Opening Day Review

After pre-season excitement had been abruptly curtailed by a shock transfer request from Philippe Coutinho on the eve of Premier League kick-off, Liverpool were left predictably frustrated by defensive failings in a 3-3 draw with Watford at Vicarage Road.

Both Sadio Mané and Mo Salah were on the scoresheet as Reds fans were treated to a tantalising glimpse of the terrifying attack to be unleashed by Liverpool this season. But it was defensive frailty, particularly from set-pieces, that once more culminated in an excruciating stoppage-time capitulation and the surrender of two vital points.

Of course, it is worth stating that, however disappointing, this is only one game, and so early in the season. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, too, have suffered worse results against Watford and at the hands of Marco Silva, including a 3-0 defeat at Vicarage Road in December 2015 and a 2-0 defeat to Hull at the KC Stadium in February 2017, two results which rank among the lowest moments of Jürgen Klopp’s 22-month managerial tenure. Nevertheless, the recurrence of the defensive horror-shows of seasons past has prompted justifiable anguish and a sense of despair among Liverpool supporters fearful of déjà vu and a further season of attacking majesty undone by defensive impotence.

The inevitable chorus of response from the Liverpool fans has thus been to advance that the acquisition of Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk is now more evidently urgent than ever, although the Southampton hierarchy are refusing to relinquish the in-demand defender.

This, however, is frankly too simplistic. Liverpool’s defensive woes cannot be attributed solely – or even principally – to inept centre-backs. Indeed, the signings of Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip in successive seasons were each intended to arrest Liverpool’s frailties at the heart of the defence, but to no avail. Indeed, Liverpool have conceded 27 goals from set-pieces during Klopp’s tenure. Despite the obvious quality of van Dijk and the understandable fervour among supporters to witness his signing, there is little evidence to suggest that even his arrival would resolve this enduring weakness.

The left-back position, too, persists as a conundrum for the manager. Last season’s makeshift left-back James Milner today lost his place, not to new signing Andy Robertson, but to Alberto Moreno, who had seemed destined for departure before a surprisingly modest pre-season. He reverted to type against Watford, however, and was defensively suspect on a number of occasions, underlining the worrying reality that Klopp is yet to identify which, if any, of the three is capable of staking a definitive claim to the position.

Equally disappointing was goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who had been preferred to Loris Karius and Danny Ward. Having performed well in the latter half of last season -recording clean sheets at Stoke and West Brom, often tough visits fraught with intimidating physicality and speciality set-piece threats – Mignolet also looked to have reverted to his former flailing self in the face of such threats and ought to have dealt better with at least two of the three Watford goals. As with the left-back position, the delusion of goalkeeping options is, in reality, an indictment of the lack of quality of the three, with none of the three among them able to assert a claim to a regular starting role.

It would appear, then, that only two members of Liverpool’s first-choice back five are sufficiently competent to merit a regular place in the starting line-up of a side seeking to launch a title challenge, namely Nathaniel Clyne and Joël Matip. The manager, however, appears to be pursuing a replacement in only one of the remaining three positions, that of a centre-back in the form of van Dijk. The club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, reportedly made available a “war chest” of £200m for Klopp to spend this summer, and with less than £50m spent thus far, the funds are presumably available if Klopp also sought to address through transfers the problem positions of goalkeeper and left-back.

More important than the landmark signing of marquee defenders, however, is radical work on the training ground to address systematic ineptitude in defending set-pieces. For Stefano Okaka’s 8th minute opener, Liverpool’s zonal marking system tasked striker Roberto Firmino with challenging Watford’s physically imposing centre-forward. For Miguel Britos’ 93rd minute equaliser, Mignolet remained rooted on his line rather than coming to claim the tame, near-post corner, while Gini Wijnaldum ducked under the effort which reached Britos, who had been allowed to reach the goal-line unmarked to nod in the gut-wrenching – though wholly predictable – equaliser.

Jordan Henderson was quick to emphasise the time and effort invested in defending set-pieces during the off-season, but it is impossible to discern any improvement whatsoever on the basis of this opening match. There can be one of only two reasons for this. Either Klopp and his coaching team are incapable of improving Liverpool’s defensive performance, or they have always been satisfied to attempt to outscore the opposition.

Moreover, Klopp’s overwhelmingly attacking play, although often devastating, is in part responsible for the underwhelming defence, too. His side often concedes when the advanced full-backs leave the centre-backs isolated against the counter-attack. This is not a failure of personnel, but a weakness of the tactical setup, and any two centre-backs would struggle in such circumstances.

Given these evident tactical failings, it is perhaps an oddly unpopular assertion that, for every exhilarating 4-3 victory over Arsenal and 5-4 win against Norwich, there will be a gut-wrenching 3-3 draw at Watford and 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth. This is an implicit consequence of Klopp’s favoured style and, for the most part, we fans have too long embraced it. Naïvely, we mistake excitement for achievement, mistakenly allowing nervy victories delivered by explosive attacking football to disguise the most basic of defensive deficiencies that on another day incurs such miserable capitulations. Champions, by contrast, rarely throw caution to the wind. Champions are defensively solid as a priority.

Simply put, little has changed. The signing of Mo Salah is undoubtedly exciting, though few had ever questioned Liverpool’s offensive capabilities. On the contrary, Liverpool will enjoy spells of sparkling and free-scoring football in the months to come, and with some reward. This is a system that has seen the Reds reach the finals of the League Cup and Europa League, and qualify for the Champions League. With no improvement in defence, however, those familiar flaws seem destined to cost Liverpool once more. Given the transfer activity of their league rivals, moreover, significant improvements and additions are required merely in order to replicate last season’s fourth-placed finish.


Déjà Vu for Lacklustre Reds

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.

The Slow Evolution of the “Transfer Committee”

Much has been made of Liverpool’s transfer committee since Fenway Sports Group bought the club in October 2010. The primary grievance is the inability of the committee to procure adequate squad improvements at rational prices, while the secondary fault emerges following the lack of impact made by those signings during the frantic attempt to offload those ailing players. With their desperation to sell palpable, and their negotiating power subsequently weakened, the club often has no option but to settle for a much-reduced fee.

During his three years at the club’s helm, Brendan Rodgers made twenty-six permanent first-team signings. Only two have been irrefutable successes: Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, with the recent form of Roberto Firmino earning him an honourable mention too. Having arrived as young players with undoubted potential, Sturridge and Coutinho have blossomed. Now ranking among the better players in the league, the two would command considerably higher transfer fees if they were sold. They are, as a result, exemplary of the merits of the recruitment strategy implemented by FSG during their stewardship of the club.

Liverpool, however, would be unlikely to recoup the fees expended on many of the remaining twenty signings made during Rodgers’ tenure. Indeed, with a summer clear-out pending, Jürgen Klopp will likely adjudge such expensive signings as Christian Benteke, Mario Balotelli and Joe Allen to be unworthy of a place in his squad for next season, with the futures of Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Lazar Marković also uncertain. Unless there unexpectedly arrives a welcome raid for those six players from the exponential spending of the Chinese Super League, Liverpool will be forced to settle for cut-price transfer fees for players that, having cost a combined £128.5m, have struggled to varying extents in their short Anfield careers.

The pitiful showing of such expensive signings raises serious questions about the lack of quality players secured at reasonable prices. The reality, though, is that this failure is symptomatic of the preference of the committee for players proven in the Premier League. It is baffling that there remain subscribers to the pretence that the superior entertainment factor of the Premier League equates to a player of higher calibre and thus of greater value. The reality is that the £25m spent on Adam Lallana, and the £20m spent on Dejan Lovren, for example, could have bought players of a greater quality elsewhere in Europe. These players were not worth then the enormous sums paid for their transfer, as reflected in the justifiable bemusement of the fans on their arrival, and their values have only decreased since.

More galling is that this business was conducted the summer before Liverpool would again compete in the Champions League. Even with the lure of Europe’s elite competition, the long-sought elixir framed by many as the remedy for Liverpool’s inability to compete with its rivals, the transfer committee continued to sanction the level of spending which ought to introduce leading stars and match-winners of Champions League calibre. Here, there can be no excuse.

To bitterly recount such disappointments with hindsight is ultimately futile, but there is rare cause for optimism nestled among the mass of mediocrity. There is potential in the current crop. Alberto Moreno and Mamadou Sakho have their critics but they, along with Emre Can, Divock Origi, Danny Ings, Nathaniel Clyne and, of course, Roberto Firmino, are capable of emulating Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge in blossoming into vital players at Liverpool.

This transfer policy occasionally delivers such immediately effective bargains as Sturridge and Coutinho, but it also requires patience with talented strugglers simply in need of support and experience. This was the case with Jordan Henderson, for example, who was bought at great expense and, in the fickle world of modern football, was almost offloaded soon after. Instead, he stayed and has become near indispensable at Anfield, gaining the captaincy in the process.

Encouragingly, it is not only the quality of signing that has been enhanced of late. Although injury has blighted the promising starts made by Danny Ings and Divock Origi, their signings contrast positively with those of Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert, and even Christian Benteke, in that they fit perfectly the footballing philosophies to which Rodgers and now Klopp subscribe. There is also a fresh approach to transfer dealings through which the club is now often able to eschew the relentless media speculation that accompanies more protracted negotiations. In summer, the club quietly pursued and swiftly confirmed targets such as Nathaniel Clyne, a significant upgrade on his predecessor, and the resplendent Roberto Firmino, who has contributed to more goals than any other Premier League player in 2016.

Moving forward, the committee must seek inspiration in its foremost successes, namely the exemplary signings of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho. Despite being young players in the possession of unquestionable talent, they were naïvely overlooked at Chelsea and Inter Milan respectively. Liverpool proved to be the club that would foster their development, offering the first-team football they sought to enable them to reach their potential.

Embracing the risk, Liverpool handed the pair the platform that had too often been reserved for more experienced players at their former clubs, and they both thrived. Their early careers were marked by inconsistency, and thus limited opportunity in spite of their hints at brilliance. Comparisons can be drawn here with rumoured targets such as Real Madrid’s Jesé, who is predictably overlooked given the vast array of attacking options available to Zinedine Zidane.

Although it will occasionally frustrate, the policy of buying young potential is set to endure. It is, of course, significant to the economic strategy of the club, but it is also indicative of a status-quo in which Liverpool simply cannot compete for many established, quality players. While some signings will impress from the outset, the development of other promising players requires patience. The quality and suitability of those players is, however, much enhanced in recent years. With a renewed approach to transfer negotiations impressing of late, and an inspiring manager under whom such targets ought to be excited to develop, Liverpool can expect to enjoy a more fortuitous transfer window in the summer to come.

This article was first published by Anfield HQFor more, please follow @KopWriter on Twitter.