Max Morland examines how Liverpool can get past their issue of struggling against the smaller sides in the Premier League.
For a team aspiring for a top four finish, as Liverpool are, consistency is a vital component. Although, as we have seen over previous seasons, stringing together a good run of form often seems hard to come by for the Reds.
As has been demonstrated by the mixed start to the season, Liverpool often follow wins against some of the league’s top teams, with disappointing performances against the sides competing lower down the table – a prime example being the thrilling opening day victory against Arsenal, which was followed by a somewhat humiliating defeat against newly promoted Burnley.
However, that loss was just the latest in a trend of poor performances against the ‘smaller teams’ over the last few seasons. Why does Liverpool always to struggle against these sides, and yet never seem to find difficulty in dispatching teams at the top of the table, often by large margins?
Part of the problem could lie within the mentality of the players and manager. Similarly to Liverpool recently, Jürgen Klopp’s first season at Borussia Dortmund in 2008 saw the German often find his team lacking consistency and ruthlessness, particularly against sides who finished lower than them in the table and yet often emerging victorious against sides on a similar level to them.
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Could it be that Klopp’s teams often fail to find motivation for fixtures at smaller stadiums, where the spotlight is focused away from the team?
This is clearly not the case, as the Reds did not perform to their highest level in either of their two biggest games of last season: both the Europa League final and the Capital One Cup final against Manchester City.
Another reason for Liverpool’s lack of consistency may lie within the tactics of opposition teams.
Jürgen Klopp usually sets up his teams to play fast, counter-attacking, ‘heavy metal’ football, so when teams like Burnley invite the Reds to come forward and try to break them down, Liverpool often run into serious problems.
It is no secret that most teams near the bottom of the league often play bigger teams, like Liverpool, with the intention of sitting back and trying to hold on for draws.
As negative as this style of play may seem, it is often very effective in collecting points, particularly against sides like Liverpool. Often, the Reds find themselves in need of a goal in matches, but find it hard to break down the opposition.
For teams with an abundance of pace, like Man City, finding a way through the defence is often easier than for other sides, and therefore they are often in a completely opposite position to Liverpool: losing against the better teams, and having no trouble winning by large margins against sides further down the league.
With the exception of Sadio Mané, there is no-one in Liverpool’s squad who can provide such speed as Man City have among their ranks.
Taking both the fact that Liverpool struggle enormously with breaking down teams, and last season’s bizarre tendency to capitulate in the second half of matches into consideration, it is fairly easy to see why the Reds found themselves ending the season with a points tally only marginally better than during Roy Hodgson’s horrendous spell at the helm, and therefore a lowly eighth-placed finish.
So what can the club do in order to increase the consistency levels of the team and ensure a much higher finish this season?
Part of the solution may already be in place. The £34 million transfer of Sadio Mané did raise a few eyebrows amongst supporters, although, even in his four league starts this season, the Senegalese international has proved his worth to the team, proving key in the victories against Arsenal and Leicester.
However, the time when Mané’s impact on the squad was felt the most was not during one of his performances, but in his absence in the second game of the season against Burnley, in which the Reds put in an abysmal performance, clearly lacking Mané’s pace.
As demonstrated in that match, Mané cannot always be relied upon to give Liverpool an advantage, (he may go to the AFCON in the winter and miss a large number of games) and so both the Jürgen Klopp and the transfer committee should look to provide a back-up with similar qualities to the forward, so that the Reds always have an injection of pace in the side.
In addition, Jürgen Klopp needs to find an efficient way for his team to be able to dismantle smaller sides on a consistent basis. When Liverpool finished second in the league three years ago, Luis Suarez was often the catalyst, setting the tone at the beginning of each game.
So often, and especially towards the end of the season, the Reds would score early in matches, thus forcing the opposition to come out of their defensive mindset and attempt to attack. This would lead to more space for the attackers, and Liverpool could easily and convincingly beat the smaller teams.
Klopp could use these explosive starts to his advantage this season, and potentially see the same effects as Brendan Rodgers did that season.
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