Jurgen Klopp’s Reds stormed the league in the first five months last season, finding themselves at the top on New Year’s Day 2017. Fast forward two months to end-February, and Liverpool are looking outside the Champions League positions after a torrid post-New Year run.
From winning 71% of the available points after 14 games, even after a shock 4-3 loss at Bournemouth, the Reds won only the next 52% of the available points up till end-February. Having relied on a fairly fixed XI or front six, add in a couple more options (Origi and Can) – both of his own doing and due to unfortunate circumstances – the loss of first Philippe Coutinho to injury and then Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) derailed Klopp’s title charge in his first full season as Liverpool boss.
No Mané, no honey
Although the Reds recovered from what was thought to be a slight blip at Bournemouth, winning 4 and drawing 1 in December to end the year on top, the first two months of the year took its toll, even though the return of Coutinho was thought to fill the gap left by Mane. It was not meant to be as the Brazilian had to lift the team while find his feet after a substantial time out injured.
With no viable replacement for Mane’s searing pace, which Klopp’s tactics had relied heavily upon in the first half of the season, the German also tried to force fit one of Divock Origi or Roberto Firmino on the wing just to maintain his preferred 4-3-3 formation. Neither looked capable of replicating Mane’s form or capabilities, which eventually added to the Reds’ often-futile toil at breaking down packed and deep defences. The gegenpress no longer had any effect as teams sat deep and reduced their ambition at going forward, while the Reds kept meeting set-piece sucker-punches, usually of their own doing.
With Daniel Sturridge’s unreliable fitness and the long-term injuries to Marko Grujic and Danny Ings leaving Klopp with the likes of Ben Woodburn and Sheyi Ojo his other alternatives, the latter duo’s inexperience was of little help to the Reds. Klopp’s main strategy stopped working, and his lack of a proper alternative or back-up plan did not help things either.
More depth, squad rotation and alternate tactics
After 14 games, Liverpool have 2 less wins and the same number of losses. It could probably be the 7 less goals scored that contributed to the 3 additional draws. One could actually argue that the defence has faired better. The number of goals conceded (18) has remained the same, with the drubbings at City and Spurs accounting for half of the goals conceded.
The Reds might be 4 points worse off this year compared to last, and two positions lower (5th vs 3rd), but could Klopp’s different approach to English football bode well for the club in this defining three-month middle segment of the season?
The mainstays of Klopp’s front six seem fairly similar, in Georgino Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino, Emre Can, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho – with the latter two missing a significant chunk of the start of the season due to their respective fitness and transfer issues, as well as new record signing and top scorer Mohammed Salah.
But Klopp has been more willing to involve more of the squad, such as James Milner, who has returned to midfield after his season-long stint at left-back, new signing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the fit-again but heavily-managed Daniel Sturridge.
That may only be two more players to the eight Klopp relied much on last season, but it is worth noting that one of those eight from last year, Adam Lallana, has only returned to match action and will likely be a key player in the coming games and months. In recent games, Klopp has looked to deliberately selectively rest key men, like one or two of Firmino, Mane, Coutinho and Salah in specific games, even giving the likes of Dominic Solanke some unexpected game time.
The greater willingness to try and familiarise with alternate formations, like the 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2 seen at West Ham and Stoke, could prove the difference for Klopp as he looks to find the difference in tight games during the strenuous festive period ahead.
Ironing out inconsistencies
Yes, granted Klopp is still relying on an inconsistent defence containing Simon Mignolet and Dejan Lovren, with neither inspiring confidence at the back. And he still faces a constant issue trying to find the right midfield combinations from a quartet of Wijnaldum, Milner, Henderson and Can who too often blows hot and cold in games.
At least the return of Lallana and the option of Coutinho also available to Klopp, and the added depth at full-back with Trent Alexander-Arnold and new signing Andrew Robertson waiting in the wings due to the superb form of Joe Gomez and Alberto Moreno, the manager may be able to find a defensive solution more often than not.
With minutes spread more evenly across a larger group of players, more of the squad should be able to contribute and actually make an impact when called upon during the next three months.
If Klopp really is learning from the lessons of the (English football) ghost of Christmas Pasts, there is great hope Liverpool can actually go on a run during the months of December to February this season akin to that in the first half of last season.
And by end February next year, hopefully they’ll be in a stronger position than now, and than they were earlier this year.