The General Mood Around Anfield
When discussing the current events surrounding The Reds it is a safe assumption to say that there are divided opinions. On the one hand, Liverpool have lost fewer games than second-place Manchester United. On the reverse side of that, they have cost themselves an unhealthy amount of points against inferior competition, which is precisely why they are in fourth place at the moment, holding onto a Champions League spot by the thinnest of margins. With better chance conversion, a more organized and disciplined back line (especially earlier in the season), and perhaps a key injury or two fewer (Mané, Coutinho, Lallana), LFC could easily be chasing Manchester City as the second-best English side, albeit a good distance away, but chasing them nonetheless. This was by no means a bad first half of football. Anytime you win your group in the Champions League and appear positioned for another top-four league finish it should be considered a successful result. Many though, myself included, thought The Reds would be safely perched among the top two of the league table by this point. A still attainable goal this season.
Klopp’s Offence and Heavy Metal Football
This side of the ball has been nothing short of magnificent. Jürgen Klopp has found himself a “fab four” in attack with a front line consisting of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané. LFC have been responsible for 7:0 thrashings in the Champions League of Maribor and Spartak Moscow. A 4:0 hammering of Arsenal and most recently Bournemouth can also be added to their resumé. Salah has unquestionably been the best transfer in the world for 2017. Through 18 matches the brilliant Egyptian leads the Premier League in goals scored (14) and is on pace to reach the prestigious 30 goal mark.
Liverpool are now also the highest scoring British side ever in the Champions League group stage having totaled 23 goals in the six matches this season (previous record held by Manchester United: 21). A neutral fan of the beautiful game could absolutely fall in love with this amazing Anfield attack that can literally score from any position at any moment. LFC are currently ranked fourth in possession (57.9%), third in shots per match (17.8), fifth in pass accuracy (83.8%) and second in shots on target per match (6.4) in the English top flight. The Reds also lead the Premier League in most goals scored from counter attacks. What Jürgen Klopp has done in his second full season on the Liverpool touch line has at times been an offensive masterpiece. He has orchestrated an attack that on any given day can out-score any side in the world, period.
Some critics will say that “the well has run dry” at the most in-opportune times however, such as the draw against Everton and most recently the home match against West Bromwich, in which neither side scored despite LFC having 71% possession and five shots on the Baggies’ goal. It can be concluded that a draw such as this is unacceptable in year three of the Klopp era. I would argue that those types of matches happen to just about every top club at some point. The harsh reality is, if you are chasing a league championship those types of outcomes will kill that dream dead. This is the primary reason why United are seven points clear of Liverpool in second place: MUFC’s two draws to LFC’s seven.
This will transition us to the defence momentarily. Every team is certainly permitted the occasional 0:0 draw in league play. When the offence carries its share of the load however, providing a plethora of goals on multiple occasions, the defence should be able to be relied upon to close out a match. The tone was set very early for this season as Liverpool’s defence surrendered a third goal in the late stages of the first league fixture, sharing the points with the visitors from Watford. This was the kind of effort we have seen from Klopp’s back line far too many times during this campaign. Liverpool’s attack is capable of scoring in bunches, but in order to be considered as serious contenders for a Premier League crown the defence must be disciplined enough to close the door on the opposition in the final moments of a match. Without this key piece a great offence is simply wasted.
Liverpool’s Kryptonite: An Incredibly Inconsistent Back Line
Liverpool’s defensive woes are not due to the fact that they allow a massive amount of shots in every match. In fact, they are one of the top-rated sides in the English top tier at minimizing the opposition’s shots, allowing only 7.4 per match. That is second only to Manchester City (6.2). The large problem in this scenario is that more times than not, one or two of those shots are one on one situations against the keeper after a complete breakdown in communication between the centre-backs or the defence as a whole. Time and again the back line has gotten caught horrendously out of position during an opponent’s attack. Put simply, two or three of those seven are typically high percentage shots with a great likelihood that one or more will end up in the back of The Reds’ net.
In terms of conceded goals only five clubs actually have fewer than Liverpool. With an attack as strong as that of Klopp’s you might think it would be good enough for a top three placing in the league table. Again though, its the type of goals Liverpool are conceding that has been their downfall this season. Oddly enough, when their attack is not clicking on all cylinders such as in the matches against Everton, Newcastle and West Brom, the defence for the most part, has held the opposition to equally as low of a goal count. Its the mental breakdowns and poor communication at crucial points in a match, such as conceding a late equalizer against Chelsea most recently, which resulted in a 1:1 draw, that have cost The Reds so dearly. This was a clear chance for Klopp’s men to jump Chelsea in the table and reach third place for the first time this season, but they were unable to prevent an 85th minute goal from Antonio Conte’s Blues. Another missed opportunity.
With the second-fewest losses in 2017-18 also comes the dubious achievement of recording the second-most draws in the Premier League. Some factors for these sudden lapses in defence have been credited to the play of Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Jordan Henderson, and perhaps the expectation that a few of the younger players would be further along in their development when the season started (Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Joe Gomez) than they actually were. The biggest issue though, may in fact revolve around players that aren’t even in Klopp’s squad. The failure to sign a world-class centre-back has been more damaging than most would have anticipated.
Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren have proven that they are not viable solutions at centre-back. Lovren, whose errors this season have been nothing short of ridiculous, has improved his play a bit as of late, admittedly. He is a good option as a squad rotational player but lacks the overall quality to be a featured defender for an English top-six side. Jordan Henderson, the “Steven Gerrard” replacement has been far from that, especially recently. He is the captain and a great competitor but if we are all honest with ourselves, lacks the skills for the role Jürgen Klopp wants him to fill. Countless times an opposing attacker has flown by Henderson encountering very little resistance. This is a concern and must be addressed in the near future.
Emre Can has played well at times this season but like many on Liverpool’s current squad, lacks the consistency to be considered an every week starter for The Reds. Can has been amazing in one match and in the very next, will make you pull your hair out in frustration. The injury to Nathaniel Clyne has also not helped matters as it has rushed Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson into action, perhaps a bit prematurely. Despite the growing pains, Gomez and Alexander-Arnold have both shown glimpses of brilliance and are the undeniable building blocks of the Liverpool back line over the next few years. One also cannot go without mentioning the incredible effort Alberto Moreno has made at the left back position these past four months to regain his status not only with Liverpool, but also with the Spanish national team.
It should be to no ones surprise that Klavan, Lovren, and aging full back James Milner are three of the lowest rated players within the squad while the four highest rated are all in attack. This is something that must be balanced out during the second half of the season if Liverpool are to get their desired results.
What the Future May Look Like for The Reds
Liverpool will get to make a statement this weekend as they travel to The Emirates to face Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, a side they completely dissected earlier this season. Win there and the path is clear to make a run further up the table in the early weeks of 2018. LFC’s two losses were both away, to Spurs and Manchester City, both of whom must come to Anfield in the return fixtures. If Liverpool can avenge those defeats and record at least a draw at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, there is a real possibility for them to finish comfortably in the top three of the Premier League for the first time since 2013-14. Beyond the Arsenal fixture LFC will host Swansea and Leicester City, followed by a visit to defensive-minded Burnley.
January 14th, 2018 will be a season-defining match as Liverpool are set to host first-placed and currently undefeated Manchester City in a rematch from what was one of the worst performances of the year for Klopp’s lads. This will show if Jürgen Klopp has learned anything from the 0:5 defeat in September, and whether his “fab four” of Coutinho, Firmino, Mané, and Salah can truly shine on the Premier League’s biggest stage. Beat Pep Guardiola’s Man City, and anything is possible.
The Philippe Coutinho farewell tour will hit its full stride as this phenomenal talent plays his final matches in a Liverpool shirt. Klopp will likely add a fresh face or two in the winter transfer window as Liverpool look to bolster their roster for a deep run in the Champions League, a competition this Liverpool side is more than capable of winning. Because of their attack alone, LFC are capable of defeating any team in the world over a two-leg fixture. I say this with the utmost seriousness: “None of the 16 clubs remaining in the Champions League are looking forward to playing Klopp’s Liverpool.”
Finally, as Mo Salah closes in on his first Golden Boot award, LFC will look for continued improvement in defence, either through player development or January squad additions. Barring any key injuries in attack, it is my strong belief that Liverpool FC will turn some of their previous draws into wins during the second half of the 2017-18 Premier League campaign. The Reds will again qualify for the Champions League in addition to securing their first top-three league finish in four years.