Liverpool have improved in a variety of areas under Jürgen Klopp since the German’s arrival on Merseyside in October. What has been the most important improvement? And where does he still need to work out some of the bugs in this Liverpool side?
It’s been a real joy seeing players like Emre Can and Roberto Firmino excel in their natural positions under Klopp. That’s a big, easy one to start off with. More generally, I think Klopp has given the team more structure in the way he sets them up. They understand the expectations he has for them, because they’re not constantly asked to play in unfamiliar roles or untested formations. Also, towards the end of Rodgers’s reign, there seemed to be a lot of negativity coming from the manager about the players at his disposal—talk about how that they weren’t his or weren’t good enough.
Considering it was a team that he spent three years putting together, it was all the more confusing. Klopp, who most certainly didn’t have a hand in bringing them in, seemed able to put some confidence back into the players. The result was the emergence of Firmino, Can, and Origi, and with it a lot of pressure was taken off of Coutinho, and I think even his performances improved because of it. On the other side, though. Heaven’s to Betsy. Klopp has got to sort out the defence.
There was more purpose in the side after Klopp replaced Rodgers. Part of that was the refreshing newness of his personality and the promise he carried from his success with Dortmund. But he also seemed to get the best out of his players by putting them in positions to succeed, which was something Rodgers often struggled to do. Emre Can, Roberto Firmino, and James Milner really did turn it on in the second half, and even players like Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana benefited from the managerial change, flourishing under Klopp’s give-everyone-a-chance first season philosophy.
Still, week-to-week consistency was a problem. For all of the high points of the season—and there were a lot of them—the continued inability to take care of business against bottom-half sides in the Premier League cost the Reds a spot in another wide open race for fourth.
Klopp has done quite a lot in a short period of time, most notably working on getting players and fans to believe more in what could be achieved. Klopp’s mere presence and track record helped enormously, but getting more acquainted with his personality only served to further the belief in what could be. On the pitch, Liverpool seemed fitter and worked better in applying counter pressure. Settling on a system helps, and Liverpool have largely used 4-2-3-1 in 2016. Scoring goals isn't a problem, but there are some areas for improvement that will require coaching and additions in the transfer market.
Liverpool seem to be disorganised with and without the ball far too often to be able to successfully close out games. Liverpool might have shown resilience and an appetite for big games, but control and composure are sorely absent from our approach. This is why leads evaporate instead of being built on and impossible fightbacks can be made real with this inconsistent, scatterbrained team. Liverpool having a season without European football will at least allow Klopp to train his players, especially with a pre-season, on when to organise in low and high blocks. Borussia Dortmund were solid in attacking and defensive transitions with cool, composed players as well as exciting ones for a reason. Klopp knows what's required, so let him work.
The positives are easy. And legion. What I want to know is what’s the deal with corner kicks?
That’s a fair criticism. That for all the good Klopp has done, our set pieces are still horrible going both ways. Still, talk of simplified tactics and defined tasks hits the nail on the head for me. The players generally seem to know their positions and assignments most of the time under Klopp, and from there on out it’s just a question of execution.
To me the most important improvement is two-fold. One: get the players playing in a consistent system, where they all know their roles. Two: improve each player where possible. Under Rodgers there was a near constant flux of tactics and formations, and that had the cumulative effect of confusing players on the pitch, and causing a great deal of hesitancy, especially in the attacking third. In the old regime we saw three at the back, four at the back, four centerbacks, wingbacks, a 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3, wingers playing in the false nine (hello and goodbye, Raheem), and an aging legend attempting to screen the defence.
Klopp came in and immediately simplified matters: we’re playing a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 now. And aside from desperate late-game moves to salvage maximum points (hello and goodbye, Steven Caulker), he’s played his players in a consistent formation and in their natural positions.
To the second point, I once went to a speech by former University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl and he said something along the lines of, "Parents come in and tell me what areas their kids need to improve. I stop them and say, ‘What areas are they good at?’" The point of the question was to play to the players’ strengths. Judging by the nearly across-the-board improvement by the squad, this seems to be Klopp’s approach as well. There is a wealth of talent at Liverpool, we just needed a manager like Klopp to come in and mine it.
There was a lot of good and a lot of promise last season and honestly, right now, I’m not sure there’s any one big thing Klopp needs to improve. We’re not even done recapping the season that was and last season’s glaring weakness, starting goalkeeper, has already been dealt with. But beyond that, with the club out of Europe, I think the big thing will be getting to spend a full pre-season with the players working on fitness and tactics week in and week out without a match every three days.
If Liverpool had made it back into the Champions League there would have been a need to build out the side for that competition and take another step up instantly, but for what Liverpool now face, I think the current squad is actually rather underrated and that with a full pre-season and one game a week most weeks, a lot of the lingering questions and doubts will work themselves out in short order. Not that I’d complain about a marquee signing or three to go with our new goalkeeper.
When Klopp arrived he spoke about the need to bring belief back to Merseyside and as far as intangibles go, I think that’s been the most important thing. I’m not a terribly sentimental person nor do I generally believe in this kind of positive energy alignment, "If you can think it, you can be it!" type of approach to life, but there is an amazingly charismatic quality to Klopp that just feels like people want to run through fire for him. Are happier teams better teams? I have no idea, but not being miserable certainly seems to help your on-pitch product. How that gets measured tactically remains to be seen, though I’m sure the xG folks are working on a new measurement, xH (Expected Happiness).
As far as improvements go, I think people will have their laundry list of transfers they want brought in to fix or otherwise shore up various positions. I’m not really worried about whether or not he’ll get his transfers right because I generally assume he will. Really, the only thing in the immediate that I’d be concerned about is improvement making tactical changes mid-game with his subs, but even then I think it was only twice where I thought ".... what?" so it seems rather silly to complain about it. If everything else is going fine, I can live with one or two odd substitutions over the course of a season.
Monday - Part 1: Transfer Business
Tuesday - Part 2: Underperformers and Overachievers
Wednesday - Part 3: The End of the Brendan Rodgers Era
Friday - Part 5: Positioning the Club for Success in 2016-17