Demolition against Napoli will trigger Anfield upheaval – and this is what the German boss can do to address an alarming slump
To older supporters, his comments evoked memories of a watershed game in the reign of Bill Shankly in 1970 after a humiliating FA Cup defeat by Watford, the great Scot realising the foundations of his first great era had been shaken and it was time to start afresh and build his second great Liverpool team.
Shankly did so around the same principles that made Liverpool one of England’s superpowers. Klopp will attempt likewise to replicate that success. What are the solutions?
A change of system?
Throughout his coaching career, Jurgen Klopp has embraced the 4-3-3 ‘gegenpressing’ style like a father clinging to his first-born son.
Klopp did not invent such a way of playing – he has always credited his mentor at Mainz Wolfgang Frank and Italian Arrigo Sacchi as the true pioneers – but he added a modern twist and evolved their ideas with extra layers of athleticism, physicality and pace.
It is impossible to imagine him veering far from the system which has ensured Klopp is one of the greatest coaches of his generation, if not of all time. That would be as radical as asking Pep Guardiola to abandon a possession game, or Jose Mourinho to encourage a full-back to cross the halfway line. It will not happen. That was clear in Klopp’s post-match press conference in which he indicated that abandoning his ‘high line’ defence is not on the agenda.
“A high line is a risk when you don’t have pressure on the ball,” said Klopp. “If you don’t have any pressure on the guy on the ball, yes it is a risk but that is not normally the case. The problem is we never got close enough to put the opponent under pressure.”
The conundrum he will be focusing on is how to reinforce his ideals with personnel who currently lack the energy levels required to make 4-3-3 work. Even when accounting for the injury absences to key midfielders, a spark has gone.
Whatever the solution, he will not veer from the principle of winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible. It will be ‘a reinvention’ to reunite Liverpool with the Klopp way, not rip everything up and start again.
A midfield restructure
Since the start of the season, Liverpool’s problems have stemmed from midfield and although the 4-1 defeat against Napoli was littered with avoidable, individual errors by defenders, the heart of the problem was structural. Klopp recognised in his immediate post-match analysis that Liverpool “were the least compact he can ever remember”.
Fabinho and James Milner were not quick enough to close spaces when possession was lost, and youngster Harvey Elliott tends to play higher up the pitch, too far away to turn attacks into defence when opponents steal possession. Midfield, therefore, will be the zone Klopp focuses on most.
The return of Thiago Alcantara and debut of Arthur helps, but a back-up plan has been needed for weeks given the constant injury problems of midfielders mean it was short-sighted to fail to recognise issues could emerge. The transfer window no longer offers a solution, so the strengthening must come by adding existing personnel into the middle of the park.
“It was like they had an extra man,” Andy Robertson correctly observed as Napoli ripped through at will. At Liverpool’s best, Klopp has been able to rely on three midfielders doing the work of four or even five players. Not now. He needs a minimum of four midfielders to execute his plans to win back possession quicker and higher.
Sacrifice one of the front three
The coaching manual does not have many secrets under the chapter ‘possible formations’. Some will argue for Klopp to adopt a 3-5-1 formation, which would enable his full-backs to play higher, reinforcing the midfield while adding the defensive insurance of an extra centre-back.
But that would require an overhaul of long-established defensive drills and seems overly complicated given how little time Klopp has to work with his players between games in this hectic schedule.
A switch to 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 makes more sense. Klopp’s defenders will justly argue that what they need is extra protection in front of them, not a new defensive formation.
That means sacrificing one of the front three, or at the very least tweaking their roles. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Luis Diaz are versatile enough to fit into a variety of positions, anyway. The smart money will be on two midfield shields, with one of the strikers used as ‘No 10’ behind a more orthodox No 9. That gives Klopp more options. Many of his attackers have the profile to play as wide midfielder, a No 10 or more traditional No 9.
The long-standing argument for Trent Alexander-Arnold to move into the position he filled in his youth career – central midfield – may also gather pace. His dip in form is alarming, but again Klopp has never given any hint this is a long-term solution, saying last year “why would you play the best right-back in the world in midfield?” He will see Alexander-Arnold’s dip, like Liverpool’s, as temporary.
Review the off-field preparation
As a sports scientist as well as a coach, Klopp has always understood as well as any modern coach it is what happens with the smallest details off the pitch in the preparation phase which affects what he sees on it.
His teams are usually flying at the start of the season, the week spent at the training camp in Austria usually the point in the summer where they emerge re-energised. The way his team played in the Community Shield upon their return from the pre-season training suggested business as usual, making the subsequent dip more unfathomable.
What is worrying so far is how many of them already look shattered, Fabinho, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson especially looking a yard off the pace, prompting some theories that the energy used over the last five years has flattened their battery. There will certainly need to be a review of the pre-season preparation.
The timing of respected club doctor Jim Moxon’s exit now looks more unfortunate, although seasoned analysts will point out that medical staff departures have been regular during Klopp’s reign and never had such an adverse effect before.
Such is the intensity with which Liverpool play, and so choreographed have been the playing patterns with ‘gegenpressing’ demanding every player is switched on, it only needs the slightest drop in energy levels for it to malfunction. Key absentees (one now playing for Bayern Munich) have undoubtedly played their part.
Klopp is not one to shirk from the challenge of solving the riddle of why one of the toughest teams in Europe has suddenly become one of the easiest.