Heading into the Premier League game against Tottenham at Anfield, there was a lot of concern and discussion regarding the form of the Liverpool team. Some fans were considering it to be so bad, they were on the football phone-in’s calling for the head of Jurgen Klopp. This was an over-reaction, despite the start to 2017 being very poor for Liverpool but what were the problems which caused Liverpool to win just one match in seven at the start of the New Year?
Many onlookers were claiming Klopp had worked his players too hard in the early stages of the season and now they were feeling tired as a result. While the German does like his players to work very hard and press the opposition, especially in the early stages of matches, Liverpool haven’t had a congested fixture list to deal with this season. Following the 2-0 defeat at Hull, Klopp said he could not blame the fact the club failed to bring in any reinforcements during the January transfer window but it is clear he would have liked to have added to his squad. Still, this was not the main issue and rather than it being just a problem with the way Liverpool were playing, you must also consider what the opposition are doing during 90 minutes.
Take Swansea for example, they came to Anfield and remained very organised throughout the game. They sat every player behind the ball in the defensive third and were very compact, which gave the Liverpool forwards very little space in which to work. There was no room to exploit in this game and the players were forced to move the ball slowly, from one side of the pitch to the other, without finding any space to create a chance. Having greater possession of the ball also leads to a drop in concentration for the Liverpool players, something which was once again evident in the Swansea match. The visitors almost scored from their first attack of the game and this was following a period of dominance by Liverpool. So, while there are issues which need addressing, you must sometimes look at the performance of the opposition and say well done.
Prior to the second leg of the League Cup semi-final against Southampton, Giorginio Wijnaldum spoke about how Liverpool enjoy playing the bigger teams more than those in the bottom half of the table. The pattern of the match against Swansea shows the reasons why this is the case and explains, in some way, what happened in the comfortable win over Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League recently.
Prior to the match with Spurs, some statistics emerged comparing Jurgen Klopp with Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. As mentioned above, following the defeat to Hull, Klopp was under the most intense pressure he has faced since joining the club and with Rodgers having been dismissed and doing well in Scotland, a comparison was inevitable.
Statistics showed Klopp had an identical record to Rodgers having been in charge for the same number of games in the Premier League. However, not everything Rodgers did during his time at Liverpool was as bad as many people make out but he did have one major advantage over Klopp, which was a whole pre-season to work with when he started. Klopp arrived in October, with the season in full swing, so was not afforded the luxury of pre-season when he started. Each manager joined in different circumstances, with varying players already in the squad. Rodgers had Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard whereas, in truth, Klopp did not have one player who you would compare to either.
To liken Liverpool’s start with Klopp to that of Brendan Rodgers serves little purpose and will not change anything, so it’s time to move on.
The space to play, which was missing in the match against Swansea, due to the way they were set-up, retuned in the game against Spurs. Much was made of how poorly Spurs played and they were not at their best by any means, however, much of this was due to the way Liverpool approached the game. There was nothing particularly surprising about the way Liverpool began the match, as the midfield and forwards put pressure on the Spurs defenders whenever they were in possession. The visitors could not cope with Liverpool’s press and started to make mistakes, dwindling on the ball and misplacing passes. Once it became clear Spurs could not deal with the press and were happy to leave huge gaps at the back, while trying to play the ball out, there was no stopping Liverpool’s forwards and it seemed like only a matter of time until Klopp’s team took the lead.
Liverpool were winning the second balls in midfield and this kept the pressure on the Spurs defensive line, who were already struggling to cope, both with and without the ball. Yes, some of the chances which fell Liverpool’s way were because of errors by Spurs but having recovered possession of the ball, Georginio Wijnaldum, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were poised to strike and all three were involved in Liverpool’s two goals in the first half.
The clever element of Liverpool’s play, was the way the wide players pressed the Spurs central defenders and not their full-backs. By pressing the central defenders and cutting out the passing lines to the full-backs, it forced Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper or into midfield, where quick pressing forced them to turn over the ball. It was a tactic which worked very well but with the amount of energy required to play this way, it was inevitable there would be times when Spurs would get up the field and create chances, the best of which fell to Son Heung-Min, who went through one-on-one with Simon Mignolet, only to be denied by the Belgian keeper.
With Liverpool winning 2-0 at half-time, it was always going to be interesting to see how they came out and played in the second half. This is where a genuine improvement on previous matches in 2017 become evident and Liverpool showed great discipline and a measured approach to their play, which allowed them to easily see out the game. The team held its shape well and condensed the space for Spurs’ creative players to work with and they became frustrated. Once it was clear Spurs were becoming agitated, the match was over and with the energy Liverpool had saved from holding their shape, they could press the opposition in groups and this nullified any hope Spurs had of coming back into the match.
The way Liverpool controlled the second half of the match is something which will become very important in the latter stages of the season. Having the ability to press teams and force errors is one thing, being able to control the tempo and shut down the opposition is something else entirely and Liverpool showed an ability to do that against Spurs.
The next match is away at Leicester City, a team who are now fighting for their lives at the bottom of the Premier League table. The question is, will Klopp be prepared for a team who may look to adopt the Swansea City approach?