IN the wake of Liverpool’s 4-0 hammering of Barcelona at Wembley in pre-season, I wrote a piece for The Anfield Wrap about Jürgen Klopp’s tactical blueprint for the new season and how this 4-3-3 shape with a fluid, interchanging front three and a dynamic, energetic midfield was the ideal tactical set-up to get the most out of the players at his disposal.
Indeed, the first half of the season showed that to be exactly the case as Sadio Mane, Phil Coutinho and Roberto Firmino tore the league apart, supported by Adam Lallana whose transition into an all-action central midfielder saw him hit the form of his career during the early months of the campaign.
Jordan Henderson, meanwhile, quickly adapted to the ‘number six’ role in impressive style, dominating games from a deeper position and showing a newfound maturity and discipline to his game. Supported by the understated intelligence of Gini Wijnaldum, Klopp had found his perfect balance. When everything clicked, the Red machine was simply irrepressible.
The likes of Arsenal and Chelsea were swatted aside, while the lower-standard opposition who came to park the bus at Anfield were simply sliced through with minimum fuss. This ideal tactical formula looked the absolute business, with even James Milner staking a claim as one of the outstanding left-backs in the league despite being a relative novice to the position.
Yet here we are, at the back end of February, and the wheels have well and truly fallen off. While a title challenge was not so long ago very much on the cards, Liverpool’s quest for Champions League qualification hangs in the balance. It’s been a torrid start to 2017, as illustrated by the solitary league win against Tottenham Hotspur.
Liverpool now appear totally lost for ideas against so-called ‘lesser’ sides who they would be expected to beat. In 2017 alone, the Reds have lost against Swansea, Wolves, Southampton, Hull and Leicester as well as drawing against both Sunderland and Plymouth Argyle.
Virtually all these games have been an exact carbon copy of each other in terms of the pattern of play. Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies have been exposed time and time again, and despite dominating possession, there is a distinct lack of creativity or cutting edge. All that attacking verve from the early months of the season is all but a distant memory.
Teams have worked out how to combat Liverpool now. They can sit deep, keep things compact, break with pace and steal a goal at the other end either by a counter-attack or taking advantage of sloppy set-piece defending, most likely. In possession, Liverpool’s plan against low-block sides seems to be knocking the ball side to side for a while before slinging aimless crosses into the box for opposition centre-backs to head clear under no pressure at all.
Sides have worked out that Nathaniel Clyne is Liverpool’s least dangerous attacking player, leaving him as the spare man in the knowledge that he probably won’t hurt them when left with time and space on the ball. Clyne is an excellent defender but his attacking limitations are becoming increasingly clear and given the importance of full-backs in Klopp’s system as an outlet, his use of the ball is often very wasteful. He’s far from Liverpool’s biggest problem but it’s certainly something worth picking up on.
That said, Clyne’s limitations would be less noticeable if Liverpool had a more capable, naturally left-footed left-back on the other side. While Milner did an admirable job there for the first half of the season, his lack of pace and natural inclination to cut inside has become a clear hindrance to Liverpool’s attacking moves, slowing the play down and making him a very predictable player to defend against.
Liverpool are on track once again to concede over 50 goals in the league this season, which is no surprise given the fact two central midfielders were lining up in the defence on Monday night. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren are the two best defenders at the club, but both have struggled with injury problems throughout the season and an injection of quality is absolutely essential in that position this summer.
Further forward, Liverpool’s reliance on Henderson is frightening as there isn’t another senior player in the squad who possesses the range of passing or tactical understanding to play that holding midfield role to the required standard, as Emre Can’s struggles have illustrated all too clearly.
Whenever one of the first choice trio of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Lallana hasn’t been available, the detrimental impact on Liverpool’s midfield balance has been extreme. The same can be said of the front three, with Sadio Mane’s absence in January ruthlessly exposing the lack of a viable alternative with similar attributes. Again, it’s an area in urgent need of reinforcements in the summer.
There is also the question over Firmino, who although clearly an excellent player and one fully trusted by Klopp, is not a prolific goalscorer. His clever movement and relentless pressing from the front is highly effective in certain games, particularly against the big sides, but there is a strong case to argue that Liverpool need an orthodox centre forward who can deliver 25 goals a season.
Harry Kane, Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have shown the value of having a prolific front man for their respective clubs this season and it’s a prerequisite for any side with genuine title ambitions. That isn’t to say Firmino isn’t good enough — far from it — but that alternative options are needed, and given the deterioration in Daniel Sturridge’s performances and his increasingly inevitable departure, a reliable goalscorer is something Liverpool haven’t really had since Luis Suarez left in 2014.
It’s all well and good leasing the way in the running stats, but perhaps there comes a point where we should question a system which currently isn’t producing the goods at either end of the pitch. Against these lower-quality sides, an established goalscorer could well be the difference which secures three points when Liverpool aren’t at their absolute best.
The problem we’ve got at the moment is that Liverpool aren’t capable of winning games unless they’re at their best. In the long run, that simply isn’t sustainable. It cannot be the case that the system has to click perfectly in order to get a result. Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester United have demonstrated their ability to grind out wins when they’ve been far from their best this season (even Arsenal too), but it’s something Liverpool haven’t been doing enough of.
There are too many players at the moment, who, when things aren’t going well for the rest of the team, aren’t contributing anything meaningful themselves. Take Wijnaldum, for instance. The Dutchman has made a fairly impressive start to his Liverpool career but he’s not a player to grab the game by the scruff of the neck when things aren’t going to plan. The same can be said of Lallana and Firmino too, of late.
What is abundantly clear, is that Klopp’s tactical formula which produced so many terrific displays earlier in the season is no longer proving effective — something needs to change. Most sides have worked out a tried and tested formula to beat Liverpool in this system and it’s all far too predictable at the moment.
This isn’t to say Klopp should completely abandon his philosophy and go against his principles — quite the opposite. What we need to see from him is some pragmatism and flexibility — a willingness to try something new when the original plan is past its sell-by date.
In the long run, a 4-3-3 may or may not be the best system for Liverpool but what is absolutely essential is to recruit better individuals so that each position has a quality alternative individual. That requires significant investment in key areas this summer to lessen the burden on the likes of Henderson, Lallana, Mane and Firmino — and also to give Klopp the option of switching things around and playing slightly varied styles of football rather than sticking to the same plan because he doesn’t trust the alternatives.
A system which relies on every single component part being fully fit and available to function effectively is far too fragile, as we’ve seen. Football tends to work in cycles like this. Brendan Rodgers’ 3-4-3 worked brilliantly for a run of games in 2014-15 before it ran its course.
Perhaps now, after the Leicester game, Klopp will reassess and reconfigure the system which is repeatedly showing up the same failings, in order to get back on track for the run-in and secure that vital top four spot.