The Season So Far
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ played the first half of the season like genuine title contenders, filling their boots on a regular basis and establishing their credentials with striking away wins against Arsenal and Chelsea and beating Manchester City at home. In spite of a worryingly porous defence, the fast, fluid and frankly frightening front four of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mané and Adam Lallana looked absolutely unstoppable, leaving Daniel Sturridge sat on the bench, massaging his fragile ego.
The England striker, arguably the best finisher at the club, is more used to massaging his fragile muscles, of course, and never looked a good fit for Klopp’s physically demanding kind of football. He now finds himself behind those four and the more mobile, selfless Divock Origi in the attacking pecking order. A summer exit for Sturridge now looks inevitable.
Unfortunately for Reds fans, their team's resurgence hasn't lasted. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ have played the last month or so like relegation battlers, torpedoing their title push with a series of flat, frustrating and fruitless performances, culminating in a long winless run and defeats to the likes of Swansea and Hull City. The goals have dried up and problems in defence continue. Neither goalkeeper can be trusted and an embarrassing administrative confusion over the availability of Joel Matip has left the back four short of guidance and quality.
For the first time, Klopp has come under concerted pressure from the press and from sections of the Anfield fanbase. The ubercharismatic German wasn’t supposed to go all Brendan Rodgers on us so quickly, but he seems to have no change up his sleeve to pull Liverpool out of their slump. The domination and optimism of the first half of the season feels forever ago.
The Season Ahead
With aspirations of winning the title now forgotten, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ are now 100% focused on finishing in the top four and securing Champions League qualification. Winning the FA Cup would have been nice, but realistically speaking, their priority is fourth place and keeping the fixture list relatively empty can only help. In that respect, the embarrassing home defeat to Wolves isn't so bad after all.
Their super-energetic style of play has left a good portion of their squad close to exhausted after half a season, and the more games they have to play, the more likely it is that avoidable injuries will start to pile up and their objectives will drift out of reach. This eventuality has to avoided at all costs.
In the short term, shoring up the defence and rediscovering their mojo in attack are the minimum expectations. Failure to do one or both will see the season effectively over long before May, and the pressure on Klopp would grow exponentially. The returns of Matip and Mané will help, but the problems seem to run much deeper and the solutions may be more complicated than simply returning key players to regular football.
There are no surprises with Liverpool's play at the moment. Their high and heavy pressing game remains their calling card and Klopp hasn't altered their basic 4-3-3 shape for some time. Captain Jordan Henderson is in charge of controlling the game from his position between defence and midfield and his calm, prolific distribution and fast cross-field switches have become a key feature of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™’s attacking play.
However, as Football365’s Daniel Storey recently pointed out, the Reds have arguably become too easy to play against and they've allowed themselves to have too much possession of late. Opposition sides have realised that the press is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™’s most dangerous attacking weapon, and that it can be neutralised simply by giving the Reds possession.
The logic is obvious: they can't press you if they have the ball. While the likes of Firmino, Coutinho, Mané and Lallana are adept at using fast, explosive combinations to pick their way through surprised, out-of-position backlines, they appear considerably worse at playing their way through parked buses.
Despite their recent run, there is no doubt that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ have several important strengths which Spurs should be very concerned about.
Principally, they have a highly streamlined and organised system of play and an enviable level of individual quality throughout the attack. There is no doubt as to anyone’s role, or that the players are perfectly suited to the demands of their position. With no Sturridge hogging the ball and ignoring better-played teammates, they're a selfless and ruthless front three when given space to play.
The Reds are undeniably good at keeping the ball - they've averaged 58.8% possession this season – and for most of the season they were great at converting their domination into shots – only Spurs have taken more shots this season – and converting their chances – only five teams have higher conversion rates.
As ever, the best form of defence is attack, and while their back four and goalkeeper inspire very little confidence, the fact is Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ generally protect themselves well enough: no team has allowed fewer shots on their goal this season.
Simply put, the Reds are often their own worst enemies. Their goalkeepers have, once again, been pretty woeful all season, recording a save percentage of 60%, way below the league average. Defenders like Ragnar Klaavan and Dejan Lovren are every bit as average as the attacking players are impressive, while Nathaniel Clyne has regressed noticeably and James Milner simply isn't a left-back.
As previously stated, the Reds’ strategy has backfired of late and they've played themselves into trouble, dominating too much to be able to press and thus limiting themselves to low quality chances. A knock-on effect of playing high up the pitch has been leaving their creaky defence exposed to counterattacks, and they've been punished for their inability to track back without losing all composure. They've also been horrible when defending set plays, which never helps.
One key factor which may play into Spurs’ hands is fitness: while Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ looked frighteningly fit at the start of the season, they're looking leggy at the moment, their hard-running style having caught up with them far too quickly for it not to be worrying.
Klopp will be looking to play Joel Matip and Sadio Mané from the start here. There shouldn't be any surprises or changes besides that.
Liverpool have been absolutely rotten of late but they’ve typically played their best football against the big teams under Klopp – no surprise given that the big teams are those least likely to relinquish possession entirely and thus neutralise the press. Spurs will surely fight pressing with pressing and in the absences of Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose, the defence may not be able to handle Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™’s attack. At the risk of upsetting the good readers of this blog, I’m saying 2-1 to the home side.