THERE was something almost comforting about Jürgen Klopp’s demeanour on the touchline at Wembley yesterday.
As his Liverpool side were getting picked apart by Tottenham Hotspur like a cruel child pulling the legs off a spider in between licks of an ice cream, the camera showed Klopp staring at the ground, presumably trying to contemplate what he could say in the aftermath of such thorough shittery from his boys.
If the PA guy at Wembley had any sense of humour at all he’d have immediately played The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel over the speakers.
“Why comforting, though?” you ask. Well, unless you are the staunchest rose-tinted, glass-half-full optimist going, you will have felt like the rest of us in thinking “not this load of bollocks again” as Dejan Lovren, Simon Mignolet and the rest of the clown car that is Liverpool’s backline made scoring a Premier League goal look easier than pointing out the hypocrisy in a Donald Trump tweet. It seems that finally, Klopp was willing to climb aboard the same line of thinking.
After the game, the manager said: “The first would not happen if I was on the pitch but I am in the middle of the technical area in my trainers.
“It is unbelievably easy to defend, to close the space, we only have to clear the ball, shoe it, we don’t do it.
“All so obvious and always bad. We had chances but you can’t get results with a performance like this against a team like Tottenham who were completely spot on. We weren’t and that’s my responsibility. I don’t want to say anything positive about us.”
Despite Klopp’s insistence that he was “no worse than the others”, Lovren getting hooked on 30 minutes at Wembley was as clear an indication as any that the manager saw there was a huge problem, but what was also interesting was who came on for him. Not Ragnar Klavan, the only centre back on the bench. An experienced player in his 30s, captain of his country and trusted to be Liverpool’s third-choice centre back going into the season, but no, Klopp instead turned to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. An attacking player, meaning four other lads had to move to a different position, including Joe Gomez to right centre back and Joel Matip to left centre back. Klopp was willing to almost entirely change his starting setup just to get Lovren off and not bring Klavan on.
That rightly raises the question yet again as to why he thought it wasn’t necessary to sign a centre back in the summer. It’s a debate that’s been done to death already so I won’t go into the details, but the only thing I can think of is that the club are ultra confident that Virgil van Dijk will be a Liverpool player by January 31, 2018. However, even if that is the case, the big Dutchman clearly isn’t going to be enough on his own.
There is the ongoing argument about what can be done to improve Liverpool’s defence, whether it is the system or the individuals. I am of the opinion that better players in the same system will naturally see it improve, but it’s hard to ignore the frankly insanely high line that the team continues to play with two slow centre backs. It is not just a coincidence that Jamie Vardy always has a party against us, and yet looked toothless as anything against West Brom last week. Even the lumbering Joselu benefited from the Reds’ defence getting close enough to smell Jordan Henderson’s hair gel as he got Newcastle level a few weeks ago.
Then yesterday, with the deceptively fast Harry Kane and the quite obviously fast Heung-Min Son, Liverpool continued to stand high and then wonder why Spurs kept on getting in behind them. It’s not a big change, but surely some thought has to be given to dropping deeper to at least give yourselves a chance, even if it means sacrificing the pressing game. It’s not as if we’re electrifying anyone with that at the moment anyway.
Lovren is barely a week away from having had Romelu Lukaku in his pocket for the second time in 2017, but has also proven time and again that he isn’t consistent enough, ditto Klavan, and it’s unfair to expect Gomez to be someone we can lean on, especially as he’s barely played centre back in his short career, despite it being widely assumed it’ll be where he ends up. That said, I thought he did OK once moved there yesterday and would be on board with the idea of keeping him there for now if only to ensure that Lovren isn’t allowed near the team for a while. He’ll make mistakes, but as a young player he should at least learn from them, rather than revert back to them time and again like his elder teammates.
It’s not only there where The Reds failed yesterday. After days of fans clamouring for his inclusion on the basis of a good showing in Slovenia midweek, James Milner showed why Klopp has been reluctant to give him his wish of a starting berth in midfield with a performance that could most generously be described as “laboured”. Emre Can struggled in midfield, then moved to right back and struggled even more. If Juventus CEO Beppe Marotta was watching then Liverpool’s contract negotiation stance with the German international will surely have gotten a fair bit easier.
Phil Coutinho had his worst game since recovering from the “back injury” (maybe the same one Lovren was “suffering from” yesterday) but in fairness to the Brazilian it was largely because Tottenham did a real number on him. They surrounded him at every opportunity and Coutinho couldn’t handle it, though did still nearly score with a left-footed effort in the second half, and would almost certainly have done so had Liverpool managed to persuade the hosts to swap goalkeepers at half time.
Those and other side negatives from yesterday though aren’t really worth dwelling on. Milner will have better days in whatever position he pops up in next, while Coutinho will be back to running the show in no time, but you just can’t confidently say the same thing about that defence and goalkeeper.
Liverpool are far from the only team that concede soft goals, with this weekend in particular showcasing the very worst the Premier League has to offer in defence. The Chelsea v Watford game was an embarrassment for both concerned at the back, while Manchester United conceded two ridiculous goals to Huddersfield Town. Even the goal Mohamed Salah scored yesterday would have had us frothing at the mouth had it been at the other end. But of course the difference between them and us is the regularity with which we allow this to happen to us. To handicap ourselves through downright incompetence.
For what it’s worth I do think that Joel Matip is probably good enough to be part of a solid backline, but unfortunately he’s one of those who needs to be surrounded by excellence and consistent competency to thrive. That’s not to give him an excuse, but just look at Leonardo Bonucci, for example. Possibly the best defender in world football when he made the shock move to AC Milan from Juventus in the summer, but at the San Siro he looks a complete mess compared to the irresistible force he was alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon in Turin.
Matip of course isn’t on that level, but he strikes me as someone who isn’t good enough to make up for his teammates failings, but could be the useful partner of a better left-sided centre back that actually can command and take control of situations. He was partly at fault for the third goal at Wembley, but was put in that situation by the remarkable (and yet unsurprising) lack of communication from Mignolet. That ball comes in and every sinew of the Belgian’s being should have been to scream at everyone that it was his ball.
Matip has Kane running behind him so without a shout, has to assume the striker will get to it if he doesn’t. As he’s running backwards it’s almost impossible to get distance on the header so is then reliant on his teammates dealing with the second ball. They don’t and Dele Alli ends the game at a time when Liverpool actually looked like potentially rescuing something. A perfect example of the Cameroonian not being aware enough of his surroundings and needing the help of competent teammates, but not getting it and a goal is the result. Twas ever thus.
The rise and rise of Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino is testament to his abilities and the idea that football is mostly about quality of coaching, while the failures of Everton and West Ham this season are perhaps examples that just buying loads of lads who look good on paper isn’t enough. However, that being said, a popular game people played ahead of yesterday was to pick a joint Spurs-Liverpool XI. Almost each one I saw went with at least nine Spurs players. Whether it’s through coaching, the transfer market or just happening to have players whose trajectory defies logic, there is no doubt that Pochettino has a much stronger squad than Klopp, and so the German will have to get the most out of his team through coaching if he wants to have any chance of clawing them back to their level.
Let’s not forget, yesterday was the sixth time Pochettino and Klopp have faced each other, and it was the Argentine’s first victory. The idea that it proved that the former is superior to the latter is flawed, but at the same time it’s hard not to be concerned that it was a significant moment, and brought to the fore the fact that Klopp doesn’t currently have the tools to build a team to compete at the same level as Spurs, which is also partly his own fault.
Klopp is a trusting person. He has cut loose the likes of Jordon Ibe and Christian Benteke in the past when he’s seen they can’t offer his team what they need, but hasn’t been ruthless enough with others. There are too many players in this squad who continue to let him down time and again.
My hope is that this apparent newfound exasperation with his players is finally what turns him from a believer to a doubter, and ensures that the 2018 January transfer window is not as quiet as previous ones. He needs to utilise it to make the changes necessary to the squad that really should have come last summer or even before.
Liverpool’s next three league games are Huddersfield (h), West Ham (a) and Southampton (h). All eminently winnable, and they all need to be won before the following game at home to Chelsea. Another game against a rival that has to be seen as a chance to turn a season around rather than to stop it being completely over before December. That’s three home games in our next four as well, and while we have been unforgivably leaky away from Anfield, just one of the 16 goals conceded in the league this season has been at home.
Yesterday hurt particularly badly, but then I guess when you base such a vast amount of your life’s happiness on whether or not Lovren is good at football you really get what you deserve.
If you need to take your mind off yesterday’s abomination, you could always buy a copy of my new book, Kloppite: One Man’s Quest to turn Doubters into Believers. Admittedly, the topic will seem a little inappropriate given how much doubt this team keep piling back onto us, but at least you’ll get to read about a time when we didn’t submit to Manchester City and Spurs so pathetically. Those were the days.
Up the useless Reds.
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 22 October 2017
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