Evolution is a dynamic word…every single day we are learning on experiences. The same goes with Liverpool’s young team. Like what Klopp mentioned earlier in pre-season, even without many new signings, the prospect of watching the team with another year’s experience and togetherness is thrilling. They are ready for their next step with the club. If you have any doubt about this, please check how Spurs are doing. They have managed to transform their young team to title contenders without many star players or big money transfers over the span of the past 3-4 seasons. Let us analyze how much Liverpool evolved as a team from the beginning of last season; from the gloom of Europa League defeat and the not so much inspiring signings to the final Champions League spot.
The gray feeling of Anfield after Europa League final was soon blown away by a wonderful performance by reds against Barcelona. Reds started the season brilliantly… punching well above their weight. Liverpool was the team that everybody was talking about until December. It was a proper 4-3-3 with high line and counter pressing, orchestrated masterfully by Firmino who was natural at it. Playing Firmino in the middle was pivotal to this and that made Klopp leaving out all of Liverpool strikers. Premier League teams of highest quality were played out of the park by Liverpool. Liverpool had issues throughout last season to break deep defending teams because of the narrow nature of attack. Both the full backs of Liverpool could not cross the ball first hand and knowing this, opponents started to defend narrow allowing fullbacks to have the ball. This made breaking down such teams difficult. Still, Liverpool’s game plan against footballing teams worked perfectly well.
AFCON & the Struggle
Like many say, Reds weren’t burned out (it is a popular belief that because of the nature of our style of play, players got worn out)…. Rather, it was the absence of Mane and what Liverpool did to counter that that was the reason Liverpool struggled in January and February. The threat of AFCON was always there but its impact on a high-flying Liverpool team was more than anyone could imagine. As we discussed earlier, Firmino was vital to what Liverpool does defensively. But, Klopp had no other choice but to take Firmino out from the middle and place him at a wing because of the lack of quality to replace Mane and because of forwards in the squad waiting to get a game. This dismantled Liverpool’s game as they couldn’t get the counter pressing going at the top. It was because of Origi being poor at it and Sturridge, for the very little games he played, never bothered doing that. Whenever Firmino was reinstated to the center role, Liverpool suffered fresh injury issues. Klopp for once did not try to change the system as well. As a result, by March, Liverpool of December became a distant dream. Liverpool’s lack of depth in attacking third, especially on the wings, and decision to change Firmino’s position made reds a different team altogether.
Struggle continues against lowly opposition
Bar final few games of the previous season, Liverpool played a 4-3-3 with a high line, pushing up full backs along with a counter pressing arrangement. Counter pressing worked wonderfully against teams who played out from the back. It was not equally effective against teams that defended deep, conceding up to 1/3 rd of territorial advantage and were forced to start attacks by launching the ball to the target man and playing from there. In a nutshell, without space behind the defenders and ineffective full backs to deliver good enough balls to the box, Liverpool struggled offensively even after deploying 6-7 men in attacking. The mentality of midfielders and defenders didn’t helped either as they kept losing patience too early in games where there was nothing happening offensively. They often went for too risky passes in dangerous areas of the pitch and ended up conceding goals.
Lovren got exposed the most because of lack of support on left side…. Coutinho, while playing at left wing, offered very little defensively, which made Lovren go up the pitch to become the first defender. He does not have the ability or skill set to do that. That made them leak goals, which looks terrible on the eye. It was easy to break Liverpool then; play out from the keeper and if you can manage to break the first 3 (which was not much of an issue with Origi or Sturridge as there were no communication on the trigger of a counter pressing situation which is very important and with Lallana who was always on the front foot to go for the support press from the second defender leaving a hole in the center of the midfield), then there will always be 2 centre backs who are up on half line without the support of full backs covering 50 yards all on their own, which obviously, was an impossible task. Having Mignolet, who is not much of a sweeper, made it even more difficult.
The tactical Tweak
If you analyze Klopp’s teams, Klopp tried a 4-4-1-1 with flat two Central Midfield at Dortmund where Gotze played behind Levandowski with Bender and Gundogan playing in the middle, a similar counter pressing arrangement but with a single support press given by Gotze. Liverpool were trying and failing to do this with different personals without much to show. Fast forward to May 2017, we saw us playing a 4-4-2 diamond against Middlesbrough, a game which we won 3-0… Again, we saw this against West Ham in a 4-0 result. However, to my surprise, we preferred to be compact and didn’t try the counter pressing when there were no triggers. I believe that these two victories in the back end of our last season is the prelude to the system we are going to use this term. The most important difference with Liverpool in these games was the space Coutinho managed to utilize. Ever since Klopp moved him to the midfield, we saw him getting more time on the ball.
Next season-Err could this be?
As far as I believe, Liverpool are going to use an adapted 4-2-1-3 with Coutinho in a free role against footballing teams and a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 diamond against teams defending deep. We were awe-struck with the hard work we put in for Keita and Virgil Van Dijk, and it makes sense if we check closely. Klopp wants a high line; a back line so high that Klopp want his 6’5” plus defenders on everything opposition goalkeeper launches. Virgil Van Dijk and Matip, with over 90% aerial duels statistics, make sense. Previous season, there were games were Liverpool could not do the counter press properly, were decision-making was poor and were team was not compact.
This happens when there is no support press from the second defender while counter press. With Liverpool, often player in the number 10 position goes for the press and leaves a huge hole in the middle. This opens up the midfield. There should not be a situation like this in the first place where pressing, in other words, pushing up and also being able to stay compact. We ditched counter pressing as it was in the way we started the season because of various factors. However, even when we were doing it fine, there were times when we had to sit back and defend deep. Especially in high tempo, open games. We were poor doing that all season, but in the previous 4-5 matches, when there was no counter pressing going, there was no option but to comeback, be compact and defend in numbers. Liverpool needed to accept that, and I believe they did.
So, I think for teams that rely on target man and his hold up play to start an attack, we will ditch the counter pressing strategy altogether. We might go for a dynamic 4-4-2 with Salah and Mane in wide midfield role with Coutinho playing the free role and Henderson at quarter back and with Sturridge and Firmino up front. This team will get even better if we get someone like Naby Keita. It is not that Henderson or Can is not good enough but the fact is that Keita is a massive upgrade on the number of second balls he wins compared to any of Can,Wijinaldum or Henderson. The rare skill set he possesses is defense and attack is another aspect worth mentioning. But still, if you ask me whether the team will get better if a continence is going, we are ‘the team’ in its real sense that relies on every individual…from the word go to the final second… A lapse in any of the player in attacking 3 will cost us in defense. It is almost a utopian idea of football. In white board, it could be the best possible plan but to execute it requires divine application and that too for whole the 90 minutes.
Decisions are important and that makes Firmino the most important player… Solanke looks a very good understudy to Firmino, not because he has scored in pre-season, but due to his movement and the fact that he is natural at what Firmino does when we do counter press that has impressed me. We are better equipped up front this term with Salah in and having Solanke, who could do a job defensively when we counter press. I am not fully convinced with the left side of our defense. Considering everything, Liverpool got a better squad compared to last season and if we can find a way to make Southampton sell Virgil Van Dijk, we could finish in top 3, and if we could sign both Virgil Van Dijk and Naby Keita we could challenge for the title.