The Season So Far
There are two ways we can perceive the 2017-18 campaign so far for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™.
In the first, which we will call Blindly Optimistic, they have played scintillating combination football, struck a healthy balance between attack and defence and generally battered all comers. It’s been a pleasure to watch the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané going forward, and one imagines that things are only going to get better as the players spend more time developing together under their talismanic coach.
In the second, which we can name Miserable Tabloid Cynicism, they have recorded bang average results, displayed the existing weaknesses for which they were already renowned – a laughably porous defence, a questionable goalkeeper and unreliable finishing – and largely given weight to the idea that they’re no better now than they were when Klopp took over, a little over two years ago. Salah is a glorified Andros Townsend and Mané crocked and their egotistical manager is to blame for not having used the transfer market to address so many obvious problems during his tenure.
Unsurprisingly, the truth is somewhere in between the two polar opposites. The Reds have indeed been frequently breathtaking going forward – never more so than in the demolition of Arsenal at Anfield – but they have routinely been unforgivably wasteful and stupid at both ends of the pitch, gifting opponents undeserved points – as in the 3-3 draw at Watford and the home draw against Burnley. In the second of those games, they outshot Sean Dyche’s popular frauds 35:5 and still only managed to take a point. The worst thing is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ drawing after outshooting their opponents 35:5 is barely even surprising these days.
The Season Ahead
In eighth place and already nine points off of leaders Manchester City, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ must surely have to accept that they’ve dropped too many points after only eight games to consider a title challenge a realistic prospect this season. Klopp recently said that he would leave Anfield as soon as he believes that he can’t win the title with the Reds, and one wonders whether that moment is fast approaching.
It would obviously be a shock if a manager as well-known for long tenures as Klopp were to walk away after a relatively short stint at a club like Liverpool, but with the Manchester and London giants evidently so much stronger and so much more able to keep strengthening than the Reds, there is a question mark hanging over the manager now.
In any case, the goal must be reaching fourth spot and securing Champions League football for another season. With Chelsea spluttering and Arsenal marooned in no man’s land, fourth is an attainable target. Whether fourth is enough to convince Philippe Coutinho to reject Barcelona next summer, to attract new players to Liverpool as opposed to their better-paying rivals, and to keep Klopp at the helm, remains to be seen.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ play a conventional 4-3-3 system with overlapping wing-backs, an anchorman in midfield and wide attackers coming inside to overload the middle. The only unconventional aspect of their system is the use of unorthodox striker Roberto Firmino, who is less a specialist centre-forward and more a second-striker playing as a front man due to his stellar work-rate and pressing skills.
So long recognised for his gegenpressing tactics at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp has pulled back the press somewhat this season, allowing his opponents slightly more space to build moves so that his attackers may have more space to play with and move forward into once the ball is won back. After all, it makes no sense to have the frightening pace of Mané and Salah in attack if they have no space into which to run.
That’s not to say Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ have become passive – far from it – it’s just that their opponents are allowed to think they’re competing in the midfield battle. Spurs must be wary of getting too comfortable. As Arsenal found to their cost, one thing is having the ball and advancing forward – another is genuinely being in the game.
The most striking aspect of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool’s™ play this season has been their raw attacking output: 19.5 shots per game is the highest figure in the Premier League; 6.6 shots on target per game is the second best figure; only Manchester City have outshot their opponents more comprehensively over the season so far. It’s a minor miracle that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ have only scored 13 goals having taken so many shots to begin with. Their midweek 7-0 thumping of Maribor could be one of many in the coming months.
One reason they’re so prolific and creative when it comes to making chances is their tactical organisation and individual skill on the ball. Only four teams have averaged more possession so far this season, and only three have spent more time playing in the opposition’s half. This in turn, at least theoretically, creates defensive solidity: the Reds have only allowed their opponents 8.4 shots per game, the second best record in the league.
On top of that, there’s the class they have across their front line: Coutinho, Firmino and Salah would walk into almost any club team in Europe, and they’ve still got the likes of Mané and Adam Lallana to return from injury, and Daniel Sturridge in reserve. Scary.
As any Red will tell you, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ have been maddeningly frustrating in both boxes so far this season. They’ve converted a lower percentage of their shots than West Ham and West Bromwich Albion and only a marginally better ratio than Brighton, while the defence has crumbled at key moments and routinely failed to deal with set pieces that weren’t even well delivered.
As a consequence of their fragility, 14% of their opponents’ attempts have come from within their own six-yard box, the highest proportion in the league, and 4.4 of the 8.1 shots they’ve allowed have ended up on target. It’s not just Simon Mignolet and the defenders at fault: the scaling back of the pressing means that Liverpool do less in the two front thirds than before, further exposing their rickety backline.
All this adds up to a huge erosion of their shooting domination: they’ve taken 11.1 more shots per game, but only registered 2.1 more efforts on target per game. Games which should have been won easily have been allowed to become close runs. One expects such a bizarre statistical run to regress to the mean, and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ should start soon recording the heavy wins the numbers suggest they deserve. But for now, there remains the doubt that they’ll keep allowing opponents chances to take points when none should be available.
Expect an unchanged line-up from the last league outing. The only real question mark is whether Joe Gomez starts at right-back, or whether it’ll be Trent Alexander-Arnold.
It’s too close to call. With two hard-running, aggressive and impatient attacking sides going head to head, we should expect a frenetic, fast-paced, imprecise game, most likely littered with mistakes in midfield as each side tries to prevent the other having pressing opportunities. If there’s an early goal plenty more will follow, but the longer it remains goalless the more each side will close the game up.