The end of the Klopp era? Frustrated Liverpool boss must embrace change to revive Reds

[01-05-2021 04:22 PM]

Ammon News - The Merseysiders' defence was devastated by injuries early in the season but the manager compounded their problems by moving Fabino to center-back.

For the first time since Liverpool’s slump began way back in February 2020, Jurgen Klopp seems to be feeling the pressure.

Exasperation is the prevailing mood of his post-match press conferences, the sighs and downward glances conveying the deep feeling of frustration about the length and scale of his team’s collapse.

Defeat to Manchester United on Sunday would probably leave Liverpool eighth in the table and a point behind Everton, who can already leapfrog their rivals if they beat Sheffield United at home in their game-in-hand. Klopp was absolute right when he said they are not “playing like we deserve Champions League".

Those comments came after last weekend’s 1-1 draw with Newcastle United, a match that served as a neat microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for Liverpool this season – as well as offering the green shoots of how they can get out of their malaise.

And that is what the remaining five matches of the season need to be about. Forget the race for top four. The numbing consistency of their poor form over the last 14 months leaves a far more urgent question to be answered: can Liverpool get through this, or are we seeing the final months of the Klopp era?

The reasons for Liverpool’s disastrous campaign are well documented, but from a tactical perspective rarely is their interrelated quality discussed.

Almost all of Liverpool’s problems ripple out from the injuries to their centre-backs. Losing Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip not only tore the defence apart it also indirectly led to the deconstruction of central midfield, the dismantling of the high press, the loss of their grind-into-submission attacking lines, and the disappearance of the full-backs.

Losing three central defenders would be a huge problem for any team, but particularly for one that deploys such a high line.

In hindsight, Klopp’s major error was refusing to adapt his tactics, because without experience at the back, opponents could easily break in behind, causing that initial dip in confidence from which the plague spread.

Just as important was Klopp’s decision to take Fabinho out of central midfield to fill in at the back. Losing the Brazilian meant losing his ability to stamp out counterattacks at source and his almost unique skill of passing the ball immediately back forward.

This double action explains how Liverpool could so relentlessly push their opponents back, wearing them down until they would yield either by staying too narrow to Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah – thereby giving Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson space – or doing the opposite.

It was a Catch-22 for opposing teams, who became exhausted by the constant pressure as they were dragged back and forth in front of their own goal.

It is telling that Liverpool won 14 league games by a single goal in 2019-20 and outperformed their xG to a total of 24.72 extra points. It would only take a slight reduction in their ability to dominate for that razor-thin margin to disappear.

With Fabinho out of midfield, that is exactly what happened. All of a sudden teams were able to counterattack, and with Liverpool’s press intensity diminished (the result of a pandemic-hit season), their games have been more territorial even in 2020-21.

As a knock-on effect, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have dropped slightly deeper to help their fellow defenders and cope with relatively simple breaks, meaning Liverpool have lost their most important weapons in the final third.

As morale declined pressing dropped further and defending got sloppier, a vicious cycle that began with those injuries in central defence now engulfed the whole team. A tactical model built on pressing the opponent into one-goal submissions had fallen apart.

From here, it is perhaps no surprise that the forwards began misfiring, although the tiredness in Liverpool’s all-too-familiar attacking patterns perhaps hints at a deeper problem – and one that cannot simply be solved by reintegrating Van Dijk.

All three of Liverpool’s forwards will turn 30 at some point next season, bringing the total of 30+ players to 10, while nine of the 11 starters in Liverpool’s 2018 Champions League final are still regular starters at the club three years later. Their tactics haven’t really shifted since that night in Kiev, either.

This is an old team that hasn’t really had new ideas in several years, and so perhaps Liverpool are simply reaching the end of a cycle. After all, Van Dijk and Gomez played in the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa in October, a game with all the hallmarks of their subsequent collapse.

It is very rare for a manager to come back from a season like this, or to stick around long enough for a full rebuild. That is the challenge facing Klopp who, beyond bringing in several new young players this summer, must be willing to adapt his tactics; must dramatically shake things up to wake this club from its slumber.

The 1-1 draw with Newcastle was a glimpse of this process. Klopp moved away from the 4-3-3 for the first time in 2021, playing Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino together as dove-tailing strikers with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane on either side.

Losing a central midfielder did made Liverpool more prone to counters (Allan Saint-Maximin dominated through the middle), but the new passing angles and unexpected rhythms of this simple formation switch appeared to breath fresh life into the Liverpool attack.

Like so many of Klopp’s changes this season, it was too little, too late. His inertia has been a key reason for the club’s poor campaign, from failing to drop the defensive line deeper to failing to correct the error of moving Fabinho into central defence.

But just maybe, after more than a calendar year of poor performances, Klopp is ready to embrace change.


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