Jack Hallows believes Jürgen Klopp made a fatal error against Manchester City in Liverpool’s first Premier League loss of the season.
I would like to preface the rest of this article by confirming that I’m not a believer in the notion of Klopp’s team selection having lost a game before a ball is kicked.
Liverpool’s squad is full of fantastic, talented players, all of which are more than capable of contributing heavily to winning games for this club.
That said however, some combinations have proven time and again this season that they are just not suited to certain kinds of games and this is where Jürgen Klopp got it wrong against last season’s champions.
The German could’ve done nothing about the defence he selected. With Joe Gomez and Joel Matip both sidelined with injury and Nathaniel Clyne heading off on loan to Bournemouth, his options were severely limited and while he was dire throughout the match, Dejan Lovren pretty much had to play.
The Croatian was poor for City’s first goal and while Sergio Aguero’s touch and finish were both of the highest quality, Lovren had no idea the Argentine was there and allowed the 150-plus goal striker far too much time and space in the box.
Don’t even get me started on his failure to communicate a high line with the rest of the defence, playing Sterling onside during the build-up to Sane’s goal. The Croatian hasn’t been too bad of late but he definitely picked a hell of a day to have his annual in-game meltdown.
Again though, this wasn’t Klopp’s fault. He had to play Lovren and even if he didn’t, this is a guy who like it or not was a big part in Liverpool’s Champions League run last season and Croatia’s World Cup final run.
People will always use the fact that the former Southampton defender’s respective teams didn’t win either competition as a stick to beat him with but he still helped get them there, more than a number of centre backs in world football have managed.
That said, while Lovren is clearly a talented footballer, he still divides opinion far too much to be considered a ‘great’ defender and is still far too prone to regular meltdowns in a Liverpool shirt. For that reason alone, I’m not sure I can see his Liverpool career continuing much beyond the summer.
Anyway, as mentioned twice now, Lovren’s mishaps weren’t Klopp’s fault. The decision to go up against one of the best sides in European – even world – football with a midfield trio of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner was ill-advised and perhaps what cost Liverpool this match.
The trio have played together a handful of times this season, admittedly having some success at home but being absolutely horrendous when brought together on the road.
The Res looked to sit in deep and hit the home side on the counter attack which, with the presence of Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker isn’t such a dangerous tactic anymore.
However, the midfield also needs to be right for this job and playing three men who are not natural ball-winners or natural playmakers will always bring about a ‘neither here nor there’ performance.
That is why the exclusion of Fabinho and decision to field a 4-3-3 was a little perplexing.
Klopp had fielded a 4-2-3-1 against two top six opponents in Arsenal and Manchester during the weeks preceding this fixture and the Reds had run riot, scoring eight goals and handing both oppositions a pasting.
Fabinho had been a major part of this, with the Brazilian’s ability to win the ball back, turn under pressure and spray passes even in the face of an opposition press proving priceless.
A particularly damning statistic from the match is that Fabinho played just 33 minutes, completing 26 passes. James Milner (57) and Gini Wijnaldum (90) completed just 25 and 34 respectively.
It’s almost like having another, slightly less imposing Virgil van Dijk in your midfield. He’d even proven his ability to contribute to goals during this period too! Something that is less said about Henderson and Wijnaldum in particular.
Speaking of Henderson, I really like him as a player. I think he actually brings a lot to our midfield, especially when played as an 8 rather than a 6. However, the decision to field him in the 6 against Manchester City given the approach they were always going to take was suicidal.
As noted by another of our writers Mike Mongie, the former Sunderland midfielder simply cannot turn his way out of danger when the ball is fed into him, making him almost useless under pressure.
The fact he cannot get away from an attacker means he is forced to go backwards or sideways, generally in a hurried manner which leads to a moment of potential panic in the defence – especially if the back pass finds Dejan Lovren.
Henderson is still an effective midfielder but if Klopp is to use him, especially away from home, then perhaps using him in the double pivot alongside Fabinho – as he did against Wolves – is the best way to go.
Then there’s James Milner.
Milner has actually been brilliant on most occasions this season, providing timely goals – his strikes against Burnley and Arsenal in particular being of utmost importance – but the 33-year old had been out with injury for the last few fixtures.
He’s a big game player and the very definition of the word ‘machine’ don’t get me wrong but bringing him out of the cold to feature against one of the best pressing sides in Europe was an incredibly short-sighted decision from Klopp.
The former City man was well off the pace throughout and his usual tidiness on the ball, effectiveness off it and ability to cover every blade of grass on the field like it’s nothing were all missing entirely.
Wijnaldum? When he’s on it, he’s suited to this kind of fixture but this time around, the former Newcastle midfielder honestly just had a poor game.
Another seemingly more suited to a double pivot, Wijnaldum only completed 34 passes in 90 minutes, attempting to play just 50% of those forwards and along with Salah, the Dutchman was dispossessed more times than anyone on the pitch (3).
Not pretty reading.
This midfield trio has now been brought together for four games away from home in all competitions this season.
They’ve won once (against Leicester), drawn with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and been beaten by Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City in two games where the 2-1 scorelines didn’t accurately reflect the midfield dominance of the home sides.
They also played the majority of the 1-0 loss to Napoli together, however whether you can count it after they didn’t start the game in that way is up to you.
Either way, the results don’t lie. This midfield trio simply doesn’t have the balance to succeed in big games away from home.
Even the narrative that this was the trio that got the Reds to the Champions League final last season is nought but an exaggeration.
The trio played together in the 5-0 mauling of Porto yes and it is also true that they were brought together in the 5-2 home victory over Roma after Oxlade-Chamberlain’s untimely injury.
They were also on the field for the 4-2 loss away in Roma and the 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in the final.
Play them in big games at home and they can perform – they’re given the ball by the opposition and are more than able to break up sporadic counter attacks effectively when they need to.
Go away from home to a team who are going to bring the game to them, try to outrun them and most importantly, pass the ball around them and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Like Real Madrid in Kiev and Paris Saint Germain earlier this season, Manchester City’s midfield put in a stellar shift, passing the ball through and around the trio’s hapless press and attempts to shut down space with consistent ease as they launched wave after wave at Liverpool.
These three midfielders all have a place at Liverpool and can certainly all perform as individuals against big teams.
Milner was the main man against Arsenal in the draw at the Emirates earlier this season, while Wijnaldum’s goal gave the Reds the ascendancy at Wembley in their first top 6 clash of the season. T
hen there’s Henderson who was awesome at Anfield against Napoli in the 1-0 that put us into the knockouts of the Champions League.
Non of these games saw the three play together away from home.
If Liverpool are going to finish this season top of the pile, Klopp has to abandon the notion of ‘ol reliable’ and start rewarding the likes of Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri for their performances.
We’ve had this conversation multiple times already this season and frankly, it’s becoming a stale talking point.
Either way, it’s one match lost out of 21 in the league and it was always going to come eventually.
It’s a shame that it was in a match that served effectively as a six pointer but the Reds now have to ensure this serves to only make them hungrier to beat Guardiola’s men to that title.