So apparently Jürgen Klopp is not actually infallible. I mean, in theory we all knew this was probably true, but in reality, many Liverpool fans would have had a hard time naming many decisions in the charismatic German’s first 10 months in charge with which they disagreed strongly. It was obvious that there was a clear jump in managerial quality between the former Dortmund man and his predecessor, in tactics, philosophy as well as team mindset. Any underperformance could simply be written off as the failings of an inherited squad.
Now, at the risk of coming across as melodramatic, in the wake of the 2-0 loss to minnows Burnley at the weekend, it is a bit different. There were a few readily-apparent mistakes: for one, a negative, defensively-compact team like Burnley is probably the wrong opponent against whom one wants to begin the James Milner at Left Back experiment. As much as it pains some Liverpool supporters to hear it, the game could have used Alberto Moreno’s pace and natural left foot out wide due to the fact that the full backs were virtually neglected by the Clarets in a compact, well-drilled strategy to crowd the box.
Moving further up the pitch, Klopp and his staff also clearly hadn’t watched much footage of how Daniel Sturridge had fared out wide in his lost days at Chelsea (when he was younger, quicker and healthier, no less). Hint: not so hot. The striker is a no. 9 through and through and he understandably contributed next to nothing on the day from the wing, outside one of those heart-stoppingly annoying off-target shots, the kind that look like they’re definitely going in when viewed from certain camera angles.
However, the most glaring misstep, so far at least, seems to be how defensively weak the squad looks in midfield without the imperious Emre Can as the anchor. Of course, Lucas is still out injured, while Klopp clearly sees young Kevin Stewart as potentially more than a bit part player. Neither, however, can realistically be viewed as real competition for the German midfielder: one is too old and one-dimensional, the other, too young, inexperienced and one-dimensional. Emre Can is clearly the best and only solution to the squad’s defensive midfield struggles.
These first two matches of the season, a shootout at Arsenal and a whimpering capitulation to Burnley, are similar in that they served to highlight the value of Can and what might be a growing reliance on the skillset he brings to the table in a squad chock-full of gunners.
On his day, the towering German is a veritable colossus at the back, physically dominating every encounter he engages in. It is also easy to forget that the former Bayern Munich man is only 22 years old and that the cerebral aspect of his defensive game is still progressing healthily, progress that has arguably been bolstered by his half season at center back under Brendan Rodgers. It is these defensive instincts that have been missing in matches like the Burnley slogfest, when the attack isn’t quite blowing the opposition away per usual.
We now know at least that Jordan Henderson most certainly can’t do the job. For all his merits and all-running eagerness, the Liverpool captain simply cannot make up for his complete lack of awareness in the holding role.
For instance, he had a hand in the second goal of the match on Saturday as he, along with other members of the scrambling Liverpool back line, helped make Clarets forward Andre Gray look like Lionel Messi, skipping around half-hearted tackles before firing past Simon Mignolet.
Too harsh? Take a look at Henderson’s contribution, or lack thereof, in the build up to the tone-setting first goal. If he anticipates the incoming press on Nathaniel Clyne by stepping up into his line of sight and making himself available as an outlet, the right back does not give the ball away so cheaply deep in his own half trying to find Adam Lallana who had come rushing across from the other side of the pitch. A defensive midfielder understands this responsibility of being a pressure valve for the back line against the press and positions themselves accordingly.
Then, by the time the ball is given away, Henderson has already wandered slightly up the field in Clyne’s general direction and is therefore not in a position to react to the straight ball into the Sam Vokes on the edge of the box for the goal.
Look, this is all probably just the paranoia of a fan wanting two starting-caliber players at every position. If the plan is to invert the double pivot in central midfield and shackle Can to a solo holding role, then defensively things should ultimately work out. Even talk of Can being “shackled”, e.g. prevented from realizing his supposed box-to-box potential, is itself overblown. He simply is not needed in the attacking third, they’re already queuing up in that area of pitch without him. It is clear that cover for the back line is both where Can is needed and where he will shine brightest. Similar progressive-minded reinforcements would be nice, but for now, Klopp just needs to get Emre back on the pitch ASAP.