Sunday 25 August 2019

Jurgen Klopp can't keep on defending flaw in his approach

Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno battles for the ball with Pablo Sarabia of Sevilla during the Champions League clash this week. Photo: Getty
Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno battles for the ball with Pablo Sarabia of Sevilla during the Champions League clash this week. Photo: Getty

James Lawton

Jurgen Klopp insists that the ambush Liverpool suffered in Seville this week had nothing to do with his team's mentality. Perhaps not theirs, but what about his?

Is he simply too adventurous for his own long-term good? Does he live for the most thrilling tides of football, the most engaging momentum, and somewhere along the way something fundamental to winning football matches - and trophies - is lost in the rush?

That may be a harsh charge against a man who has so enlivened the Premier League - won two Bundesliga titles and endured a dramatic near-miss in a Champions League final - but the doubts are beginning to accumulate.

Maybe in Spain it was just a case of defending so poor, so technically deficient that some veterans, including the old loyalist Jamie Carragher, were moved to liken it to the kind of work you see in a schoolyard.

Either way, Klopp has a major problem and it will no doubt come under more fierce scrutiny at Anfield tomorrow evening when Antonio Conte's Chelsea are the visitors.

Cosmetic There is an odd statistic that Liverpool have conceded just one goal at Anfield in their last eight Premier League games but there are simply not enough cosmetic products in the entire beauty industry to cover over a fact that is threatening to betray Klopp's Merseyside adventure.

It is that when the opposition belongs to a superior class - like Manchester City (5-0), Spurs 4-1, and Sevilla, three unanswered second-half goals to rescue a match that should, by the normal standards of top-flight professionalism have been irretrievably lost - Liverpool's defence has a Doomsday habit of looking not only poor but basically unfit for purpose.

So what does Klopp do? Sooner or later he needs to buy a new one, or least substantial parts of it.

Some believe he has moved in the right direction by securing for next season the able defensive midfielder Naby Keita from Leipzig but the majority view, not least among the Merseyside faithful, is that as this season moves towards a formative stage it looks rather too little, rather too late.

Klopp certainly made a harsh statement about his faith in central defender Dejan Lovren when he hauled him off the Wembley pitch less than half an hour into the meltdown against Spurs. And though adventurous full-back Alberto Moreno has shown, according to the demanding critic Carragher, some improvement in the basics of defensive discipline this season, he too suffered an ignominious withdrawal in the heat of the Seville disaster.

Moreno resurrected some of worst of his carelessness and Carragher's wider verdict contained the kind of material you might read on a managerial tombstone, most bitingly: "The big question going into the game was whether Liverpool's defence could cope with the atmosphere and players of Seville. I felt the answer would be no but I didn't believe it would be as bad as it was. It was like watching children."

Klopp, despite apparently flaying his players in the post-game dressing room, was much more philosophical when the final shots, including the devastating one in injury time, had been fired. "No, it doesn't show a flawed mentality," he said.

"We've shown already a fantastic mentality (he was going back 18 months to a 4-3 defeat of his old club Dortmund.) Yes, it's true, it wasn't perfect tonight but it's just a general problem. It just happened. Could we have done better? 100 per cent. Do I think it's a mentality problem? 100 per cent, not. It was a misjudgement. We wanted to play like we did in the first half."

That might have brought a 6-0 win and a fresh notch on the adventurous legend of Klopp. But then most of his rivals would have certainly settled for much less - and certain progress into the knockout stages of the Champions League rather than a potentially fraught night against Moscow Spartak at Anfield.

It means that Klopp's talent for producing brilliant attack, for bringing a genuine emotion to the challenge of a game which can sometimes reek with cynicism, is once again under the most searching examination.

Certainly he cannot expect any favours from Conte, who back in Italy is increasingly seen as the man to revive pride in the national game so shattered by the failure - for the only the second time in history - to qualify for the World Cup.

Conte's passion is in many ways the equal of Klopp's but it has never been known to come at the expense of defensive certainties.

His three Serie A titles with Juventus were built on the buttress of superbly composed defenders like Georgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.

Bonucci, at 36, has moved on to captain Milan, while Chiellini, 33, remains the heartbeat and the anchor of the Juventus defence. When Roma outran and outplayed Chelsea in the recent Champions' League action on his native soil, Conte was outraged and distraught. He would have given much for the surety provided by his old guard.

Does Klopp, we have to ask, yearn for such underpinning of the attacking brilliance displayed by such as Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho in the first half in Seville?

Or is he really content to speak of a passing problem, of "passivity," rather than a recurring flaw in the defensive structure - and personality - of his team. And does he have any long-term ambition to see the leadership of the team rest with the admirably committed but often tactically naive Jordan Henderson?

These questions are bound to carry a new weight at Anfield tomorrow night.

Klopp has done much to enliven, and at time entrance, the place but not so much that he can continue to ignore one of the oldest truths of football.

Beautiful attack is all very well but whoever heard of a winning team that couldn't defend.

He needs help, and quickly. As never before, January hardly seems soon enough.

Irish Independent

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