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.

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How The Europa League Could Salvage This Faltering Season

Uninspiring in defeat to Leicester City. An alarming capitulation against Sunderland. Extra-time heartbreak at West Ham. The early part of this decisive month has been greatly disappointing, but, crucially, it remains a month of great potential as Liverpool head to ‘Anfield South’ to face Manchester City for the chance to lift the season’s first major trophy in the Capital One Cup Final. Before that trip to Wembley, though, Liverpool must first overcome FC Augsburg if they are to book their place in the last-sixteen of the Europa League.

With Liverpool sat some twelve points adrift of the elusive top-four positions, any enduring prospect of Champions League qualification, at least by the conventional means, has been all but shattered for another year. Their next opponents in the Europa League, FC Augsburg, scraped through the Group Stage of the competition courtesy of their superior head-to-head record against FK Partizan, and they are struggling in the Bundesliga too, languishing just two points above the relegation play-off position. Led by a staff more than familiar with such opposition, Liverpool are therefore firm favourites to progress into the Round of 16. A renewed dedication to the Europa League from Jürgen Klopp’s side would then have the potential to salvage a thus far faltering season at Anfield, especially given that the reward on offer to the eventual winner is qualification for the Champions League in the following season.

This is an outlook likely shared by Jürgen Klopp who, on his appointment at Anfield, mocked the snobbish attitude of English football towards the increasingly competitive Europa League.

“The difference is not too big. If you play Champions League, you are playing Wednesday and Saturday. Where is the difference (with Thursday and Sunday)? Is the only benefit that you like the other tournament [Champions League] more?” – Jürgen Klopp, 6th November.

Yet despite the manager’s respect for the Europa League and his impressive record in European competition, Liverpool face a mammoth task in their attempts to win it. Although ranked among the favourites to win the tournament, the three-times winners are joined in the Round of 32 draw by such illustrious clubs as Manchester United, Klopp’s beloved Borussia Dortmund and Serie A front-runners Napoli, as well as Europa League experts Sevilla, who boast unparalleled pedigree in the competition having lifted the trophy a remarkable four times in the last ten years. However, the terrific domestic form of these high-flying sides could have a disastrous impact on their Europa League campaigns during the latter stages. As they each chase titles and European qualification in their respective leagues, their performance levels in the Europa League could understandably suffer, affording those teams who prioritise a total assault on the competition the opportunity to capitalise.

If Liverpool were to do just that, Jürgen Klopp could deliver a similarly enhanced level of preparation to that which bore incredible success for Brendan Rodgers’ side in the Premier League during the 2013/14 campaign. Paired with a sheer desire unmatched by a team whose energies are concentrated elsewhere, such preparation could produce an upset or two and, potentially, deliver Champions League football for next season via the only remaining route.

Whether in Europe or at home, the impacts of any potential cup triumph this early in the Klopp era would be two-fold. Firstly, the lifting of a trophy would provide a significant bonus in terms of recruitment. Not only would the club once again be in a position to offer transfer targets the opportunity to showcase their talents in the Champions League, but such early silverware would also serve, in itself, to embody the enormous potential of Klopp’s Anfield project. Secondly, and perhaps most crucially, the overcoming of recent big-match anxiety to deliver a trophy could subsequently prove to be an invaluable water-shed event; a coming-of-age moment from which this young squad would gain the experience and confidence required in order for it to challenge consistently for further titles in seasons to come. Should February see the hopes of another season prematurely extinguished, restless fans must not begin to doubt the scope for progress, but remember that cup success ought to have been considered a welcome bonus – not an expectation. Bring home a trophy, though, and a season so often written off as transitional would be remembered as one of remarkable success.


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

Wild Celebration and Wembley Qualification

Just four days after the dramatic stoppage-time victory at Carrow Road, Liverpool qualified for the Capital One Cup final on Tuesday night thanks to the perhaps unexpected heroics of Simon Mignolet in the penalty shoot-out. Not only are we on our way to ‘Anfield South’ once more, but those three points against Norwich were crucial in the pursuit of a top four finish, especially after the ‘Old Enemy’ left Merseyside with the spoils in the previous league game.

It must not be forgotten, though, that against Norwich, the defence shipped four goals and that, against Stoke, the attack mustered just two shots on target even after extra time. Whilst the poor display in Tuesday’s second-leg simply cannot have gone unnoticed, any victory for which the reward is a visit to Wembley can understandably have the effect of sweeping away the memory of those 120 unbearable minutes bereft of inspiration and quality. It is therefore important to remember that the recurring issues of recent times have not suddenly vanished.

On the contrary, Liverpool’s frailty at defensive set-pieces and inability to finish chances were once again evident. That may sound peculiar given the five goals scored at Carrow Road, but such a haul was unfortunately not the result of repeatedly incisive Liverpool attacking, but of abysmal defending from the second-worst defence in the Premier League. At the other end of the pitch, Dieumerci Mbokani was able to punish yet more pitiful defending from a corner to finish cleverly among a crowd of flailing defenders, and a stoppage-time free-kick launched from deep within Norwich’s own half inexcusably allowed Sebastian Bassong to equalise.

There was, however, a perhaps more concerning aspect of the performance against Stoke, in that it evoked memories of two other high-pressure occasions: last season’s FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa and the visit of Chelsea during the title-chasing run-in the year before. On Tuesday, the team again displayed the lack of bottle, belief and composure to handle the expectancy on the big occasion just as they had in those two matches. Similarly, Liverpool’s frantic urgency later in the game highlighted once more the absence of a big-game mentality, and of experienced winners who, by injecting a degree of composure, avoid the ill-considered thrusts forward and instead introduce periods of sustained control and measured attack.

Fortunately, Liverpool made it through a tricky cup tie, and all in the absence of arguably the two most talented players in the current squad, Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. Perhaps after the Norwich game, conceding felt inevitable and the team believed that they would need to score on the night to progress. Perhaps, had those two been available, the team would have felt more confident in their ability to grab that goal. Interestingly, the club now appears to be looking to the transfer market for solutions at both ends of the pitch with moves for prolific goal-scorer Alex Teixeira and defensive leader Joël Matip, though it remains to be seen whether either or both of these deals will be completed during this window.

Frustrating though it is to struggle in front of goal and concede from a corner, it is arguably cause for optimism to be plagued by such basic problems in that the solutions are equally obvious. Fans will expect a significant improvement in these areas during the second half of the season, and there is undoubtedly a vast amount of work to be done on the training ground, and perhaps even in the transfer market. However, if Jürgen Klopp and his staff can drill this team into even adequately defending a basic set-piece, and follow that remarkable achievement up with the introduction of a clinical finisher, then a season so often written off as transitional could yet offer the possibility not only of progress, but of success.


This article was first published by Empire of the Kop, and later Anfield Index. For more, please follow @KopWriter on Twitter.