Thursday 22 March 2018

Where has it all gone wrong for Liverpool? Here are the three areas Jurgen Klopp must address

Liverpool players look dejected during the Premier League match against Leicester City
Liverpool players look dejected during the Premier League match against Leicester City

Sam Wallace

With just one Premier League win in 2017 and following defeat at Leicester, Sam Wallace looks at three areas that must be fixed.

Adapting to opponents

Jamie Carragher posed the question in his post-match analysis why it is that too often Liverpool simply “play the same way” regardless of the opposition whom they face. Against a Leicester City team that was under huge pressure to put on a performance of any kind of description it should not have been difficult to predict what the new post-Claudio Ranieri era was going to look like – in short, a lot like Leicester did last season.

Would it have been that radical for Liverpool to match up their opponents in formation and be more direct? Jurgen Klopp was once again denied the option of Daniel Sturridge with the striker out with a chest infection. Yet when Divock Origi came on after 66 minutes and Klopp played him in more of a conventional partnership with Roberto Firmino, the side looked much more dangerous.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

The 4-3-3 formation has been effective against the division’s top sides this season, a sub-league in which Klopp’s record is excellent. In eight games against Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United, they have won four and drawn four. Against Bournemouth, Burnley, Swansea, Hull City and now Leicester they have been found out by teams capable of absorbing pressure and finding a way past the Liverpool defence. Carragher cited Andre Gray, Oumar Niasse and now Jamie Vardy as forwards whose pace has yielded results against Liverpool.

The defeats to opponents like Bournemouth and Burnley were originally dismissed as the kind of freakish outcomes that can bedevil a team that is still learning to play the formation its manager is asking of it. Conceding three goals to a Leicester team yet to score in the league this calendar year before Monday suggests that the problem runs rather deeper.

The defence

Among the many achievements in Klopp’s career that have made him such an attractive appointment to Liverpool’s owners Fenway Sports Group, has been his ability to get more from players than other managers. It is a natural consideration for a club that despite its wealth and reputation simply cannot compete with United, City, Chelsea and even Arsenal when it comes to signing players.

Nevertheless, there is only so much that he could do and without the services of Dejan Lovren he was forced again to play a back four that included two specialist midfielders. James Milner has coped admirably at left-back this season. For Lucas Leiva it has been more of a stretch. He was in central defence for the defeat to Hull as well as the 2-0 victory over Tottenham will have given Klopp hope. In the end, it proved too much to against a rejuvenated Leicester.

Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren is expected to return to full training next week

Klopp’s commitment to a high line and attacking play is in the best traditions of attacking football but it has to be underpinned by a defence that can survive most of the time when it is left exposed. Ragnar Klavan was left on the bench in favour of Lucas, who has always been one of Klopp’s favourites. As Carragher pointed out in his analysis, the Rafael Benitez teams in which he played were often criticised for putting so much emphasis on defence, but in the last four years Liverpool have simply conceded too many goals.

Even in their title-challenging season of 2013-2014, that Brendan Rodgers side conceded 50 goals, which was 23 more than Chelsea who finished a place behind them in third and went on to win the title the next season. Since then they have been around the same mark (48 in 2014-2014; 50 in 2015-2016) and they are conceding at the same rate of 1.3 per game this season. No team has conceded more goals than Liverpool in the top eight of the table, including West Bromwich Albion.

Making progress?

All Liverpool managers since Kenny Dalglish’s first reign at the club have, whatever their level of success, felt the cold hand of history on their shoulder. The summer of 2017 will mark 27 years since Liverpool’s last title success, which is one year more than the 26 years between Sir Matt Busby’s last league championship with Manchester United in 1967 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Premier League title at the club in 1993.

It feels absurd to those of us of a certain age that Dalglish’s 1989-1990 team starring John Barnes and Peter Beardsley is now buried deeper in history than Busby’s league champions were by 1993. Klopp’s remarks post-match that “we all play for our future, myself included” is an interesting concession that no-one, not even the German, is immune from the pressure that progress must be made.

For a while this season it felt like Klopp might have found a way to bridge the gap to wealthier clubs, more capable of asserting themselves in the transfer market. As things stand they are only four points off Spurs in second place. Equally, Everton in seventh are only five points behind their city rivals. Klopp will be well-aware by now that after 55 league games he has three fewer points (94) than his predecessor Rodgers.

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The German would surely be too polite to point out that Rodgers had at his disposal Luis Suarez, as well as Steven Gerrard. Yet these remain the details. Rodgers was sacked, in part, because FSG recognised that Klopp was available and the German was considered a more likely candidate to bring success to the club.

Now, Liverpool are in a battle for the Champions League places and while a place in the top four would still be a major achievement, the question is how does one go about turning an outsider into a league champion? Leicester achieved it, and Liverpool came into the new year in second place. After 16 days rest they looked less on Monday like potential challengers than they did when they beat Spurs more than two weeks’ earlier.

The squad have another trip planned away to Tenerife later this month but it seems that for now the advantage that Chelsea have played so well – non participation in European competition – has worked against Liverpool. They looked better last season when under pressure from fixtures in Europe and the momentum that Klopp built up then has been impossible to recreate this season.

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