Identifying and fixing the Reds’ problems before their season descends into mediocrity
Liverpool’s opening two months has been a wild ride. We knew that some inherent flaws would factor in to their season’s success, but they alarmingly threatened to derail their chances at silverware almost immediately. They’ve managed to tread water and regain some traction, but the issues still linger. If they have hopes of salvaging their season, they need to address and overcome them.
They’ve endured some tough fixtures already — a disappointing opening-game draw with Watford, a devastating 4-0 loss to City, another deflating defeat to Leicester in the domestic Cup and two very winnable Champions League ties ending in draws. Their draw at Burnley was a microcosm of their shortcomings – not only this season, but that have restricted success during Klopp’s tenure with Liverpool.
Burnley scored with their first shot on target — far too often the story — whilst the Reds only managed to convert 34 attempts into one goal. Elite teams simply shouldn’t leave without three points with such a large volume of attempts.
They are conceding goals too easily and failing to break down deep-lying defences. They will rack up plenty of opportunities, control proceedings only to crumble and concede once the opponents get a half-decent look.
Their defensive personnel is a concern. The much-publicised chase of Virgil Van Dijk is completely justified, especially considering how clear the need is now. What’s less obvious is why an alternative wasn’t considered. Now, both their depth and talent is compromised.
Man City: Win
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Joel Matip is fine, a starting-calibre player who can get the job done. He is capable, he just needs the right foil; just don’t count on him to lead the defence. Lovren is shaky, too often making errors in critical areas that compound on an already fragile backline. Klaven, the only other viable option at centre-half, pairing with Matip, leaves them feeling rather hollow — easily drawn out and beaten by mobile attackers — and is a less than desirable fit alongside Lovern.
The other top-five clubs all employ a back three, but with a lack of depth that isn’t a sustainable option for Liverpool and would come at the expense of one of their valuable attackers at an unknown return. This means there’s likely going to be no changes at centre-back, and with Clyne still out injured reinforcements on the flanks may be far away.
Alberto Moreno divides opinion: his go-forward is strong enough that some consider him quality, whilst his defensive deficiencies make him an easy target for criticism. Context is everything, and it’s situational factors that have led to him becoming a polarising figure. On a sturdier defensive unit his lapses would be covered, and on a more defensively-inclined team his attacking skills would be coveted. Liverpool is right in the sweet spot, an elite offence with an inability to keep the other team out, arguably making Moreno a poor fit. The fact that he is a player of discussion is indicative of the situation they find themselves in.
UCL Matchday 1:
UCL Matchday 2:
❌ Liverpool pic.twitter.com/oVRks1h2OE
— SPORF (@Sporf) September 27, 2017
So, without backups to call in and a low range of tactical options to alter the backline, how can the defence get better?
Salah and Mane are automatic first-team selections, as is Firminho at false 9 (and if not, Sturridge). Coutinho can operate as the sole attacking midfielder or slightly to the left in partnership with another, Klopp usually favouring Emre Can.
The overlooked element of Liverpool’s struggles are in the midfield, where some spongy defending is opening direct access to their tortured backs. Emre Can is offensively inclined, a true centre-mid looking to get forward; Henderson’s presence can vary — he is controlled and stable, but at times can be overwhelmed when left on an island and isn’t enough to hold down the central third alone in front of such a vulnverable back-line.
The options for change lie here, with Henderson clearly struggling to hold down the fort as the sole defensive midfielder. Wijnaldum could help provide relief, and with Coutinho’s brilliance, the need for the secondary option is lessened and more space for him and the dangerous front three could actually improve their output. Outside of that, any other options result in a reduction in talent on the field or a significant formation change that would restrict the strengths of this team from shining.
Essentially, both their midfield and defensive talent is weak, and they aren’t particularly deep with few alternative options. Unfortunately, this is nothing new: we knew this was the case before the season, and the sample size so far has simply confirmed it. That is pretty pessimistic, but what they can’t do is simply run the course and hope for improvement. That’s the quickest way Klopp’s head lands on the chopping block.
Of course, they can always lean on their undeniably elite offence. The return of Coutinho has opened up attacking options and his creative force allows them to break down the deep-seated defences that give them trouble. At the very least, the threat upfront will take some pressure off the backs as they control games and work the ball through the oppositions goal third (their utter dependence on Coutinho is another problem for another day).
— Anfield Express (@AnfieldExpress) September 28, 2017
Even still, they can’t get caught with their attacking six, and most specifically their front four, accounting for everything. Goals won’t ever be the issue, but if these goals are to contribute to anything significant, the rest of the team needs to lift their game and follow suit, otherwise Liverpool will bomb out of the Champions League and find themselves struggling to even qualify next season.
If they still have genuine hopes of lifting the Premier League title, the revolution needs to come immediately or they risk being left behind. Their upcoming run is a winnable but dangerous game against Newcastle, followed by United and Spurs back-to-back. We’ll learn plenty about the character of this team between now and then, but by then we’ll be already a quarter through the season — it won’t be time for trial and error, the results will define how we view the team moving forward.