Following the 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley, Liverpool were firmly installed as the media’s “crisis club”. A season which had initially promised so much appeared on the brink of coming off the rails with Jürgen Klopp under increasing pressure to quickly find a solution to his side’s struggles.
With Liverpool leaking too many goals at one end and misfiring at the other, a change in system seemed a necessity given that the personnel at Klopp’s disposal cannot be changed until January, at least.
Three games in the space of a week against Huddersfield, Maribor and West Ham simply had to yield three wins in order to get Liverpool’s season back on track. On paper, these are the kind of fixtures Liverpool should be expected to take maximum points from but the reality in recent seasons has suggested otherwise. Breaking down compact, stubborn opposition whose sole objective is to frustrate Liverpool and defend in numbers is never an easy task.
Yet Liverpool have found a way to put three wins together, each by a three-goal margin, despite not playing scintillating football and without several key players including Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana. One major criticism of Klopp during his tenure at the club has been a tendency to stick with the same system regardless of the kind of opposition- a “one size fits all” 4-3-3 formation.
When all the necessary component parts are fit and available, it all clicks perfectly and Liverpool have shown themselves to be an irresistible force when at full flow. The problem has been that this system has proved fragile, in that it often requires Liverpool to be at their very best in order to get results, leaving them exposed when not executed properly.
Klopp’s favoured 4-3-3 shape has regularly seen Henderson left isolated in the midfield at times this season, creating too much space for one player to cover and consequently leaving the defence without adequate protection. With both full-backs bombing forward to support the attack, the balance seemed too heavily weighted towards attacking, with the back line too easily exposed by a simple ball in behind and centre backs dragged into wide areas where they don’t want to be. The likes of Manchester City, Sevilla and Spurs all exploited this systematic imbalance.
Against Huddersfield, however, a small tactical tweak from Klopp saw Gomez remain far more conservative in his positioning, tucking in almost as a third centre-back for much of the game and rarely venturing forward beyond the halfway line, creating a much more compact defensive structure which compensates for the weaknesses in individual personnel, to a degree.
This meant Liverpool always had three bodies back at all times, while the inclusion of James Milner meant he could drift out to the right and provide some of the natural width which would usually come from the full-back. At times Liverpool’s shape appeared more like a 3-4-3 in possession, with Milner and Moreno occupying typical wing back positions.
A similar system was again used to good effect against Maribor- albeit with a slight change in personnel- before Klopp once again tweaked the system more significantly against West Ham.
The surprise inclusions of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mané in the starting lineup saw Klopp try something we haven’t seen before, deploying what was predominantly a 4-2-2-2 shape with two pacey wide men and a front two of Mohamed Salah (a role he played numerous times alongside Edin Dzeko for Roma) and Roberto Firmino, both of whom would frequently interchange and pull out wide, making them almost impossible for defenders to pick up.
At times, Oxlade-Chamberlain would shift infield to form more of an orthodox midfield three, with Mané pushing up to join the attack, while the robust combination of Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum provided a solid foundation for Liverpool’s more explosive players to play with freedom going forward without leaving too much space in behind.
It was noticeable how both Moreno and Gomez held their positions much closer to the centre-backs, rather than marauding up the wing, instead choosing their moments more carefully for when to join the attack. Other than one defensive lapse by Gomez, Liverpool again looked far more secure at the back and were able to largely dominate the game with a balanced system which allowed them to control all areas of the pitch.
Under Klopp, Liverpool have developed a tendency to lurch between the extremes, as regulation, run-of-the-mill victories against lesser opponents have not been all that common. In the space of a week, Liverpool have churned out three comfortable wins, scoring ten goals and conceding just one without having to be anywhere near their very best level.
Tougher challenges are still yet to come, with a home clash against Chelsea on the horizon soon after the international break, with Liverpool needing a statement result against a top four rival to truly kick on and continue climbing up the table.
However, if Liverpool can continue to pick up mundane victories in the manner they have been able to against the likes of Huddersfield and West Ham, that will bode very well for the remainder of the season as this is where most of the points are there to be won.
Although sometimes accused of being too stubborn and one-dimensional in his tactical outlook, Klopp has shown flexibility in his approach, setting his side up to control games, stay patient and wait for the breakthrough without having to blow teams away, in the knowledge that by keeping a solid foundation and not allowing themselves to be over-exposed, Liverpool’s superior individual quality will usually be enough to pick up the points against the vast majority of sides the come up against.