February 16, 2019
Football Liverpool Premier League

What has happened to Liverpool’s spectacular attacking football this season?

Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp have become a symbol of constant motion. It would have been easy to slump after the Champions Cup League final defeat last season. Such an attitude could have precipitated the dismantling of a fine team.

Instead they went away and began working. Immediately the players came in. Fabinho joined, following Keita. Allisson became a remedy for a goalkeeping crisis not solved since Pepe Reina was foolishly let go by Brendan Rodgers. Shaqiri became a coup at £13m.

Liverpool strengthened in key areas and some suggested they would finally have a team to challenge Manchester City. There is more to admire about Liverpool than City in many ways: the old-fashioned close-knit feel and power of Anfield on a European night, the love for the romantics and the history. Put that against a team assembled by money siphoned from a despicable regime with a manager who has never built teams but merely added a genius stardust to an already thriving nucleus, and there is definitely something about Liverpool. The style helps too. Man City are wonderful to watch, but produce games of lopsided brilliance, when dominance is clear and the game becomes cold and overly technical.

Liverpool are brilliant but in a more seesaw, rugged and exhilarating way, one which embodies the best of English and German football, and blows away teams whilst offering the illusion of finely-contested games. Or at least that’s how it seemed.

This year Liverpool have scored 23 goals in 12 games, which is just under 2 per game. Astonishingly they have conceded only five. They remain unbeaten at home, and Cardiff City’s goal at Anfield this season was the first time they had conceded there since the 2-2 draw with Tottenham. In terms of Liverpool’s style changing, they have become immeasurably improved defensively. The team has retained its suffocating close-knit compact shape that makes it hard for teams to maintain possession. An example of that was against Tottenham at Wembley. The hosts enjoyed plenty of the ball across their backline but upon advancing, found Liverpool players moving in synchronised packs. As one pressed, the other moved forward to regulate the space. They broke with menace but defended with a steel and snarl not seen since the Rafael Benitez era. An important facet of their defending is that on many occasions, out of possession, Salah and Firmino have swapped positions as the latter is known for his pressing, leaving Salah in a more central position.

The defensive improvement has come at the expense of some of their attacking flair, which Klopp duly noted. The team have focused on closing out results rather than going for the jugular. This is a contributing factor to Mo Salah’s perceived slump in form when he endured, by his standards, a barren spell. The front trio were seen as lacking in spark. The problem however has often been that the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have been more guarded and measured in their rampages up the wings. Example? The home game against Man City. Liverpool went into the game fuelled by the weight of history leaning with them. City had not tasted victory at Anfield in well over a decade. More significantly, Pep Guardiola had been beaten at every visit to Anfield and in Klopp found a manager who had his number.

What followed was a dull but tactically intriguing game. Both managers recognised their full-backs as both sources of strengths but also liabilities. Kyle Walker often tucked in, while City operated in a 4-4-2 and Mahrez would drop deeper, while City outnumbered Liverpool in midfield. Tellingly, David Silva floated behind Liverpool’s midfield, leaving them always uncertain. The Reds however lacked any sense of ambition beyond the opening twenty minutes. They had a functional midfield built for solidity rather than creativity. This isn’t just a team missing Coutinho but one also missing the high-tempo bursts of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. The latter last season battered City at Anfield, scoring twice from essentially the same formula: steal possession, surge forward and then strike.

It means that Liverpool have not been the spectacular side many envisioned. But then they weren’t that last season either. When they tore Man City apart and crushed Roma, the goals came in bursts of frenzied football. They will rightly say that their ability to compete with City is proof that this tactical shift is a necessary one. But there are issues regarding their midfield: Klopp has sought greater control but not found it. Whereas Man City can dominate through possession, Liverpool do not yet have that. There isn’t a player bar Shaqiri who can float between lines or keep possession ticking over. Keita should be that player but has not yet integrated as much as Klopp would have wanted. The same applies with Fabinho.

The other risk of course is that City’s vastly superior goal difference effectively counts as an additional point. And in a season of narrow margins, that could prove costly for Liverpool.

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