Jürgen Klopp’s arrival on Merseyside in October sparked immense excitement amongst Liverpool fans who had grown tired of watching Brendan Rodgers’ side’s struggles in the early stages of the season.
After losing 3-1 at Old Trafford in September, Rodgers went on to draw five of his last six games 1-1 as manager with three of those deadlocks coming at home – Norwich, Carlisle and Sion the opponents. In those games, the pattern was similar: the Reds dominated for long periods but looked susceptible to conceding guilt-edge chances whilst simultaneously appearing incapable of creating any of their own.
Their new German manager has only fared marginally better so far in his seven Anfield matches. Bournemouth, Bordeaux and Swansea have been beaten by single-goal margins in three different competitions but FC Rubin, Southampton and, most recently, West Brom have left with a share of the spoils, while Crystal Palace went one better by winning 2-1 prior to the last international break.
The fixture computer generated an extremely odd-looking set of Liverpool fixtures in the first half of the season, where the Reds faced all of their toughest away trips of the season in their first seven away games. It did, however, produce a schedule that saw five of their six games immediately after Europa League ties being home fixtures, with a short journey to Everton the only exception. Much has been made about English clubs’ win percentage on Sundays following games on Thursdays, and it’s evident that this has affected Liverpool’s home form.
However, the malaise that is currently preventing Klopp’s men from capitalising on their title rivals’ reluctance to win games goes deeper. What can he do to turn these draws into wins?
Daniel Sturridge’s brace in the 6-1 Capital One Cup win at Southampton reminded everyone exactly what Liverpool have been missing during his time on the sidelines with injury, so it was rather fitting that his body continued to taunt fans when he picked up a hamstring strain at Newcastle last weekend. In his absence, Klopp has generally selected Christian Benteke in attack, with or without Roberto Firmino.
Much has been made of the pair’s lack of chemistry in recent weeks; in the 2-0 loss at St. James’ Park, just one pass was exchanged between Liverpool’s front two before they were both pointedly substituted at the same time in the second half. The Anfield crowd have seen this kind of issue before – club-record signing Andy Carroll struggled to link up effectively with Luis Suárez back in 2011-12, while Rickie Lambert’s run in the team last season showcased a painful lack of compatibility with playmaker Phillipe Coutinho. Benteke and Firmino have caused more ire, however – neither looks interested in playing to the other’s strengths, a criticism that could not have been levelled at Carroll and Suárez four years ago.
Firmino has been used as part of a fluid attacking trio with Coutinho and Adam Lallana in Liverpool’s excellent victories away to Chelsea and Manchester City, but would this work at Anfield against a deeper defence? In theory, the movement of the trident could disrupt a deep, rigid backline. Is it time for Klopp to try this at home?
Deploying Benteke against Tony Pulis’ deep West Brom seemed to make sense. Benteke’s size and power should allow him to prosper given adequate service from wide areas, but never did he look like getting the better of Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson against the Baggies. He connected with just two of Liverpool’s 29 crosses, heading both off-target. Many of those crosses came from deep or central positions, often the easy option.
It is without doubt more difficult to work an overload out wide to get a full back scampering in behind to cut a ball back, and it won’t happen 29 times in one game. But if Nathaniel Clyne or Alberto Moreno managed to do so even a handful of times, it might present the Belgian striker with a better opportunity – the kind of one he often thrived from at Aston Villa (see the FA Cup semi-final against his current employers).
It’s also worth pointing out that, when at Villa Park, Benteke tended to be an extremely streaky player, enduring long baron spells before scoring ten goals in ten games. Does this make him worth persisting with?
Liverpool’s first goal against West Brom showed the manager exactly what Jordan Henderson can bring to the table. Gambling on Coutinho’s diagonal pass to Lallana, the captain burst through the centre from deep to fire past Boaz Myhill and break the deadlock. If teams are content to sit deep at Anfield, the key to unlocking the door may well be triggering these runs from midfield positions.
At Newcastle last weekend, neither Lucas nor Joe Allen looked likely to provide this dynamism, while James Milner’s utility role means he’s never consistently in the position to capitalise on the breaking ball. Since first taking on the captain’s armband in January during Steven Gerrard’s absence through injury, Henderson has steadily been improving his output in terms of numbers, finding the net against Manchester City, Burnley and Swansea in a fruitful spell last spring.
The second man that can provide this is Lallana, creator of Henderson’s strike at the weekend. The former Southampton man is one of the most unique footballers around – always playing on the half-turn, rarely wasteful in possession and constantly bright, but lacking in any defining physical attribute and lacking in key contributions.
His value to the team was extremely evident in Liverpool’s recent big away performances as he showcased his work ethic and intelligence, but missing a big one-on-one chance against West Brom highlighted what’s currently lacking from his game. That said, the movement that got him into the position bearing down on the Kop is exactly what can disrupt organised defences.
Lallana’s contribution to the overall performance of the team is generally positive, but does he have the impact factor required to play in a front three? Perhaps a deeper starting position in the middle third could allow Klopp to play another attacker whilst simultaneously allowing the 27-year old to break lines with more third-man runs.
The Emre Can Option
At just 21 years of age, Emre Can has huge potential to be anything he wants to be as midfielder. Inconsistent and infuriating at times, he was still hugely missed when suspended for the defeat at Newcastle where his size, drive and creativity were badly required in a scrappy game. His technical ability is without doubt – see his assist for Sturridge’s second goal at St. Mary’s in the League Cup (below) for evidence.
With Lucas banned for the visit of Swansea, Can played as Liverpool’s deepest midfielder for the first time under Klopp and he reprised that role in midweek in the dead rubber tie against Sion in the Europa League. With Lucas available for the West Brom game, it was perhaps a surprise to see the German in that role again, though Klopp’s thought process may have had sound logic.
Despite occasional complacency and lapses in concentration that an opposition side playing a genuine number ten may exploit, Can’s skillset is unlike most other midfielders in the league. In addition to his passing ability and variety, the ex-Bayer Leverkusen man can take men out of the game by powering past them from deep, committing bodies to open up spaces for teammates.
Interestingly, with West Brom a goal up and Dejan Lovren departing on a stretcher, Klopp chose to replace his Croatian centre back with Divock Origi, who went on to score his fourth goal in three games to level the game in stoppage time. Instead of changing the team’s shape, the manager moved Can to centre back, where he continued to have a positive influence of the game from an even deeper position.
With the visitors penned back in their own penalty area, the German had acres of space to attack when in possession, adding an extra attacking dimension to Liverpool’s search of an equaliser. Can has only previously started a game at centre back in a back four once for the Reds, against Newcastle last April. Could this be a means by which Klopp can add creativity to his side against defensive opposition?
In the build-up to the West Brom game, Klopp was extremely vocal about the need for the backing of the Anfield crowd. Having quipped that he felt ‘alone’ on the touchline as supporters exited the ground early during the 2-1 defeat to Palace, he then called for the best atmosphere of the last ten years this weekend in his pre-game press conference. He may not have gotten exactly that, but his impassioned celebration of Origi’s equaliser and the subsequent noise inside the ground lifted the team.
The post-match scene of Klopp bringing the entire team, hand-in-hand, to salute the Kop raised eyebrows amongst neutrals and was greeted with derision by fans of rival clubs for what was construed as a public celebration of a 2-2 home draw with inferior opposition.
However, the majority of Liverpool fans appreciated the sentiment of this act, more frequently seen in Germany; a showing that the team appreciates the support, that they are willing to fight for the crowd.
Maybe this was the first step in restoring the famous Anfield atmosphere. If so, it could be one of Klopp’s greatest moves to date: restoring the advantage that was often said to give Liverpool half a goal’s head-start in the minds of the visiting team.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena
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