The Quest for Identity

Getting too tense: Klopp is under some pressure already.

It’s been a very short honeymoon period for Jürgen Klopp before all well-known problems with the Liverpool team struck back to haunt him. The Reds were taking on Manchester United this weekend and, all things considered, this was LFC’s perfect opportunity to start a long-awaited climb in the Premier League table. After all, we’re talking about MU A.D. 2016: the team that lost four consecutive games in December; the team that saw Bournemouth and Norwich playing superior brand of football to theirs; the team that’s been kicked out from the Champions League in the group stage; the team that would’ve been a mid-table pack of players if not for David De Gea’s fantastic efforts in goal. Taking on such team at Anfield, Liverpool were absolutely obliged to push hard for three points – especially under guidance of a manager, who’s been known for his ability to win the big games like this one.

And yet, no such thing occurred. In a true spirit of Louis van Gaal’s philosophy, fueled further by the simultaneous presence of Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini in the middle of the park – Manchester United have turned the match into a melee, hand-to-hand combat. Juan Mata, stuck on the bench despite having a very good goalscoring record against LFC, exemplified the LVG’s approach: “first and foremost, no goals in our net”. The fact that visitors have swapped their full-backs’ positions once again was yet another signal of intent: now, faster but defensively weaker Ashley Young was playing against fast, but not really in-form Adam Lallana, while Matteo Darmian took a good care of potentially dangerous workhorse, James Milner. From De Gea to Rooney – everything was set up for a 0-0 affair in which MU were pinning their faith on one counter, one long ball, one shot.

Of course Klopp was well aware of those ideas. After all, it was pretty much the route United went down to win big points in away games with Everton and Watford. In both of those cases, Red Devils were comfortable sitting back and mopping up crosses or through balls until the opposition ran out of steam. Those games were far from inspiring, but they did the trick. In those two instances, United hugely benefited from early goals by Depay and Schneiderlin – goals that allowed them to comfortably continue their defensive play. On the other hand, when faced with Arsenal at Emirates, MU simply crumbled under the sheer force of early-game pressure – something which Liverpool managed to flawlessly execute in their spectacular win over The Citizens. So, logically speaking, if Klopp was ever aiming for a big win right there, he needed to go there all guns blazing from the get go.

But it wasn’t like that; the poor finishing ruined that ambition. Roberto Firmino, the man who teamed up with Coutinho to demolish City, had a very good early chance following Lallana’s header – but this time, he wasted it. So did Milner and Henderson – the passes from afar were reaching them and they were getting into shooting positions, and yet the frame of De Gea’s goal remained out of their reach. There was no reason for Liverpool to not have the game in the bag by this point. The Reds were quicker, passed better and, most importantly for a hard-fought encounter, they were easily dominating the tackling department. Emre Can was undoubtedly the hero of his team, winning six tackles in 90 minutes – one more than Schneiderlin and Fellaini combined. In 30 minutes, Klopp’s lads had six attempts on goal. Against Man City in that famous 4-1 win – only two attempts in the same time frame.

Right after the game, this lack of goalscoring loot from LFC was directly attributed to David De Gea’s excellence. Or – at least it was by the journalist who, buoyant after the victory, went on to ask Louis van Gaal how he rates the Spaniard’s display. And yet, the boss at Old Trafford was very reserved there. Not without a reason: his Number One has made only 4 saves through the game and only one of those – Emre Can’s 50th minute strike from a narrow angle – qualified as a first-class threat. When asked about David, LvG invoked the mantra that surrounded his club for the last two decades: “This is Manchester United. This is what Manchester United goalkeeper is supposed to do every game.” Indeed, for many years, the name of the club directly implied new, higher standards of footballing – but, apart from that fact, downplaying DdG’s performance was simply a sign of the Dutchman’s realistic outlook.

It is not De Gea, who won the game for the visitors; it’s Firmino, Lallana, Milner and Henderson, who lost it for the hosts. Those four players were responsible for 11 out of 19 shots attempted at United’s goal – a figure which, in normal circumstances, should be enough to bag at least a 1-0 lead. Sadly for them, 10 of those 19 chances went wide or over the bar. It was like watching Coutinho-centered LFC all over again: the same, decent footwork put by one of the players to create an okay opportunity – and the same, dismal finish. With one exception – this time, terribly inefficient Coutinho has been ruled out through hamstring injury – and even without him, the team was unable to improve their shooting arsenal. Christian Benteke and Steven Caulker, brought to the fray past the 80th minute mark, were introduced too late to reverse the direction of this downward spiral.

On paper, Benteke, now 25 and with double-digit goal number to his name in the past 3 Premier League seasons, should be absolutely nailed for the #9 spot in Klopp’s system. While Danny Ings remains ruled out for the rest of the season, Daniel Sturridge continues to float between the pitch and the physio room and Divock Origi is being slowly introduced through Europa League fixtures – Benteke has the necessary talent, experience and physical presence to lead the charge at any BPL’s defensive line. However, in reality, he did so only once this season: in a 3-1 victory at Stamford Bridge, where he set up Coutinho’s goal and then scored the third one himself. Ironically enough, that was merely a 26-minute long cameo for the Belgian forward, who only scored three goals when given a chance to play full 90 minutes. Is a £32.5 million player being reduced to just an expensive super-sub?

At the moment, it seems so – but the root of all problems is seeded deeper than just in the individual form of a player. Brought to the club by LFC’s previous manager Brendan Rodgers, Benteke is a bit of liability for the current head coach. No secrets here: Klopp has obvious problems with accommodating typical centre-forwards into his tactical designs. It’s Jürgen Klopp, who once replaced Lucas Barrios with more versatile Robert Lewandowski; it’s Jürgen Klopp, who conducted a totally failed experiment with Italian goalscorer Ciro Immobile. For a boss, who loves blistering pace of the counterattacks forwards who excel at holding the ball, winning headers and outmuscling defenders are of little use. And this is the big problem – because Benteke, brought to Anfield for a massive fee and with many years left on his contract, will remain out there, struggling to adapt – unless, of course, the tactics adapt to him.

So far, Benteke’s story has been an uphill struggle.

As it stands, we’re pretty far from it. Benteke netted a match-winning goal at Stadium of Light three weeks ago and remained anonymous at Upton Park. Then, Klopp switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and picked Roberto Firmino as his main goalscoring threat. Unfortunately, neither of those line-ups proved to be convincing: 1-0 at Stoke, miraculously salvaged 3-3 draw to Arsenal and now, 0-1 home defeat were not the results worthy of a club with top 4 ambitions. Whenever standard number nine was present, Liverpool were too heavily relying on crosses to the box; whenever #9 was out the window, the team looked unable to repeat the level of pressure from the front that brought them a big win at Etihad. Overall, The Reds are still on a quest to find their identity – something that gets harder and harder the longer two conflicting tactical approaches described above are somewhat overlapping each other.

Klopp’s dilemmas do not end there, though. At the moment, he has eight long-term injuries in the team. Ings and Joe Gomez are done with football this season; Coutinho, Škrtel and Origi are not expected to be fit until February; Lovren and Rossiter are closing on their return. As of Sturridge and his another, already hilarious hamstring problem – only God Almighty knows when that man will be able to kick the ball again. All those issues are obviously slowing down Liverpool’s progress – but, at the same time, they’re making The Normal One’s selection much simpler and his defeats much easier to justify. As the players will be recovering, more and more questions shall occur. What’s the best pair of centre-backs? Is Gomez better than Moreno? Should Milner drop back to central midfield? What to do with Ings, who’s now #4 in the strikers’ pecking order? The list of questions goes on and on…

Apart from a tactical approach, the most urgent one for the moment would be: how to make the most of Philippe Coutinho’s skills? Because up to this point, the Brazilian has been way below the standards of a team leader. Arsenal have Mesut Özil with 3 goals and 16 assists in 20 appearances; Leicester have Riyad Mahrez with 13 goals and 7 assists in 21 games. Even the clubs like Southampton, Everton or Watford can count on Mané (3+6), Barkley (6+7) or Deeney (6+5). And what does Coutinho bring to the table? So far: five goals and three assists – the same return 19 years old newcomer Dele Alli has provided for Tottenham. As I mentioned before: most of this season from so-called “The Little Magician” was marked by ineffective crosses and horribly botched long shots – something the guy should’ve been prohibited from trying a long time ago.

Obviously, Coutinho’s presence is not entirely without advantages. His dribbling skills are among the best in the league; he can place a spot-on through ball to the striker. Those things, however, apply only on one condition: the entire team needs to be on the move. Whenever the game boils down to exchanging passes and statically working the ball into a shooting position, Coutinho loses at least half of his venom.

This would all favor “The Dortmund Way” of dealing with Liverpool predicament. In other words: a) reducing Benteke and Lallana to subs b) putting back Coutinho closer to the left flank, but with some space for Moreno’s forward runs c) moving Milner back to the midfield d) ordering the whole team to press the opposition relentlessly all across the pitch and e) if pressing doesn’t work or gets bypassed too soon, fall back and try to catch the other team on a break, Leicester-style. With one “but”: this can only become a truly relevant option after a full pre-season with Klopp in charge; otherwise, such energy-consuming style will deplete teams’ legs long before the critical games of the season.

As long as there’s no such time for the German coach, as long as there are so many injuries and doubts about the style LFC are aiming for – we’re going to see something else. We’re going to witness a weird hybrid of old Rodgers’ tactics, Germany-imported ideas and many, many shortcomings the team is far from dealing with – such as the one that caused them to concede. It was a set piece; a short corner followed by a cross to Fellaini that robbed The Reds of a precious one point. Route one play – no doubt about it. And yet, unlike using Steven Caulker as a forward, United’s route one was actually effective. It may not prove anything – but football is surely cruel to those, who don’t convert their chances.

This is Klopp’s unenviable reality right now: hamstrings, tactics and set pieces. Also, as we speak: thirteen points to the leaders; seven points to the top 5. Scousers, sit there and pray – because if that man can’t lift you in the year 2016, I sincerely doubt that anyone else can.

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