This Liverpool season has tested Jurgen Klopp like no other since he arrived at Anfield seven years ago.
The Reds have suffered their worst start to a Premier League campaign in 10 years, and their German manager needs to find answers. Thankfully, there are signs that Klopp is starting to find solutions to some of the issues.
Defensively, Liverpool have been vulnerable. The root of this problem can be found in midfield where Klopp’s team have lacked intensity. This is reflected in the drop in successful pressures and total pressures per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season with Liverpool standing off opponents more often.
A high defensive line is central to Klopp’s vision as a coach, but with little pressure on the ball in the centre of the pitch, that high line is extremely open to opponents playing passes in behind. Napoli brutally exposed this in the Champions League by playing a season-high six through balls in a 4-1 victory over Liverpool.
This resulted in Salah’s shots per 90 minutes drop from 4.5 to 2.8 with the 30-year-old playing more crosses into the box than ever before as a Liverpool player. The knock-on effect was a decline in Salah’s non-penalty Expected Goals from 0.66 to 0.43 per 90 minutes.
However, Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Manchester City suggested this experiment is over and instead Klopp will use Salah in a central role himself. Salah started in a front two alongside Diogo Jota with Roberto Firmino dropping into midfield to ensure Liverpool never got outnumbered in the centre of the pitch.
A direct approach resulted in Salah scoring the winning goal of the game with Alisson Becker bypassing the midfield entirely to get the ball to the Egyptian as quickly as possible and this was a frequent ploy for Liverpool against the reigning Premier League champions. It was a dramatic departure from the more intricate possession game the Reds have attempted to play this season.
Liverpool played no fewer than 61 long balls against City – a season-high number of long balls. Manchester City’s high line made this an effective tactic, but it won’t be a viable approach against opponents that sit deep.
Salah, however, could be revitalised by getting him into the right-sided half space as often as possible. This is where he does his best work: Salah completed five take-ons and eight duels in the win over City.
To stop Erling Haaland, Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk stood off the Manchester City striker and defended the space rather than the man. This was effective and could set a precedent for Liverpool to solve some of their defensive issues.
Without such a high line, the midfield doesn’t need to play with the same intensity. It could close up some of the space between the lines.
Klopp could drop his midfield line deeper as well and give the front four of Salah, Jota, Firmino and Harvey Elliott the space they need in the opposition half. While Liverpool used to press from the front through the advanced deployment of three forwards, Klopp could now use four to pin opposition full backs – this ploy worked against Manchester City.
The form of Trent Alexander-Arnold has been another problem this season with the right back now a target for opponents intent on exposing space in behind. Gomez and James Milner have been used on the right side of the defence to provide some stability and if Klopp wants to use a front four it could impact Alexander-Arnold’s role at Anfield. He might not have the same freedom to get forward.
Some have questioned Klopp this season, and with good reason. Liverpool have performed below their ability as a team and the German has struggled to get a grip of the situation.
Now, though, Klopp is evolving Liverpool. His team might be a different one this season to the one that won Champions League and Premier League titles not so long ago, but they can still be successful.
“This is a tough situation but it is also a challenge,” Klopp explained in a recent interview when asked to reflect on the difficulties of this season. “I am sorry to all our people who expected that after last season we go again and fly again and compete for everything. And now it is not the case. I cannot promise that we will fly tomorrow but we will fight, definitely, until someone tells us the fight is over. That is all we can promise.”