star who might have been wearing red today had Liverpool capitalised on his visit to Anfield from Milton Keynes before he signed for Spurs.

Expectation burns more at Liverpool than Spurs, who can still shelter behind the old dilettante image. One Champions League campaign in six league seasons is an embarrassment for a club with Liverpool’s European tradition. Klopp’s six-year contract, understandable in one sense, pins the team’s future to his. One top-four finish in eight seasons would stir old anxieties about inexorable decline.

To be old school for a minute, Liverpool look like a team who could do with a few days of restorative sea swimming, somewhere sunny. But as Klopp knows, English football’s manic cabaret intensifies in winter. Without an official break to replenish energy, he is obliged to look for new ways to match what Spurs have: a better blend of tactical variety, power, defensive nous and consistency.

There is a template now for frustrating Liverpool’s myriad attackers – and Pochettino may use it. So now we will see how many tunes Klopp can play.

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