It was the same excruciating story for Liverpool at the King Power Stadium on Monday night. Slow tempo, little movement and minimal penetration. In the end, it was once more a belligerent refusal to adapt to the tactical demands of a given game that saw embattled Leicester City deservedly take the three points, after a tumultuous week in which the Premier League champions sacked Claudio Ranieri, who had managed the club to the miraculous, fairytale title win of last season.
As many pointed out before the game, the first game since Ranieri’s departure was not an ideal time to play a Leicester side whose much-maligned players had this week been widely accused of conspiring to have the FIFA World Coach of the Year sacked. In his post-match interview, The Foxes’ Caretaker Manager Craig Shakespeare told Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves that he noticed as early as the warm-up an intense determination among his players to respond to those media allegations with an emphatic performance tonight, and one which would lift them out of their perilous position in the relegation zone.
That #KloppOut began trending on Twitter during the match is ludicrous. This brash demand is as yet the reserve of a vocal minority of fans. There are, however, legitimate criticisms to which Klopp must respond. The honeymoon period is well and truly over now, after a prolonged incubation period in which it was tantamount to treason to question the German’s tactical rigidity or prolonged delay before making substitutions.
Returning to Leicester, Liverpool had not played since their convincing 2-0 victory over Spurs at Anfield some 16 days ago. Having been unceremoniously dumped out of the FA Cup by Wolves and beaten home and away by Southampton in the EFL Cup semi-final, Jürgen Klopp and his staff took the opportunity of a fortnight’s preparation ahead of the trip to Leicester to fly the Liverpool squad out to a training camp in La Manga, Spain. The dismal performance of the team on the night, however, begs the question: what exactly were they working on during their training camp getaway on the Costa Calida?
What we do know is that coaches study copious amounts of video footage of the opposition and, in doing so, Jürgen Klopp, Željko Buvac and Peter Krawietz could not possibly have failed to identify the tactical setup that brought Leicester that most unexpected of titles last season. Leicester’s miraculous success was predicated on remaining a well-organised defensive outfit with boundless energy in midfield and explosive pace on the counter-attack. As Gary Neville succinctly surmised in his post-match analysis on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, nullifying Leicester’s offensive prowess simply requires a deeper defensive line, composed centre-backs unfazed by the bustling tenacity and raw pace of Jamie Vardy, and a disciplined left-back capable of shutting down Vardy’s supply by preventing Riyad Mahrez from cutting inside onto his favoured left foot.
Yet, that coaches and players alike had studied Leicester’s approach certainly did not show. Liverpool had 45 touches of the ball in Leicester’s penalty box, yet managed just 7 shots on target. With Leicester contented to camp 10 men across the width of their 18-yard line, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Co. were repeatedly caught overplaying. In such a congested penalty area, such agile technicians ought instead to seek to slip beyond their defender, using guile and trickery to create half a yard of space, before firing off a testing strike at goal. Yet, supported from midfield by Adam Lallana, Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can, Liverpool too often slowed the pace, allowing the Leicester defence to regroup, before conceding possession cheaply after one too many passes.
Therein lies one major problem for Jürgen Klopp’s side moving forward. When Liverpool’s front three of Coutinho, Firmino and Mané are on song, their blistering pace, incisive inter-play and relentless desire are devastatingly irrepressible. On their day, even the current crop more generally ranks among the more entertaining outfits to grace Anfield in recent years. At times this season, the Reds have dispatched the finer teams in the league with consummate ease, lulling fans into a rather naïve tendency to overlook certain flagrantly unacceptable weaknesses. James Milner, for example, although an effective contributor in attack, is defensively inadequate as a make-shift left-back for a team supposedly competing for a place in the elusive top four. Similarly, that Lucas Leiva has forcibly filled in at centre-back on numerous occasions this season is inexcusable for a club with the vast resources of Liverpool and, indeed, for any club harbouring a serious ambition to return to playing regular Champions League football from next season.
Is it any wonder, then, with two midfielders deployed regularly in the Liverpool defence, that Jürgen Klopp has failed to redress the defensive frailties that have haunted his side since long before his appointment? There have, of course, been unfortunately simultaneous injuries to Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren, while Joël Matip has also been unavailable for selection at times due to both injury and international controversy. This is not to absolve Klopp of blame, as injuries are an inevitable feature of any season for any club. The ostracisation of Mamadou Sakho from the first-team picture, however, has been much publicised, and has in some corners been attributed to excessive stubbornness on Klopp’s part. Doubtless the manager also had the opportunity to bring in a left-back during the summer, yet he ultimately preferred to retrain Milner in the position. The goalkeeper, although not at fault tonight, is another who ought to have been replaced.
This defensive frailty was clear for all to see in Leicester’s goals, principally the first. As Jamie Carragher commented in his post-match analysis, it’s difficult to blame Lucas for the first goal. He hasn’t chosen to play centre-back, and with his pace, he won’t have chosen to play a high line, exposing himself to the raw pace of Jamie Vardy in behind. Yet, as we have seen so often this season, Liverpool’s full backs were out of sight, and after Gini Wijnaldum conceded possession cheaply in the centre of the pitch, it was with one pass that Leicester scythed through the Liverpool defence to put Vardy one-on-one with Simon Mignolet. Before that finish, Leicester had not scored in the Premier League in 2017. The second was a screamer of a volley from Danny Drinkwater, and although Mignolet could do nothing about the strike, Liverpool laboured at the first, second and third attempt to clear the danger after the initial corner before the ball dropped for Drinkwater to strike from 20-yards. The third once against showcased Liverpool’s inability to deal with balls into the box, though in truth the game was already lost.
Midway through the second-half, a clever finish from Coutinho provided brief encouragement for the Anfield faithful, though the optimism quickly evaporated as an alarming lack of urgency was once again exposed in an ineffectual midfield too often bereft of ideas against lesser opposition. Liverpool will likely respond to this setback with a convincing victory over Arsenal at the weekend, such is the suitability of our approach to dismantling more expansive sides. Liverpool’s record against the rest of the top six is unparalleled, but there are only five of those teams. The majority of the remaining 14 teams in the league will look to defend deep, allowing Liverpool to have possession thirty or forty yards from goal, while containing Liverpool’s explosive forwards and restricting the space in which for them to operate. It is crucial to note, however, that these teams set-up this way against all of the top six sides. They do not only raise their game against Liverpool. Yet, Chelsea, Manchester City and Spurs, in particular, have consistently dispatched such teams of late.
Simply put, then, this Liverpool side lacks the creative guile, the insatiable persistence and, crucially, the defensive rigidity, of its top-four rivals. These more defensive outfits can afford to bide their time against Liverpool, soaking up the pressure, knowing that their chance will come, and that the mounting nerves and defensive frailties of Liverpool always leave them vulnerable to the counter-attack or a set-piece goal. Impressive as Jordan Henderson has been, he is scarcely comparable to a more defensive-minded holding player, such as the imperturbable anchor of Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté, Man City’s Fernandinho, or even Tottenham’s Victor Wanyama.
What’s more, Liverpool do not have at their disposal the clinical goalscoring prowess of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic, an Alexis Sánchez, or a Harry Kane – forward who throughout this season have single-handedly dragged their ailing teams to slender victories, week in week out. With the once deadly Daniel Sturridge plagued by injury, struggling for form and seemingly out of favour with Klopp at the best of times, Liverpool’s attackers have shared in the goals this season; Mané leads the way on 12 goals, with Firmino notching 10 and Coutinho and Lallana each finding the net on 7 occasions. However, the flip-side of that largely even distribution is that, once again, it is predicated upon an ignorance of the fact that this Liverpool team does not boast a world-class goalscorer of the pedigree of Luis Suárez or Fernando Torres, nor does it feature a striker of the calibre fielded by its rivals.
The loss of Jordan Henderson to injury has further deepened the crisis in creativity and defensive solidity at the base of the midfield. Emre Can, yet to truly flourish in a Liverpool shirt, is slow on the turn, demanding of too many touches and hesitant to release a pass. There is a curiously prevalent belief among fans and pundits alike that Can in for Henderson constitutes a like-for-like switch, but that is simply untrue. Energy, drive and commitment: these are the attributes that make Jordan Henderson a vital cog at the heart of the Liverpool midfield. Emre Can, on the other hand, is casual – aloof, even – and, despite the frequent zealousness of his roaming marauds forward, he lacks the urgency to replicate Henderson’s ability to press, tackle and turn over possession quickly and effectively. There are few ways in which the industrious Jordan Henderson can be compared to the mercurial Xabi Alonso, but it is perhaps accurate to point out that it is only in the absence of the pair from the base of the midfield that their crucial influence as the starting point of many an attacking move may be fully recognised.
Perhaps even more worryingly, there were once again a string of far more fundamental flaws exposed among this Liverpool team. There is a crisis of leadership on the pitch, a lack of fight and desire from back to front, and no discernible elements of grit or nastiness from any member of that team. It might seem odd to accuse the often inexhaustible gegenpressing machine of being too nice, but there is a timidity, tameness and passivity about this team at times, particularly when behind in a match, under pressure and in need of a big response. Liverpool rarely emerge revitalised after a setback with a determination to reassert their authority on the match. Instead, they retreat within themselves, playing in a more restrained manner, fearful of making a mistake or inviting criticism. I am reluctant to use this cursed word now irrevocably associated with Brendan Rodgers and the ancien régime, but this Liverpool side has demonstrated time and time again that it lacks the innate character required of champions.
The performance at the King Power Stadium on Monday night was not a blip but one further entry in this thickening catalogue of inexcusable failures. With two weeks to prepare for the match and 9 of 11 first team regulars available, Liverpool were once again found wanting against lesser opposition. Jürgen Klopp and his coaching staff need to devise a radically new approach with which to overcome the likes of Leicester, Hull and Burnley – and they need to do so quickly.
After Arsenal as after Tottenham, fans must not deliriously soak up the plaudits after an inevitable victory in a glamour match or buy into the idea that Liverpool’s season is now somehow back on track. A win against Arsenal may be celebrated. But, were the results to be reversed, victory over Leicester and defeat to Arsenal would normally constitute a disappointing week. With 11 games to go, it seems unlikely that this problem will be resolved before the end of the campaign. Nevertheless, this is an issue of both personnel and psychology, the addressing of which will require much of Klopp’s summer resources.