The Season So Far
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ have continued their uniquely convincing Jekyll and Hyde act. When they have the ball, they’re one of the most fearsome attacking sides in recent memory, piling forwards in eye-catching fashion and filling their boots on a regular basis. Mohamed Salah leads the Premier League for goals and Sadio Mané and Philippe Coutinho have also impressed. When the other team has the ball, however, one’s never sure quite how embarrassing things could get for the Reds. Simon Mignolet has been as dodgy as ever and, despite recent improvements, the long-suffering Dejan Lovren and the unfortunately braindead Alberto Moreno have continued to let the side down.
The biggest problem with this assessment of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ is that this is exactly what we were saying this time last year, and very close to what we were saying at the end of Klopp’s first half-season in charge. Their status as a tactically imbalanced, untrustworthy side just as likely to lose 4-0 as they are to win 4-0 remains unchanged. While there’s still a sense that the big, charismatic German “just gets it” and is the right and only man for the task at hand, the evidence that things just aren’t getting any better is piling up.
Klopp can point to failures in recruitment – deciding “it’s Virgil Van Dijk or no-one” only works if you actually end up with Virgil Van Dijk – and the distraction of the Coutinho-Barcelona situation, but given that he more than any other Premier League manager prefers to keep a solid core in place over time and improve his players on the training field, it can be said that he’s not holding up his end of the bargain well enough. This week’s humiliating collapse away to Sevilla only highlighted how bizarre a team Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ are and how bad their defence can be.
The Season Ahead
As Manchester City seem to have the Premier League title wrapped up already, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ will now shift their focus to retaining their spot in the top four and securing Champions League qualification for another season. Their Champions League form is a concern but really, with Famous European Nights At Anfield increasingly rare, Reds fans will be happy just to enjoy some knockout games before nobly succumbing to Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.
As in previous seasons, Klopp will have to be careful going into the winter period and it must be of concern at Anfield that their campaigns have stalled at around this point as the Reds’ super-energetic style of play has left a good portion of their squad exhausted after half a season. With the games once again piling up, it’s Klopp’s responsibility to make sure his team get to the home straight with fuel in the tank for once.
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.
Last season it was argued that the Reds became too easy to play against. Opposition sides realised that the counter-press was Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™’s most dangerous attacking weapon, and that it could be neutralised simply by giving the Reds possession and assembling behind the ball. This left the pace-merchants with no space to run into and suckered Coutinho into smashing shots at goal from ludicrous distances and angles, and effectively neutralised their attack.
The addition of Salah has given them another string to their bow. While the likes of Roberto Firmino, Coutinho, Mané and Adam Lallana were always fairly adept at using fast, explosive combinations to pick their way through deep backlines, none had the livewire last-man movement and nose for goal that Salah has. His quick thinking and even quicker legs have seen Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ become as effective against parked buses as they are when counterpressing. This is a big worry for Chelsea.
Despite their recent run, there is no doubt that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ have several important strengths which Antonio Conte 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 Firmino leading the press, Salah and Mané buzzing around in behind the full-backs and Coutinho running the midfield, theirs is a formidable and frightening attack at the moment.
The Reds are still very good at keeping the ball - they've averaged 57.2% possession this season, the Premier League’s fourth highest figure – and they’ve been unbelievably good at converting their domination into shots – no team has had more efforts on goal this season. It’s little surprise that Salah leads the way with nine league goals and four more in Europe, but Coutinho has arguably been more impressive, showing the maturity, leadership and good decision-making previously lacking in his game. It’s no wonder Barcelona want him.
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: only Manchester City have allowed fewer shots on their goal this season.
As ever, the Reds are often their own worst enemies. Simon Mignolet has, once again, been jittery all season, recording a save percentage way below the league average once again. Dejan Lovren has been unfairly picked on given the circumstances of his injuries and his inability to recover, but the fact his Lovren and colleagues like Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno are every bit as average as the attacking players are impressive.
The obvious knock-on effect of playing high up the pitch has always been leaving their creaky defence exposed to counterattacks, and they've been punished for their inabilities to protect the back four high up the pitch, and also to track back without losing all composure. They've also been spectacularly horrible when defending set plays, which never helps.
Basically, if Chelsea can protect themselves and avoid the knockout punches, there’s every chance Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool™ will punch themselves out.
Heads may roll after the Sevilla debacle but it would be a surprise if there were many changes made. Perhaps we can expect Moreno to drop to the bench, but really, who else has an able deputy to step in?
As for Chelsea, expect Álvaro Morata to return to the starting eleven and Willian should keep his place over Pedro after netting twice in the Champions League thwacking of Qarabag. Expect Cesc Fàbregas to drop to the bench: his tactical indiscipline already led to one embarrassment against Roma and the solidity without him in the middle against top teams is obvious.
Unfortunately for Blues fans, Liverpool have been dominant at home of late and their midweek disappointment should give them an extra impetus to show up and play to their best on Saturday. Add in an extra day’s rest after Champions League action and you’ve got enough small advantages to give them a big one. Liverpool 3-1 Chelsea.