Balance and defensive frailty to blame for Liverpool's poor start to the season
The full-time whistle brought with it a kind of terrible aftertaste, like the sourness in your mouth that follows the worst meal you've had in your life. A 1-1 draw with Burnley at home followed by 2-0 defeat at Leicester summed up a disappointing week for the Reds.
Before those two results, there was the humiliating 5-0 loss to Manchester City at the Etihad, and a frustrating 2-2 draw against Sevilla in the Champions League. Liverpool’s start to the season has been below par, and certainly far from what fans would have expected. So what exactly has been going wrong?
Plenty of fans have been quick to accuse Klopp of not sorting out inherent issues faced by this Liverpool side. While not entirely wrong, the impatience in a selective group fans is a worrying sign of the general state of Liverpool’s fan-base. It is important to understand that bringing in the right players will take time. But ultimately, the fact is the Reds’ defensive woes were clear as day last season.
Joel Matip and Nathaniel Clyne performed consistently, while Dejan Lovren always seemed like an accident waiting to happen. James Milner’s performance at left-back started deteriorating towards the end of the season. Ragnar Klavan, the man who stood in for Lovren on a few occasions, had a fairly average season, but it was nowhere near spectacular; it wasn't the kind of performance that would be expected of a defender in a top team.
Bringing in Andy Robertson from Hull in the summer suggested that he would be the second choice to James Milner, with Alberto Moreno missing out on much of the action last season. But an impressive pre-season has given the Spanish fullback the starting spot ahead of his compatriots.
While his game time has been limited, Robertson has been able to prove that he has the quality to compete at a higher level than previously asked of him, making him a good addition to the squad.
It is rather unfair to say that Klopp has been ignoring the issues in the team. The 2016 summer transfer window was remarkable as he signed promising players such as Loris Karius, Joel Matip and Sadio Mane. Mane brought pace to a side that was facing a drought of speed on the counter, and linked up excellently with fellow attackers Coutinho and Firmino.
Matip immediately took to life in England and is easily the most reliable defender at Liverpool. Karius has been one for the future so far, but has been key in pressuring Simon Mignolet to perform better every match. This past summer, Klopp brought in Salah as the marquee signing.
Mocked as a Chelsea reject after his unsuccessful spell with the Blues earlier in his career, Salah has scored three goals this season and is Liverpool’s joint top scorer alongside Mane. With Liverpool’s attack finally looking settled for a few years to come, it leads to more worrying aspects of the team to be talked about.
Liverpool’s lack of a naturally defensive midfielder has been much talked about. Indeed, a makeshift holding midfielder in Jordan Henderson seemed a perfect solution last season, but the Englishman has failed to deliver so far this season. It may be too early to judge, but Henderson’s performances in recent games have been far from his pre-injury self.
Undeniably, Henderson is far better in his natural role playing as a box-to-box midfielder, contributing to attack and defence in equal measure. This emphasises the need for Klopp to look at the prospect of bringing in a more defence-minded midfielder, such as Fabinho of Monaco. While Naby Keita, who will join the Merseyside club next summer, can do a job in the number 6 role, his creative abilities are highly limited in such a role and it would be a waste to play him there.
A natural defensive midfielder would free up both Henderson and Keita to play a more advanced role in midfield, which is their preferred position. It would also lead to Henderson not being the only defensive midfielder to break play, considering that Emre Can has had most of his game time in a box-to-box role.
Can did manage to impress against Burnley where he finally started in a holding midfield over Jordan Henderson, and it serves as a reminder that he is a reliable replacement for Henderson. Bringing in a new midfielder could, however, spell the end of one of the current midfielders’ time at Liverpool, given how overstocked the squad is in that area.
Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain hasn’t made his mark as a regular first-team player in the team yet, and it seems unlikely he will be picked above the likes of Wijnaldum, Coutinho, Can and Henderson, let alone after Keita joins next season. It does seem as though the Ox (as he is affectionately referred to by fans) is Klopp’s “plan B” to break down defensive teams. Oxlade-Chamberlain adds quality to the bench and is a player who might be called on often to add more drive to the attack.
Liverpool’s biggest source of concern is certainly the defence. With Matip the only guaranteed starter, and Lovren and Klavan having poor spells since the start of the 17/18 campaign, plenty of fans are worried that the defence might be the reason for the Reds to see many more unsatisfying results.
Liverpool’s defenders have proven that they can perform better; both Lovren and Klavan have had much better spells at the club. It seems to be an issue of form, which is something all players struggle with, although it seems to be a huge issue for Liverpool.
Inconsistency was and has been the biggest issue as the Reds conceded the second highest number of goals out of the top six teams last season. The start to this season has been no better, with the defence being almost solely the reason for a 3-3 draw at Watford, a 2-2 draw to Sevilla at home and the recent 1-1 draw against Burnley.
One thing to take note of, however, is that the goalkeepers at the club are starting to find their feet. Simon Mignolet has improved tremendously, and his great form at the end of last season has carried over to this season.
Karius, though young, has shown flashes of quality, and in time could be as important as he was to Mainz 05. Danny Ward has promise, and his loan spell with Huddersfield – topped off by an outstanding performance to bring the club to the Premier League – has helped him mature as a player, though not enough to start just yet.
The start of the 17/18 campaign hasn’t been the most convincing, and if the rest of the season is going to be more of the same, I – as well as nearly every Liverpool fan – will be quite disappointed. This could well be a make-or-break season for Klopp with impatience growing among fans, and a top four spot should be the priority. He may be well-loved in the football world due to his sense of humour and undying passion for the game, but if he fails to deliver this season, he’s going to have a lot of people to answer to.