The 3-1 defeat against Leicester City signalled the end of Jurgen Klopp’s honeymoon period at the club. It was a sobering evening in which a Liverpool side that was supposed to be rejuvenated by victory over Spurs and a mini preseason in La Manga were soundly beaten by the struggling champions.
But it was an avoidable defeat.
Klopp’s tactics played right into the hands of the hosts as Lucas Leiva’s lack of experience and quality as a central defender was quickly exposed by England international Jamie Vardy. The striker put his side 1-0 up with a run in behind and slotted finish. It was a trademark goal by the twenty-nine year old and one that anyone should have known was coming when they saw how high a line the Liverpool defence were playing.
But Liverpool didn’t see it coming.
It didn’t actually look like Klopp and his coaching staff had watched Leicester much before, such was the way in which his side played into their hands. All the ways that Leicester like to expose a team were evidenced during this game. Vardy was given chance after chance to run on to long balls throughout the game and Leicester could have won by a much higher margin given the chances they had. Both Vardy and Robert Huth missed good chances at 0-0 – but they weren’t made to pay for it.
Manchester City’s 4-2 defeat on this ground earlier in the season should have been an eye opener for Klopp and the team. Pep Guardiola has his side play in a pretty similar way to Liverpool and they were badly exposed that day and the scoreline flattered them somewhat thanks to two late goals. Klopp should have seen that game as a warning on what Leicester are still capable of doing.
The sacking of Claudio Ranieri and subsequent criticism of certain senior players at ear club was always going to see a fired up response. And Liverpool should have known that and formulated a plan to counter it. But they didn’t and the team looked bewildered by an early onslaught that set the tone for a comfortable Leicester win. Vardy was a man possessed upfront and looked every bit the striker who went on a record breaking run of scoring last season. Danny Drinkwater wouldn’t usually take on, let alone score, the shot that put his side 2-0 up. Leicester had a fire in their bellies and Liverpool needed to slow them down and put it out.
But there was very little response.
Sadio Mane, who has become the attacking highlight in the team this season, was on the end of a nasty challenge early on from Vardy (that could have yielded at least a booking) and didn’t look the same afterwards. He didn’t try to run at their players and misplaced passes with regularity. But he wasn’t the only attacker who was off his game. The Brazilian duo of Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino both looked jaded and off their games. Coutinho did manage to slot home a consolation goal in the second half, but his output was minimal aside from that footnote. Firmino added weight to the calls for a genuine striker to be signed in the Summer with his lead-footed touches and runs down blind alleys. When the former Hoffenheim man is out of form, the side looks blunted up top. He isn’t a natural finisher either and our rivals are showing how important it is to have one in the side.
Daniel Sturridge is by far the most natural finisher available to Klopp, but the German doesn’t trust the twenty-seven year old. He has used him sparingly this season, between injury absences, and it is looking more and more likely that he will be sold when the season ends. A combination of his fragile injury status and lack of suitability for the system Klopp deploys has been Sturridge’s undoing and it looks unlikely that he will make anything but a backwards step when he leaves the club. West Ham lead the chase for his signature with Stoke City and Southampton both reportedly keen.
Another striker, Divock Origi, was afforded a run out off the bench when goals were needed. But the young Belgian again showed why he isn’t fully trusted by his manager either as he showed no more threat than any of the other forwards. Origi has been given more starts and sub appearances than Sturridge so far this season and that is most likely down to his fitness and age. Klopp is likely to feel that he has much more chance to develop Origi into a suitable option than he does with the older player. Danny Ings would be likely to have been given chances to show what he can do, but he isn’t going to be fit again until next season after another campaign blighted by long-term injury.
Klopp has got himself into the position of having a squad severely lacking in depth that still includes players he doesn’t trust – and that only further decreases the options available to him. He called on teenage winger Ben Woodburn last night in the closing stages as his side chased the game and that was indicative of how few his choices are. No disrespect to Woodburn, who is an emerging talent, but he should not be the player the manager calls upon at these times. But the fact that Klopp is prepared to use him goes to show how little trust he has in other players.
One such player is Lazar Markovic. The Serbian international returned to Anfield last Summer after a mediocre season in Turkey with Fenerbahce with the aim of proving himself to Klopp. He was sent out on loan again, with Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon his latest temporary home. And it proved to be more temporary than planned when they cancelled his deal in January after a disappointing few months. But Markovic was not brought back to the squad despite Sadio Mane’s absence as the only other senior winger at the club. No, he was sent on loan to strugglers Hull City instead. The former Benfica man has been fairly impressive as well.
Another player who would have hoped he might have been brought back in to the picture was Mamadou Sakho. The French international was told to leave on loan back in the Summer after a series of behavioural issues saw Klopp lose patience with the centre-back. But he was left out in the cold and finally went on to join Crystal Palace on loan for the rest of the season on deadline day after a permanent buyer failed to materialise.
Markovic and Sakho indicate that Klopp is not prepared to compromise with a player that he isn’t convinced by. Despite each being available and ready to play in January when the German was short of options for their positions, he allowed them to move on. And that left many supporter bewildered, given that he could use them as required for six months and then move them on in the Summer. It would have saved shuffling around the midfield and taking Adam Lallana out of his more fruitful position deeper in the side and prevented the need to use Lucas as a central defender. But Klopp decided against using those two players, as well as Ragnar Klavan, and instead cut his options down further still. And it’s hard to argue against the notion that he has cost himself and the team by not bringing them back in as makeshifts. It proves that Klopp doesn’t quickly hand out second chances to players who have let him down or not convinced him that they are an answer to any questions posed.
Klopp also passed up the chance to dip into the transfer market. The reaction from fans was mixed, but many were perplexed that he didn’t make any signings. But the question is who exactly should he have signed? January is becoming quieter each year and clubs aren’t prepared to let their best players move on unless a ridiculous bid is made. We are not a club that makes those kind of offers and Klopp isn’t a big spending manager. That’s much of the reason he is here. He doesn’t want a sugar daddy to buy him success, he likes to spot talent and develop it. It worked at Dortmund and we are in a similar position to them. But for the one Bayern Munich in Germany, there are five other rivals here.
Criticism of Klopp was practically non-existent during his first six months and still as a rare as rocking horse poo up until the end of 2016. But there has been a growing use of #KloppOut during and since the disastrous January and his apparent immunity to criticism has vanished with most fans. And rightly so in the case of being above criticism, because no manager should be. I do consider the calls for Klopp to be given his marching orders to be utterly ridiculous, however. This is a world-class manager who could have had his pick of clubs after leaving Borussia Dortmund just under two years ago. He chose us and looks an ideal match for the ethos of the club and he fits well with the way FSG are trying to do things. He took an inherited, and much-maligned, squad to two cup finals a matter of months after arriving and lost them both. That was obviously a huge disappointment to supporters, but we lost them as underdogs and they showed instant progress.
Klopp then built on that by making us surprise title challengers in the opening half of the current season. That has fallen by the wayside with the woeful run of just one league win so far in 2017 and we now find ourselves mired in the top four race against four other clubs competing over three places behind champions-elect Chelsea. And who wouldn’t have taken that at the start of the season?
The excellent opening half of the season raised expectations massively, and unfairly, and the disappointment has been taken out on the manager and his team since the turn of the year. Had these poor performances and dropped points been spread out over the course of the season, perhaps the criticism would have been lessened and the team labelled inconsistent. But the start to the calendar year represents a collapse and it has seen title hopes quickly snuffed out along with both domestic cup exited. All that’s left to play for is a top four spot and the lucrative Champions League place that comes with it. And that place at Europe’s top table was the aim at the start of the season. Klopp will need to be able to offer football at that level as a lure to players and evidence that he’s taking the club in the right direction to fans. It may not prove enough for some though, if indeed it is achieved.
Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are all right in the mix for those three qualification places behind Chelsea and we cannot afford to keep dropping points in the manner that we have. Had the season started on 1st January, we would be in a relegation scrap now. That’s how woeful our start to 2017 has been.
Klopp needs to start showing tactical flexibility or teams will continue to use spoiling tactics against us. The lack of variety in the way we play and the reluctance to mix things up with substitutions has proven costly. Many fans wrote off the win over Spurs because they played openly against us and played into our hands. It’s hard to argue with that, especially given that so many other sides have found success by stifling us. We need to start thinking about trying to find answers to the tactics we come up against rather than looking only at ourselves and trying to pose the questions. We’ve come unstuck against teams who have either found the answers or copied them from someone else. We saw a similar situation during the 2014/15 season when Brendan Rodgers switched to a back three and played between the lines going forward. It worked, for a while, and we almost got back into the top four reckoning. But Louis Van Gaal found a way of nulifying it and left Anfield with three points. Swansea City almost did the same thing in the prior game and many a side managed to following the United loss. It looks like a similar thing is happening now and we aren’t seeing any changes that indicate that we are evolving to counter our exposure.
We are going to need to do it soon or the good work done by Klopp so far will continue to be undone and more impatient fans will start calling for him to go.