CRISIS? What crisis? Oh right, that crisis.
It felt like Liverpool had turned a corner on Tuesday. The moribund performances of the early weeks of 2017 appeared to have finally been seen off by an energetic and inspired, if not spectacular, performance against Chelsea that on another day could have easily ended in a title chase-changing victory for the Reds.
Of course Liverpool then went out against Hull on Saturday and managed to fill the whole season into a microcosm of a week. Raised expectations and hopes dashed in just a few moments to not just harm a title challenge, but to emphatically end it and even make top four appear to be teetering into ‘unlikely’ territory. The Reds turned a corner in more of a ‘Blair Witch Project’ kind of way where they were somehow back in the same place they had been just moments earlier.
The performance at the KCOM Stadium was so abject that even Jürgen Klopp couldn’t bring himself to defend it. For the first time this season he conceded that fans had every right to be miserable about what his team had produced, or rather had not produced.
Hope was abound after Chelsea, and not just because of the improved performance, but that heading into the Hull game Klopp appeared to finally have close to his first choice team available again. At the very least he had his first choice attack back. An attack that hadn’t started together since Liverpool had torn Watford apart and went top of the league. Somehow, Klopp’s team managed to look even more toothless than previous games.
There are already plenty of other articles stating what is wrong with the squad, what needs changing, who needs bringing in etc. but none of that can be addressed until the summer, so I’m only interested in the squad we have now and what Klopp has at his disposal to turn things around in the immediate future.
In his final season at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp went through something very similar to this. He had a very talented squad, one that had won him trophies and reached Champions League finals. They had lost the odd key player here or there but their squad was still very much the envy of many around Europe, with an imperious attacking triumvirate of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
After losing their opening game 2-0 at home to Bayer Leverkusen, they won the next two, so things initially didn’t seem all that bad. However, they then went on a run for the remaining 14 games of the first half of the season that saw them win two, draw three and lose nine. On the face of it, they were a complete mess, and bottom of the table.
The notable thing about all of those nine defeats, though, was that it wasn’t as if Dortmund were getting battered by anyone. Seven of them were either 1-0 or 2-1 defeats, while their ‘heaviest’ losses were 2-0 at Mainz and Eintracht Frankfurt, but in none of those games had they really been outplayed. In fact in most of them they had dominated possession and had three or four times as many attempts on goal as their opponent. It was widely reported and analysed that teams had ‘figured out’ how to tactically stop Klopp’s machine. To soak up pressure, wait for a mistake and hit them on the counter. Sound familiar?
Then came the winter break. Klopp desperately needed all six weeks of it to try and get his team back on track. The work on the training pitch he and his coaching staff were able to do at that time would be crucial, building up the players’ fitness and confidence. It didn’t appear to do much good initially as they gained just one point from their first two games back after the break.
However, from that point on they went on to win nine, draw three and lose three. It wasn’t a perfect record but it was vastly improved and pushed them all the way from the bottom of the league into seventh place and European qualification. They also reached the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) final, beating Bayern Munich along the way.
Despite the turnaround, Klopp still felt it was time to step aside at Signal Iduna Park as he had taken Dortmund as far as he could, and that is where the parallels with this current Liverpool side end.
This is still a squad very much in its infancy. Not just in terms of personnel but in terms of its learning. A notable thing from Klopp’s recent press conferences is that when his team have made an error, he hasn’t whitewashed over it. He generally says that he doesn’t know why his team did it, suggesting that he is giving them instructions that they are failing to carry out. One obvious reason for that becoming a far more common occurrence is having less time on the training field.
Every other team can say the same thing of course as most have had just as busy a Christmas and January period as Liverpool, but with the Reds having to be the aggressors in games, the burden is on them to create and to dominate. They don’t yet appear ready to do that consistently. It takes a lot more ability and tactical nous to break down a bus than to park one.
Teams are setting up against Liverpool as if they are the heirs apparent to Barcelona, which earlier this season seemed to be perfectly reasonable. The likes of Leicester, Hull and Watford came to Anfield, tried to defend and were bowled over. However, pretty much since the 0-0 at Southampton where Claude Puel’s men shamelessly came not to play, teams seem to have figured out a formula for stopping Liverpool. Relatively standard organisation, force them into having to cross the ball and then hit them on the break. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as it works, time and time again.
In the winter of 2014-15, Klopp and his staff went away and tried to figure out where it was going wrong for Dortmund. He made tactical tweaks, managed to get the best out of Aubameyang in particular, and showed the Bundesliga that while they may have had Dortmund’s number, he was capable of going away and changing that number to devastating effect.
I’m sure there’ll be people out there who think that this is all well and good but say it’s easier to turn things around in the Bundesliga than it is in the Premier League. Well Carlo Ancelotti isn’t exactly finding it to be a cakewalk and he has one of the most talented squads in existence at his disposal.
We obviously have no winter break in England, but the upcoming period is as close as you’re going to get to it. Having played 12 games in 40 days since Christmas, Liverpool now have just four in the next 40, which may even become three if Burnley reach the FA Cup quarter-final. While that is going to make for a dull period for fans, it at least allows Klopp to get his men to Melwood as often as possible to work on fixing the problems that are there, to drill into his players exactly what he wants from them and to ensure they are best equipped to perform when games do come around.
Klopp is very much a training ground manager. It can be an issue when you have so many games in football, and especially if the Reds have European football next season, in which case he is going to have no choice but to add significantly to his squad in the summer (dammit, I said I wasn’t going to talk about that here!) but it is times like this when he has come into his own before, and while doubts persist about the quality of players he has to work with, there are now no excuses at all for Liverpool not improving between now and the end of the season. When the rampant Reds were running over teams left, right and centre they were having at least a week between games. They haven’t had that for a while, but they do now.
Several of our rivals have European football to come, which is likely to have some detrimental effect on their league form, and so I remain confident that we will be seeing Champions League football at Anfield next season. It may not be the title, but in an ongoing project it’s certainly a step up from a team that was only good enough for eighth last season.
In the last few weeks Liverpool have been vanquished by Tigers, Wolves and even Swans. Up next are the Cocks and the Foxes (which means Tottenham and Leicester, and is not just the probable title of Nigel Farage’s next autobiography).
The Liverbird is starting to be seen as easy prey, but the onus is now on Klopp and his men to rise up and turn the hunted into the hunter once again.
Up the Melwood-ensconced Reds!