The Reds are brilliant. They’re playing the best football in the country at the minute, tearing sides apart with consummate ease. Teams try to park the bus against us. We just play through them, simple as that. Teams take advantage of our poor set-piece defending. We’ll just go and score more than them.
And so it showed again against Crystal Palace. Selhurst Park; the scene of some nightmarish memories of Liverpool fans. But not for these Liverpool players. They’re not fussed about the ghosts of the past. They know if they keep their heads and play their football that teams won’t cope.
Dejan Lovren makes a horror show of a clearance at one end, allowing McArthur to equalise. What does he do? Straight up the other end to blam a header through the legs of Steve Mandanda. That attitude is the embodiment of this Liverpool team under Jürgen Klopp. There is a resilience and mental fortitude which allows us to respond to setbacks in a positive manner. Where once we might have crumbled, we go on to control the contest and show our superior class.
It’s thrilling to watch. It’s not perfect by any means, but there isn’t a side who provides more entertainment than Liverpool in the country at the moment. It’s something which often goes understated in the modern game. Yes, we all love winning. But winning and playing scintillating football which captivates even the neutrals definitely holds some extra value. It’s a sport to be enjoyed, after all.
Liverpool’s players are clearly enjoying their football under Klopp. I wrote a piece for The Anfield Wrap after we beat Barcelona 4-0 in pre-season, explaining why that performance was not just a freak result in a meaningless friendly game. It showcased a tactical blueprint which Klopp had clearly worked on in pre-season with his players.
That 4-3-3 system has proved devastatingly effective so far this season. Roberto Firmino’s performances, as the focal point of the attack, have confined Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Danny Ings to bit-part roles so far. Three strikers who would start for most Premier League clubs, one of which is genuinely top class. They don’t get in this team.
They don’t get in this Liverpool team because the overall performance of the side hinges upon the tactical fluidity and constant interchanging movement which functions most effectively without an orthodox striker on the pitch. On paper, at least, we have Phil Coutinho drifting in from the left flank and Sadio Mane on the right.
In midfield, we have Jordan Henderson dominating games from the number six position. In front of him, we have Adam Lallana reincarnated as an all-action central midfielder. Then there’s Gini Wijnaldum who Klopp has redefined as a controlling midfielder who virtually never gives the ball away, competing for the final midfield spot with Emre Can who has shown signs of flourishing in a more advanced midfield role than he has previously occupied.
It’s a phenomenal front six; a supremely cohesive attacking unit without one single standout star. There isn’t one individual with the sheer brilliance of Luis Suarez but this Liverpool side is not about individuals. Everyone buys into the pressing game. Everyone chips in with their share of goals and assists. That’s 24 goals in 10 league games this season. For Klopp, it’s all about making the final product greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Yet, something has come to my attention in recent weeks regarding the so-called ‘system’ Liverpool play. The degree of movement among the front three and to some extent the midfield has led me to believe we have moved into some kind of post-positional era where players are no longer defined by a specific role or zone on the football pitch.
Watch Coutinho play in recent weeks and you’ll see that, although his starting position, ostensibly, is on the left flank, he spends much of his game acting as an advanced central midfielder, dictating the game from deep. It is a tactical shift which has seen his decision making improve dramatically, able to pick out accurate through balls with impressive regularity rather than cutting in and blasting the ball at goal from 30 yards at every opportunity. Much of that improvement comes from the movement around him. He can trust Mane to make those diagonal runs where last season the option was simply not there, with Christian Benteke’s relatively static movement up front.
Mane himself is no stranger to drifting all over the pitch, departing from his natural wide-right position. The number of times he was seen masquerading as a virtual centre-forward against Palace was incredible, splitting the defence with direct runs down the middle and finding himself in central, goal-scoring positions. He didn’t score on this occasion, granted, but the chances were there.
With Mane and Coutinho playing with such flexibility, in terms of their movement, it must be a living hell for opposition players to deal with. You think you’ve got Firmino to mark as the centre-forward, but then he drifts wide, Coutinho drops deep and you have a lightning-quick Mane belting past you on to an inch-perfect through ball. It’s innovative and it’s refreshing to watch.
Add that to the driving runs of Can and the frankly ridiculous capacity of Lallana to cover every blade of grass (his run into Mane’s vacated space opening up the gap for Firmino’s goal on Saturday), along with Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno incessantly bombing forward to overload the final third of the pitch and you have a recipe for goals galore.
Getting numbers in the box; that’s the mantra Klopp keeps on emphasising. It should come as no surprise that Liverpool are the top scorers so far this calendar year.
It all looks so natural and free-flowing, such is the understanding between the Liverpool players. They are all willing to drop in to cover one another when one player decides to vacate their natural starting position. It’s abundantly clear that Klopp’s work on the training pitch is having the desired effect in in-game situations.
Of course, there will be those who choose to scrutinise Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies. It’s an area which needs improving and Klopp knows that. Perfection is an impossible dream in football. But Liverpool are winning games. Liverpool are managing potentially precarious situations and ensuring that the three points are theirs. That’s what matters most for now.
And the best part in all this? We haven’t even hit top gear yet. Just imagine when that happens. If we can fix up at the back then who knows what the ceiling of this Liverpool team is. I’m excited to find out.