After Liverpool’s invaluable performance against a spirited Manchester City side, we all thought in our minds that it was going to herald a turning point in Liverpool’s wavering season. It was not to be so as Liverpool dazzled to deceive. A “surprise but not surprising” defeat to lowly placed Swansea City has got all of us talking again. When will Liverpool’s woes against the less fancied sides in the top tier of English football come to a halt? A rare mistake by Liverpool’s much-awaited signing Virgil Van Dijk ensured that Swansea City came up tops in this encounter. VVD failed to clear a corner with a weak header which allowed Alfie Mawson to score the decisive goal four minutes before halftime.
Jurgen Norbert Klopp’s Liverpool boasts of an enviable and unprecedented record against the top five sides in England since his take-over as boss on the 8th of October, 2015. In 27 Premier League games against the top five sides since Klopp’s appointment, Liverpool has lost only on four occasions. The most recent game being their impressive 4-3 victory at Anfield against Guardiola’s efficient and impressive Manchester City side.
However, they have been surprisingly poor when they come up against the ‘lesser’ sides and that is the major factor why Liverpool did not end the season as champions last season. They earned the nickname ‘Robinhood’ last season after going the entire season undefeated against the big five but shockingly dropped points to the likes of Hull City, Crystal Palace, Swansea City and Sunderland. They have begun this current campaign in similar fashion, dropping points against Watford, Burnley, an Everton side that was at its lowest ebb, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle. It is very mind-boggling as to how a team does so well against the opposition of similar strength but almost always seem to underwhelm against the opposition of lesser strength. Why then does Liverpool continue to struggle against the so-called ‘lesser sides’ but churn out incredible performances against the top five?
The basic reason for Liverpool’s inability to sweep aside the lesser sides is due to Klopp’s footballing philosophy. Just like we saw in Dortmund, Klopp likes to utilize the heavy metal football which is characterized by relentless pressing especially in the opponent’s half of the pitch. This is done with the aim of winning the ball high up the pitch as quickly as possible to create goal scoring opportunities. The Gengen pressing works better on teams that also like to have the ball and play an open game and this accounts for Liverpool’s astonishing record against the top six sides. However, ‘smaller’ sides prefer to sit deep with two banks of four, leaving two men upfront for long balls. Liverpool love to keep a high defensive line and so they are mostly cut open by teams on the counter. These ‘smaller’ sides do not care about keeping possession of the ball and so this renders the Gengen pressing impotent hence the awful results against such sides.
Some years back, Liverpool had the likes of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso in their sides. These players had an eye for a pass and in a split second could change the course of a game by giving a defence splitting pass even when they are deep in their own half. Currently, Liverpool’s midfield trio consists of Wijnaldum, Emre, Henderson(injured) as well as Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and none of these three possess the ability to split a defence open with a pass. The majority of the attacking duties fall on Sadio Mane, Firminho and Mohammed Salah who have to settle games by themselves. To settle games, these players require space which is denied them by the compact set up of the ‘smaller’ sides which makes goal scoring very difficult for them. The onus now lies on Klopp to go into the market and look for a player who can split a defence open with a pass.
The defence of any team serves as the basis for the team to thrive. The defence can be considered as the spine which serves as the foundation for any team’s success. The painful truth about Liverpool is that they do not seem to know how to defend. They conceded forty-two goals last season which was the most conceded by any of the top four sides last season. They began the season in similar fashion, conceding three goals against the lesser fancied Watford. Liverpool has scored 54 goals in this season’s premier league so far which is second best to Man City’s astonishing goal tally of 70. However, Liverpool has conceded 29 goals so far in the premier league which is thirteen more than the teams with the least number of goals conceded in the top four(jointly held by Chelsea and Manchester United).
According to whoscored.com, opposition teams scored twelve times against Liverpool from set pieces last season which was the tenth most in the league. The other top five rivals were all ranked at the bottom of a number of goals conceded via set pieces. This speaks volumes about Liverpool and their defensive strength and it is little surprise that Liverpool splashed 75 million pounds on Virgil Van Dijk. In so many games this season, Liverpool’s defence has literally fallen into a coma as they have allowed their opponents to fight their way back into games in which Liverpool were in a comfortable lead. In games against Watford, Sevilla, Arsenal and their recent victory over Manchester City, Liverpool’s defence proved to be very rusty. I cannot tell if it is about the psychological mindset of the players. Probably, Liverpool’s players mentally go to sleep too early in games in which they are comfortably leading and before they know what hit them, they allow their opponents to get back in the game albeit on a silver platter. Liverpool simply needs to concentrate and get the work done. Klopp really needs to work on Liverpool’s defence if they really want to fight for the title and get very far in the champions league. It is left with Klopp to decide if he still wants to stick to the zonal marking during set pieces or change to a man marking system.
Klopp is really building something spectacular at Anfield. However, time is running out and running out fast. He needs his team to step up and win the matches against these lesser sides to mount up a title charge but until then, the clock still keeps on ticking for Klopp and his charges.