Jack Hallows believes that Liverpool’s less chaotic style of play this season is a tactical decision by Jürgen Klopp… one that needs to go away.
Last season – especially from the festive period onwards – Liverpool were Europe’s prime attacking force.
The combination of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané tore teams across the country – and of course the continent – apart, showing no mercy and bagging 3’s, 4’s and even 5’s with incredible regularity.
With the arrival of Virgil van Dijk in January, they also managed to solidify somewhat at the back, generally balancing defence and attack beautifully.
The game plan was simple.
Fly forward with pace and intent, press heavily from the front and make teams as uncomfortable as humanly possible. It took the Reds to a Champions League final and saw them finish in the top four for a second consecutive season for the first time since 2009.
It also contributed heavily to Mohamed Salah’s phenomenal record-breaking 32 goal Premier League campaign, the club’s record-breaking goals tally in a single Champions League campaign and three players finishing the season with more than 20 goals to their name.
It was even key to the Reds being the only side to beat Guardiola’s Manchester City more than once last season.
This season however, there’s been a shift.
Where the focus seemed previously on attacking, scoring goals and using the ‘Gegenpress’ as a method to stop opposition sides from scoring, now it looks as if the priority is clean sheets in the hope that a single goal will be enough.
At first, it was questionable as to whether this was purely tactical or whether the Reds had just fallen dramatically off a cliff both performance-wise and fitness-wise.
Was Jürgen consciously trying to shore up an area of the field that has generally been a problem for the Reds, or was it all down to the Reds attack struggling while their defenders found their feet?
Now, four Champions League games and 11 Premier League games into the season, I’m starting to lean towards the latter.
The Reds defence has generally been very good this season, especially when the back five of Alisson, Trent, Gomez, VVD and Robertson have played together and have managed to keep an impressive number of clean sheets in the Premier League in particular.
For the attack however, it’s simply just not been happening – especially away from home turf.
Salah’s shot on target there was Liverpool’s first away from Anfield in the CL since Mané’s goal in Kiev.
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) November 6, 2018
There have still been moments of joy of course, especially at home where they’ve generally dispatched of lesser opposition happily. However, Europe’s most impressive attack of last season have been inconsistent at best it’s fair to say.
While there is definitely an issue of lacking form and possibly rhythm, it also looks as if the current playing style just isn’t suiting the way that explosive front three operate.
The lack of a more attacking midfield player due to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s long-term injury, Adam Lallana looking as if he’s never played football at professional level in his life and Naby Keïta’s stop-start overtures to his Liverpool career have meant that the front three often look disjointed and too far away from the rest of the side.
This more often than not results in hopeful long balls punted into the channels by the full-backs after a period of our centre halves exchanging passes between themselves and whoever plays deepest in the midfield. No matter what level you’re at as a team, you’re alway going to be happy to defend against that.
What made Liverpool so good last season was their ability to win the ball back high, with the defensive line often sitting at deepest on halfway, penning opposition sides into their own half and allowing the midfielders – especially Oxlade-Chamberlain – to link with the attackers.
This season there’s been non of that.
No high press, no high line and no link between the midfield and the attack. It’s boring to watch sure but more importantly, it’s just not working out.
It’s no coincidence that the Reds best performances – especially in an attacking sense – have come with the side lining up in more of a 4-2-3-1 formation with Salah up top and a supporting cast of Shaqiri, Firmino and Mané.
Having an extra attacker playing off the striker has meant that the Reds do possess that link man and also offers extra questions to opposition defenders.
Do they stay tight and try to cut off the supply line into Firmino and Salah’s feet centrally?
Or do they try to cover the wide areas and stop Shaqiri/Mané from darting into the box with diagonal runs from out to in?
It’s also allowed for Fabinho to feature and feature comfortably, with the Brazilian’s positive mindset both on and off the ball helping to keep his side on the front foot with far more regularity.
We saw towards the end of last campaign that a midfield trio of Wijnaldum, Milner and Henderson offered work rate and very little more, so to continue on playing a similar system for most of the season has just been mind-boggling.
Take the midfield sent out against Red Star in the 2-0 loss just gone, Milner, Wijnaldum and Lallana.
Ignoring the fact that Adam Lallana is bang out of sorts anyway, the combination looked anonymous in the first half and bereft in the second. To say it was actually painful to watch would be an understatement.
Everything went sideways and if it didn’t, it was lofted into a packed Red Star box – not by Liverpool’s attackers but by the Serbian sides’ defenders.
What was the point?
Even if Liverpool had been the overwhelming presence in the opposition area, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané are very rarely going to win headers over centre halves.
If that’s Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, then Liverpool are in real trouble.
Liverpool are desperately crying out for variety in midfield and despite Klopp’s wishes to ease his new boys in, the next run of fixtures is the perfect opportunity to start playing the combinations that feature the likes of Fabinho, Keïta and Shaqiri.
All three will benefit Liverpool’s attacking play, while the presence of a proper defensive midfielder in Fabinho and a tenacious ball-winning midfielder in Keïta means that there won’t be a huge drop off in defensive quality either.
Even if there is a slight sacrificing of solidity, this attack proved time and time again last season that when firing and properly utilised, it’s more than capable of putting five goals past practically any opponent that’s put in front of it.
It’s time for Klopp to embrace the chaos and unleash the beast that is Liverpool’s attacking prowess.
If he doesn’t, he runs an incredible risk of results like the embarrassing 2-0 loss at Red Star only becoming more frequent.