How Jürgen Klopp’s tactical tweaks have helped Liverpool regain momentum

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Is Mohamed Salah’s exceptional start becoming underrated at Liverpool?

Wednesday evening. An important Champions League tie at Anfield in which Liverpool are fully expected to take another three points from Maribor- yet the visitors are far more stubborn than they were on home turf and make themselves a difficult challenge for Liverpool to break down. 0-0 at halftime and a sense of frustration starts to emerge.

Just four minutes into the second-half, however, Liverpool find that moment of genuine quality to make the breakthrough. Trent Alexander-Arnold delivers a promising cross from the right flank and it’s absolutely no surprise to see Mohamed Salah on the end of it, deftly flicking the ball into the bottom corner on the volley with a sumptuous piece of technique after making a trademark intelligent run to get himself into a scoring position.

It was Salah’s 10th goal of his debut season at Liverpool in his first 15 starts (16 appearances in total), with three assists to his name as well. For context, that’s the same record as Fernando Torres and three more than Luis Suarez managed in his first 16 appearances at the club. Yet Salah isn’t even a striker by trade, even if he finds himself taking up central goalscoring positions on a regular basis. For a wide forward to be hitting these numbers so soon after arriving represents a phenomenal start to life at his new club.

The extraordinary thing about Salah is that despite such a prolific return, there has been a significant focus from fans and pundits alike about his supposedly “poor” or “wasteful” finishing and that he ought to be converting more of the big chances he has missed. While it’s true that Salah has spurned numerous excellent opportunities, what he’s essentially being criticised for is not having a goal tally on the level of Lionel Messi. Had he scored even half the big chances he has missed so far this season, he’d probably be nearing 20 goals already and on his way to a Ballon d’Or.

This is a player Liverpool signed for £36.9 million, it’s worth remembering. Salah’s pace and intelligent movement is what allows him to get in the situations where he is expected to score with such regularity. Of course, he could be more clinical but the simple fact is he is performing at a level which puts him among the very best in the world in his position. In fact, his conversion rate of 27% is considerably better than Cristiano Ronaldo (10%), Lionel Messi (19%) and Harry Kane (14%).

Of all the “wide forwards” in Europe, only Neymar- the one who cost nearly £200 million- has more goals (11) in all competitions than Salah (10) so far, with Raheem Sterling equal in second place having also hit his 10th of the season against Napoli on Wednesday evening. Having joined a new club, learning a new system under a new manager with new teammates, Salah has hit the ground running and is delivering a goal return better than virtually every other winger in Europe apart from the world’s most expensive player of all time.

The likes of Luis Suarez, Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Gareth Bale, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard all have fewer goals to their name than Salah at the time of writing, nearly all of which are unanimously considered “world class”- or at least have been until very recently.

Since after the 2013-14 season, Liverpool’s highest goal scorer in a single season has been Philippe Coutinho with 14, last season. In 2015-16 and 2014-15 respectively, the top scorers in all competitions were Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard (both 13 goals). The fact that Salah is already on 10 with seven months of the season left to play is quite remarkable in that context.

There is, of course, always the threat of injury especially given the kind of explosive player Salah is and the number of minutes he’s getting, but should he remain fit for the vast majority of the remainder of the season, a tally of 40 goals is not unfeasible. When he first signed, something around 15-20 would’ve been considered a very decent first season at Liverpool and he’s not far off achieving that already.

He’s scored all kinds of goals, too. Poacher’s finishes inside the six-yard box. Running the length of the pitch before coolly slotting the ball home against Arsenal. A bullet header from a near-impossible angle against Leicester. An exquisite first touch to control a long ball before rifling in a low finish against Burnley. A flicked volley from a cross against Maribor. A side-footed finish on his weaker right side against Spurs at Wembley.

The debate is often raised around whether Liverpool require an orthodox striker with a more prolific goal return than Roberto Firmino and yet this negates the fact that Firmino’s movement and work rate is a key part of the reason why the likes of Salah and Sadio Mané are such a constant goal threat, benefiting from the space and opportunities opened up by Firmino.

Had Liverpool spent £60 million on a “traditional” number nine in the summer- perhaps Timo Werner or Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, for instance- most fans and pundits would be lauding their impact had they managed 10 goals in their first 15 starts. It seems, almost paradoxically, that because Salah is a wide player, he’s getting far less credit than he deserves for his performances thus far and the speed at which he has settled in and made such a telling impact.

The focus on his end product is not to even mention his exceptional first touch, spatial awareness, dribbling in tight spaces, physical strength, work rate and one-touch passing, all of which make him such an incredibly dangerous player for defenders to deal with.

Having already won every player of the month and goal of the month award for Liverpool, along with two Champions League player of the week awards, Salah’s impact is clearly not going unnoticed. Yet there still appears to be a reticence to fully praise what he’s achieving as though his missed chances somehow discredit what is an outstanding goal return of its own accord.

It’s very easy to take for granted having a winger who’s currently scoring a goal every 1.5 games, but the reality is that only one player on the planet in the same position is managing more than Salah in that regard. It’s not often a transfer can be regarded an unmitigated success- especially given value for money- so soon into the season, but Salah can surely be considered among Liverpool’s very finest acquisitions this century, even if he isn’t fully appreciated just yet.

At 25, you would expect his development to continue on an upward trajectory and in all probability, in still adapting to his new surroundings, he’s got another few gears to go through still. It’s a frightening prospect to behold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liverpool 3-0 Huddersfield: Analysis

As far as “must-win” games go, Liverpool’s Saturday encounter with Huddersfield was just about as “must-win” as they come. The wider context around Liverpool’s season and prolonged rut in form dictated as much; three points as absolutely essential for Jürgen Klopp and his side. Zero margin for error.

With David Wagner’s side bouncing into Anfield full of confidence after having beaten Man United last weekend, the visit of Huddersfield was not the kind of attractive proposition it might have seemed when the fixture list first came out. There are no easy games in this league and with Klopp’s best mate in the opposite dugout, one would think he’d have a fairly good idea how to go about setting up for a result against Liverpool.

There has become a fairly established template for bottom-half sides against Liverpool now; that is, to stay compact, sit deep and invite Liverpool on while waiting for an individual error or a set piece opportunity at the other end. Huddersfield tried to do exactly that, although their sheer lack of attacking ambition was at the upper end of the scale of “parked buses” which have come to Anfield in recent times.

Klopp’s team selection erred on the side of caution, opting to go with predominantly the same players who had let him down so profoundly against Spurs last weekend. Few could have argued had he made wholesale changes, but faith was put in his regulars to get the job done. A bold but perhaps unsurprising approach from a manager who has continually stuck to his guns throughout his time at the club, rarely ever making drastic changes unless absolutely necessary.

For the first half, it looked as if playing safe with the plodding and lethargic midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum had backfired. Huddersfield were comfortable, able to sit in and keep their shape without being pulled around by any kind of intelligent movement or creative spark by Liverpool. The lack of confidence and the fear of making a mistake was obvious to see, as countless sideways passes made for tedious viewing.

The penalty decision came out of nowhere with a foul at a set piece, but the breakthrough never felt like an inevitability. The deliberation around who should take the spot-kick was symptomatic of a side unsure of themselves and lacking in self-belief. The two most likely candidates- Milner and Roberto Firmino- both seemed like they didn’t fancy it having missed their most recent penalties and the duty was instead passed to Mohamed Salah, presumably given his recent winning strike to send Egypt to the World Cup.

In keeping with Liverpool’s lack of ruthlessness of late, Salah’s penalty was struck straight down the middle and Henderson hit the post from the rebound in what was a passage of play which neatly summed up Liverpool’s predicament of late. Ever so close, but not quite able to make it count. Coming on the brink of half-time, it felt like a moment which might be looked back upon as another hugely costly missed opportunity should Liverpool have gone on to drop points.

For much of this season, there has either been a plateau or more often a drop-off in Liverpool’s performance level after the break. Yet whatever the manager said at half-time, it clearly worked as Liverpool came sprinting out of the blocks in the second-half with a much greater tempo and intensity to their play, both in and out of possession.

As tends to happen when an opposition side is under so much constant pressure to defend, eventually an error will occur and all it took was one misplaced defensive header into the path of Daniel Sturridge for Liverpool to get the lucky break they needed. While he made it look simple, this wasn’t an easy finish for Sturridge but he did exactly what he was on the pitch to do, keeping his composure to calmly loft the ball over the keeper for the opening goal. Wriggly arms commence- his 100th senior club career goal.

The response to going 1-0 up in somewhat fortuitous circumstances was even more impressive as Liverpool kept their foot on the gas and refused to ease off despite their advantage. A superb lofted pass from Henderson found Firmino inside the box, cutting the ball back to Sturridge only for a last-ditch interception to deny a certain goal.

From the resulting corner, Firmino made it count with a clinical close-range header after escaping Aaron Mooy’s loose marking to double Liverpool’s lead. The kind of goal Liverpool don’t score nearly enough of, but exactly the kind you want to see your number nine scoring on a more regular basis.

It knocked the stuffing out of Huddersfield, as Liverpool went on to control the game in a mature manner to ensure three points were never in doubt thereafter. Joe Gomez’ dominant and assured performance as a quasi-right-sided-centre-back despite Liverpool nominally playing a back four was key to the stability of the defensive display, as he rarely ever ventured beyond the halfway line and was always in the right place to mop up loose balls and win his battles when necessary.

With this tactical tweak, Liverpool never looked like conceding and ensured Huddersfield managed no shots on target and no shots from inside the box for the entire game. A home record of four clean sheets and just one goal conceded from five league games is very impressive, yet simultaneously confusing given the disastrous defensive record on the road- although it suggests that Liverpool are capable of getting it right at the back. Developing the consistency to apply that solidity away from home is the crucial next step.

A fine individual strike from Wijnaldum, rifling a bullet into the roof of the net after working the space well from Salah’s pass wrapped up the victory in style to secure a comprehensive three points in front of the Kop. It was the Dutchman’s first goal of a campaign in which is he has so far struggled to kick on following his promising first season at the club, but this strike should hopefully give him a much-needed confidence boost to recapture the form he is capable of on a more regular basis.

Indeed, it was important for Firmino and Sturridge to both find themselves on the scoresheet given their recent struggles in front of goal. Firmino now sits on seven for the season in all competitions (having now reached 30 goals in total for Liverpool) and is well on track to record a career-high tally should he remain fit for the majority of the campaign.

Further positives were there to be taken in Henderson’s energetic second-half display in which he was instrumental in setting a higher tempo and carving out several excellent situations with his long-range passing. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered another bright cameo off the bench, linking up well with Dominic Solanke and should be pressing for a start in midweek against Maribor. He now seems to be regaining some confidence which can only be a good thing heading into the congested winter period.

While it’s very easy to scoff at a home win against a promoted side, recent seasons have shown the difficulty these fixtures can pose if mistakes and complacency creep in. Of course, Liverpool should be expected to take three points against Huddersfield but actually doing so in a professional manner is not a given. Liverpool didn’t create bucketloads of clear-cut chances here, but they scored two “cheap” goals and were clinical when they needed to be.

A regulation 3-0 home victory is a much rarer occurrence than it ought to be and on this occasion Liverpool should take encouragement from achieving that feat, especially given the absence of arguably the two finest players at the club in Sadio Mané and Philippe Coutinho- as well as Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne.

This must now be the first in a series of three big results in a week which could prove a crossroads in Liverpool’s season. Maribor and West Ham must be treated in exactly the same vein- games which, on paper, should be victories, but which require a steely determination and assurance to ensure that clear superiority is converted into a result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why ruthlessness must now take precedence over loyalty for Jürgen Klopp

Picture the following scenario. An experienced first-choice centre-back for a Champions League club makes two disastrous individual errors inside the opening 12 minutes of a Premier League game against a rival club. His continued mistakes then give away another two potential goal-scoring opportunities before being substituted after half an hour without injury, his performance so much of a liability that the manager- renowned for his reluctance to make early changes- deems it unfeasible to keep him on the field of play. A 20-year-old, playing right-back, having missed almost two whole seasons with a cruciate ligament injury, is then shifted to centre-back in place of the substituted 28-year-old who earns £100,000 per week.

It sounds completely farcical, but this is exactly what happened on Sunday for Liverpool. There have been few more catastrophic individual performances over the years than the display of Dejan Lovren against Tottenham Hotspur, in that the type of errors he was making would not even have occurred had Jürgen Klopp himself been playing in defence- to quote the German himself. It was scarcely believable to watch simple long balls over the top lead to direct chances for the opposition over and over again.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side hardly had to carve out an opportunity of their own, such was the manner in which Liverpool’s defence- and Lovren’s horror show in particular- gifted them the chances to record the easiest 4-1 victory you could possibly imagine.

There was nothing systemic about the goals Liverpool conceded here. This was not a product of playing expansive, open football with little protection from the midfield. This was the consequence of fundamental individual errors being ruthlessly punished by a clinical side.

For Lovren, there is surely no way back now in terms of his Liverpool career. While he has generally improved since Klopp’s arrival two years ago, the mistakes are still occurring far too often and it has gone beyond the point now where this can be allowed to continue.

On his day, Lovren can be a fantastic defender- as demonstrated by the way he has dealt with Romelu Lukaku numerous times in recent seasons, for instance- but the scope for wild fluctuations in his performance level is not sustainable. He’s reminiscent of Martin Skrtel in terms of his inconsistency and capacity for disaster- only Skrtel redeemed himself to a minor extent with the volume of goals he scored at the other end. There’s a mentality problem too, in that one mistake often seems to lead to another as he loses his composure very quickly in match situations when things start to go wrong. Fans do not trust him, his teammates almost certainly don’t either and one can only hope that Klopp finally feels the same way.

Herein lies the crux of the issue. Fans can slaughter Lovren all they like, but ultimately he is the player he is. At 28, he’s unlikely to drastically improve as a footballer at this stage. The Lovren we see now is probably at the peak of his powers and we’ve seen that simply isn’t good enough for a club with Liverpool’s aspirations.

It is down to Klopp who continues to pick him on a regular basis having chosen not to bid for a single centre-back during the summer transfer window, despite the obvious need to do so by the end of last season. Quality-aside, the fitness records of both Joel Matip and Lovren necessitated strengthening that department regardless. It’s difficult to even properly judge Matip’s true ability when he has only ever played alongside such erratic individuals.

It was Klopp who chose to pin all his hopes on signing Virgil van Dijk even after the whole furore with Southampton. The manager has publicly stated that alternative options were assessed, but that none were pursued as he felt they wouldn’t have been a significant upgrade on his current crop. The likes of Davinson Sanchez and Kalidou Koulibaly supposedly considered not enough of an improvement on Lovren and Klavan.

At the time, it seemed incomprehensible but with the new season underway, optimism and excitement temporarily took over concerns about Liverpool’s transfer business- but those worries were always close beneath the surface and nine league games into the season they are very much front and centre of the conversation about a season which very quickly appears to be slipping away for Liverpool.

It’s still only October, yet any vague hopes of a title challenge are already diminished and realistic expectations have to be adjusted to another scrap for top four- which, in itself, looks to be an almighty challenge. This wasn’t the plan, but it was always the risk when the biggest weakness was neglected in the summer transfer window.

Liverpool’s business was not reflective of a club with genuine aspirations of launching a concerted title challenge. It felt more like the minimum possible requirement to achieve another top-four finish. The danger with that approach is that you risk falling short and you end up in a position which means you have to rebuild again the following campaign.

Spurs, by contrast, already had the best centre-back partnership in the league last season in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld and invested £42 million in Davinson Sanchez, as well as £23 million on Serge Aurier at right-back to bolster a defence which was already their strong point.

Klopp’s ability to coach and develop players to help them achieve their full potential is well-established and supported by a substantial body of evidence, but there comes a point where his loyalty towards players who are clearly not of the required level becomes counter-productive and damaging, as seen not only with Lovren, but also Simon Mignolet who also finds himself in a similar situation after his own calamitous performance against Spurs.

Alberto Moreno is a slightly different case, in that he arrived at Liverpool as a very well-regarded emerging talent and for all his flaws, he has shown significant and (so far) sustained improvement this season to justify his inclusion. At 25, he is still at an age where he has scope to develop further.

With Mignolet and Lovren, there is virtually nothing to be gained from continuing to entrust them as regular starters. The mistakes will continue to prove costly, even if a few decent performances arrive in between. They’ve been at the club long enough now to see that they aren’t of the level that is required for where Liverpool want to be.

The difficulty is that there aren’t established, high-quality alternatives to replace them. However, it makes more sense now to give more opportunities to the likes of Danny Ward, Loris Karius, Joe Gomez (at centre-back) and Trent Alexander-Arnold who at least have the potential to be a part of Liverpool’s long-term plans even if they are still far from the finished products at this stage in their careers.

Until January, at least, Klopp cannot bring in any new personnel to solve his defensive problems and so the answers must come from within the current squad. Either that or he completely changes his defensive structure so that the weaknesses are given more protection (playing two defensive midfielders, for example), which would mean sacrificing his emphasis on attack to a degree- which seems fairly unlikely given what we know about his managerial style.

While it is hyperbolic and reactionary to suggest anything along the lines of Klopp facing the sack, he must take the blame for the current predicament he finds himself in having chosen to go with the defensive options which clearly are not good enough. The mark of the very best managers is how they find a way out of such difficult situations and with Liverpool’s campaign seemingly on (or at least nearing) a precipice, he now must find a solution very quickly and put ruthlessness above player loyalty for a start.

In Lovren and Mignolet, two of the prime figures in the eventual deterioration of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure are still prominent features of Klopp’s faulty defence. The faith he has shown in them has not been justified on the pitch and this must now be the turning point in recognising that in order to avoid going down the path of his predecessor.

 

 

 

 

Liverpool 0-0 Man United: Analysis

There are already plenty of people out there lauding Jose Mourinho for a “tactical masterclass” as he set up one of the most expensively assembled sides of all time to grind out a goalless draw against a vulnerable Liverpool team hugely low on confidence after a torrid September.

While Mourinho has effectively nullified teams countless times in the past, that wasn’t what happened today. Liverpool completely and utterly dominated Man United in every department and came away by far the better side having carved out enough decent openings to feel they ought to have taken all three points.

A moment of sheer individual brilliance from David De Gea in the first half to deny Joel Matip from point-blank range, followed by Mo Salah curling the rebound narrowly wide was enough to scrape a point for the visitors, but in truth, it was more down to Liverpool’s habitual lack of composure with the final ball and finishing than any kind of tactical genius on Mourinho’s part.

Although the scoreline might suggest United limited Liverpool’s opportunities by defending well, they were sliced through quite easily on numerous occasions but the crucial pass was repeatedly slightly overhit or misplaced such that their defensive flaws were not punished and converted into goals.

In many respects, this was arguably Liverpool’s most accomplished performance of the season with the exception of beating Arsenal 4-0, with United (on paper, at least) probably the strongest opponents faced so far, other than Man City. To dominate and control the game in such a comprehensive and assured manner gives plenty of reason to be encouraged, even if it’s frustrating that it didn’t yield what could have been a watershed victory to kick-start the season.

Romelu Lukaku has started his United career in scintillating form, but was kept completely anonymous by both Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren whose physicality and communication were much improved on recent shaky performances. The entire back four, in fact, were virtually flawless throughout as Alberto Moreno showed the kind of defensive assurance and maturity he has long been criticised for lacking.

Joe Gomez, named as Sky Sports’ Man of the Match, was outstanding at right-back, both with his defensive diligence but also with his quality in the final third, delivering several superb crosses including a ball which ought to have assisted the winning goal as Emre Can fired over from close range.

In midfield, Jordan Henderson helped control the tempo, always available for the ball, snapping into tackles and driving forward more than he has done for much of this season. Gini Wijnaldum, meanwhile, much maligned for his recent performances and lack of impact, was back to his best from the very off, putting in the kind of all-action box-to-box display which earned him so many plaudits last season.

All across the team, the intensity and pressing was far more evident than it has been for much of this season, with United constantly harried and forced into surrendering possession. It’s something Liverpool’s performances have lacked for a while now, but made a very real and significant difference here.

While it didn’t quite click in the final third, despite several flashes of brilliance from Salah and Phil Coutinho, there was a credible claim for a penalty in the second half as Ander Herrera appeared to trip the Brazilian inside the box without getting any contact on the ball. It went unpunished, as did a couple of dubious incidents involving Lukaku- the kind of fine margins which can so easily define this kind of game.

There’s no doubt that a point suits United far better than Liverpool given the current context of the league table, but defeat would have been disastrous for Liverpool with the current mood around the club and the fact that a 10 point gap would have been opened between the two clubs so early in the season.

The performance, on balance, was worthy of the victory but until Liverpool find a ruthless streak in front of goal you sense there will be plenty more frustration of this ilk. That said, Liverpool showed plenty of qualities they’ve been accused of lacking this season- maturity, solidity, composure, control- and showed they can comprehensively outplay a side widely deemed to be one of the main favourites for the title this season.

This level of performance must now be replicated against Maribor in midweek and then taken to Wembley to face Spurs next weekend. There’s not much Jurgen Klopp could have done differently here, especially given the absence of Sadio Mane- and the decision to remove Salah and Coutinho was a wise one after their international exploits. Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, meanwhile, delivered a promising cameo performance off the bench and will surely get more opportunities in the coming weeks with Mane sidelined until late November at least.

Ultimately, it’s a frustrating result in the context of how well Liverpool played and the desperate need for a victory to lift the atmosphere around the club, but there was more than enough here to give reason to feel optimistic that a turn in fortunes is not too far away.

 

Two years of Jurgen Klopp: the big picture

It’s now been two years since Jurgen Klopp arrived as Liverpool manager back in October 2015, famously pledging to turn “doubters to believers”. At his two year anniversary, however, he finds himself arguably under the most pressure and scrutiny he has experienced during his time at Liverpool. While still a small minority, it would be fair to say that the doubters are beginning to emerge.

While it’s easy to get bogged down in the here and now and look past all that has gone before, it’s worth looking back to the situation Liverpool found themselves in when Klopp took over. In all honesty, Brendan Rodgers ought to have been replaced at the end of the 2014-15 season after that game against Stoke.

After coming as close as any Liverpool manager has to securing number 19 in 2013-14, Rodgers had lost his way and Liverpool had lost their identity. The £32 million signing of Christian Benteke never felt quite right and was symbolic of a man who eventually buckled under the strain of the job.

It felt very much as though Liverpool were slipping back into mid-table obscurity, with 2013-14 representing an isolated anomaly rather than a platform for a new era of success. And so by the time it became apparent that Klopp would be replacing Rodgers, the decision was met with unanimous support and enormous optimism from a fragmented fan base desperately in need of a figure to bring them back together.

Perhaps the deification of Klopp from the very beginning and the heightened expectations that came from his Dortmund legacy was a dangerous thing. He was built up as a Messiah-like figure from day one and it would not be an exaggeration to say Klopp felt like the last chance saloon at the high table for Liverpool under Fenway Sports Group. The owners had secured one of the most sought-after coaches in Europe. If Klopp couldn’t deliver success under their tenure, who could?

And so Klopp has carried the huge weight of hope and expectation since the day he walked in the door at Anfield. Liverpool fans read and saw what he achieved at Dortmund and craved to see that success replicated here. It seems apparent, however, that fans have yearned for the success itself and not necessarily the journey towards that end goal.

Klopp was brought in with the big picture in mind. This wasn’t the short-term fix or the easy option- that would have been Carlo Ancelotti. Klopp is a project manager whose entire career has been based on building and developing- the very opposite of what one might call a “cheque-book” manager.

He has never shied away from voicing his distaste for the fetishization of transfers as the best solution to fix a problem. Klopp will always look to the tools at his disposal first and look to improve the talent that he has available, before splashing megabucks on a big name signing.

Klopp’s approach to transfers has arguably been the biggest point of contestation with Liverpool fans throughout his two years so far. On the one hand, most of the deals he has done have backed up the belief that he has an excellent eye for talent. Many balked at the £34 million price tag for Sadio Mane, for instance, which now looks like a phenomenal piece of business for who is arguably Liverpool’s best and most influential player, possibly bar Philippe Coutinho.

More recently, the £36.9 million acquisition of Mohamed Salah already looks like another bargain in the hyperinflated state of the current transfer market with the Egyptian having already made a major impact in his first few months at the club. There have been several other smart buys too, along with a couple of iffy ones.

The key sticking point, however, has been Klopp’s absolute stubbornness in refusing to budge and accept second best. In his first transfer window at Liverpool he point-blank refused to sanction paying the £40 million asking price for Alex Teixeira, despite the player having publicly spoken of his desperation to join the club.

This summer, of course, there was the whole fiasco around Virgil van Dijk whom Klopp had identified as the key missing piece to fix up a leaky defence which has proved highly problematic throughout his tenure. Having convinced the Dutchman to join Liverpool ahead of other high profile suitors, the deal, of course, fell through in embarrassing circumstances.

From the moment Southampton filed an official complaint against Liverpool, it always seemed virtually impossible for a deal to be concluded despite Liverpool’s persistent interest and apparent willingness to meet the astronomical asking price. Yet not a single alternative centre-back option was pursued throughout the entire transfer window as Klopp ultimately decided to settle with the options he already had rather than compromising and looking elsewhere.

It was a bold decision which has already come back to bite Liverpool numerous times this season and looks set to continue as a recurring theme so long as the likes of Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan remain at the core of Liverpool’s defence in a tactical system which already leaves the back line highly exposed. But that is all Klopp’s choice.

Two years in, therefore, the defence is still an issue. There have been times when the organization and structure has been much improved- such as the run in to secure a top four finish last season- but glaring weaknesses still remain. That much is abundantly clear and Liverpool under Klopp rarely ever look like a side capable of killing a game when on top, or grinding out a 1-0 win when not at their very best.

Klopp’s two title-winning seasons at Dortmund are evidence that he is more than capable of organising a solid defence when he has the right individuals to play in his system. He hasn’t found that balance yet at Liverpool and will almost certainly need to do so before a sustained title challenge can be mounted.

With the way Liverpool play, defending is as much about dominating the ball higher up the pitch and restricting the number of shots opponents have- a high-risk brand of football which has to be executed perfectly in order to work, or else any error will more than likely be punished, as has proven the case on numerous occasions already this season.

There are still no trophies in the cabinet under Klopp, of course. Having come within a penalty shootout of securing the League Cup in 2016, followed by defeat in the Europa League final in his first season, it could all have been so different. Those feats, while disappointing that Liverpool didn’t get over the line, are worthy of recognition and should not be discarded when analysing what Klopp has managed to achieve so far with a squad he inherited from Rodgers in poor condition.

The 8th place league finish of 2015-16 can, however, almost be written off as a conscious decision was made to field a second-string side for the last three months of that season in order to fully prioritise the Europa League. In his first full season in charge, however, with no continental football to focus on, Klopp saw Liverpool over the line to finish in the top four- the minimum requirement for what can be considered a successful season, but also an achievement worthy of praise.

During the first few months of 2016-17, Liverpool played some of the finest football Anfield has seen in the Premier League era. Klopp found a system which perfectly suited the personnel at his disposal and the results where a joy to watch as Liverpool dismantled sides with consummate ease on a weekly basis.

With Adam Lallana setting the tempo, reinvented as a central midfielder, Klopp’s pressing machine was in full force and the fluid attacking trio of Mane, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino was devastatingly effective. By converting Jordan Henderson into a holding midfielder, James Milner into a left-back and Firmino into a unique kind of “false nine” Klopp showcased his tactical intelligence in creating a side which had established itself as Chelsea’s main tital rivals after beating Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on New Year’s Eve.

The season almost entirely fell off the rails during January and February, compounded by the absence of Mane at the African Cup of Nations, as expectations were adjusted and sights were set on Champions League qualification as hopes of a sustained title challenge rapidly dissipated.

Yet Klopp found a way to get the season back on track, even when Mane was ruled out again, this time with a knee ligament injury sustained in the 3-1 victory against Everton. Without his most influential figure and only genuine source of pace, Klopp adopted a more pragmatic approach, drawing on the likes of Lucas Leiva and Emre Can to help grind out a series of narrow victories in an ugly but effective manner to pick up the points required to shake off Arsenal’s pursuit.

Fast forward to this season and a return to the Champions League was secured in emphatic style as Liverpool dispatched potentially problematic opponents in Hoffenheim with a 6-3 aggregate victory. Last season’s work had paid dividends and the new season appeared to be gathering momentum after a frustrating opening day draw against Watford, with a 4-0 hammering of Arsenal laying down the blueprint for the ultimate “Klopp performance”- scintillating, counter-attacking football at its very finest.

It was difficult not to imagine what Liverpool could achieve this season, especially with the then-impending return of Coutinho and the eventual return of Lallana, both of whom were so influential last season. Instead, excitement has ebbed away only to be replaced by bitter frustration at the manner in which September unfolded.

From the humiliation at the hands of Man City, to the crushing sense of lost opportunity in several tedious draws in games where Liverpool have utterly dominated without being able to take their chances, the season already feels somewhat on the brink. Perhaps that’s a slight hyperbole, with over seven months of the campaign still to play, and things can, of course, change very quickly in football.

It’s more fact that old failings have reared their ugly heads’ once again. We’ve seen this all before. Sterile possession without truly threatening, at times. In other moments, the chances have been carved out but the composure hasn’t been there in the finishing. Familiar frailties at the back have proved costly. The same scenario plays itself over on loop.

Liverpool’s intensity and pressing- the very hallmarks of Klopp’s philosophy- appear to have dramatically dropped off. That’s more likely a conscious decision rather than the failure to implement the brand of football the manager wants, but at the moment Liverpool look somewhat lost- confused, even- at their current predicament.

The fine margins haven’t gone Liverpool’s way, either. Watford’s opening day stoppage-time equaliser is offside. There’s the dubious Mane red card against Man City- the kind of challenge numerous other players have made this season without receiving the same punishment. There’s Firmino’s penalty hitting the post against Sevilla. Solanke hitting the bar against Burnley and Salah getting denied two credible penalty claims. Joselu’s goal being slightly offside and then deflected against Newcastle. Etc. etc.

Of course, that’s how the sport goes from time to time but it is hard to escape the feeling that Liverpool have been receiving their disproportionate share of the misfortune of late. The flip side to that is that you don’t have to rely on luck if you play well enough to win games more comfortably. Liverpool haven’t been doing that.

With two massive games coming up against Manchester United and Spurs, the picture could look very different, very soon- for better or for worse. The season could be hanging by a thread, or Liverpool could be right back in the mix near the top of the table.

In terms of Klopp’s project, it probably hasn’t gone quite to plan as much as many had hoped for. In terms of realistic expectation, however, Liverpool are probably about on par in terms of their trajectory for Klopp’s second season in charge, especially when considering the superior financial power of several main rivals (i.e. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola effectively given blank chequebooks to sign whoever they like).

Back in the Champions League, with a very strong chance of progressing to the knockout stages (albeit they should have won both of their group games so far). There has been undeniable and significant progress from when Klopp first arrived.

Some might say Liverpool are still miles of challenging for the title. Right now, that’s a fair argument. It might change, of course, but if we’re measuring the success of this season purely on winning the league then that’s not a realistic stance to take. This has to be about building on last season and establishing Liverpool’s place in the Champions League consistently, rather than as a one-off. Some silverware would also be very much welcome and would take a significant weight of Klopp’s shoulders- although in all probability that rests on the FA Cup now.

Liverpool are surely better than what we have seen in the past month. The nature of being a football fan means perceptions and reactions are based on the most recent results, but any claims that Klopp’s job should somehow be under pressure now are neglecting two years of marked progress. Flaws still remain, of course, and there is undoubtedly plenty of scope for the manager to do better at addressing these.

Every manager has strengths and weaknesses, and with Klopp the weaknesses are by now pretty well acknowledged. Questionable use of substitutions, stubbornness in the transfer market and keeping faith in players who repeatedly make the same mistakes are all sources of frustration. Most of us would probably ship Lovren out at the first opportunity, for example, yet the man who works with him every day still starts him whenever fit. We’re not going to agree with Klopp on everything and it’s perfectly legitimate to debate these judgements.

It’s worth taking a step back and looking the highs Klopp has produced in his time thus far, though- not just the current situation. Beating Chelsea away, twice. Knocking Man United out of Europe. Thrashing Man City away. Battering Arsenal, several times. A perfect record in Merseyside derbies. Villarreal. Dortmund. Nights which will go down in Anfield history.

I look at Klopp now and I see a manager who isn’t perfect, but one who understands the club and the city and the fans. He still feels very much right for Liverpool. He gets it. He’s improved several players, he’s bought some brilliant ones and he’s given an identity back to a club which had lost its way. Back in the Champions League after one full season in charge. Liverpool have played some stunning football over the past couple of years.

Still on an upward trajectory- but progress isn’t linear and there will be bumps along the way- as Klopp is experiencing now.

Picture the alternative: who else do you want in charge of Liverpool? Is there currently a better fit who is both available would guarantee long-term success, more so than Klopp? If you go down that route, you end up in that nonsensical spiral of rebuilding and transition which makes continued progress almost impossible. Like Crystal Palace. The likes of Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson went through long barren periods before reaching the holy grail. That isn’t to say Klopp will replicate their achievements but that arriving at any knee-jerk conclusions after a difficult period is misguided and premature.

Klopp is still building something at Liverpool. It is a work in progress and there are areas which need fixing. But two years in, the club is in a far superior state compared to when he signed his contract and took the job. My overwhelming sense- and I could be wrong- is that Liverpool have not yet reached their peak yet under this manager and that despite all the recent frustrations and nagging feelings of doubt and concern, Klopp still has this club heading in the right direction.

Every year that goes by without winning the title builds up more impatience among the fanbase, which Klopp is finding out right now. He’s contending with the heavy weight of the club’s history and former glories- a reputation which is becoming ever harder to maintain the longer the wait goes on.

Whether Klopp will ever deliver that elusive title, who knows, but I’d like to see him given the time to go as close as he can and take this project of his to its natural conclusion, whatever that may be. It’s all part of a process, a journey- this one feels like it still has many chapters left.