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Liverpool 2-3 Swansea City: Three Major Plot Lines

Losing to the Swans at the weekend was the ultimate proof that Liverpool have started 2017 well off the boil. What’s wrong? We have some ideas.

Liverpool v Swansea City - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

This is presumably rock bottom, right? It can’t possibly get much worse than allowing the statistically sorriest team in the league to plunder three points and as many goals at Anfield, so much that the end of this January crush of games across three competitions thankfully beckons.

Even the injury crisis has subsided somewhat with Philippe Coutinho encouragingly playing 60 minutes in that loss at the weekend, while Joël Matip, who has quickly become Liverpool’s rock in defense, continued the march to full match fitness with a welcome run out with the U23s alongside the rehabilitating Joe Gomez. However, with Senegal progressing to the knockout stages in the AFCON as predicted, Sadio Mané could still be out as late as the February 5 title game (fingers crossed that someone knocks them out before then).

Interestingly enough, Wednesday's crucial second leg EFL Cup tie to Southampton could be the first time Jürgen Klopp will be only missing one of his electric first choice XI since before the festive period last year. The reprieve could not have come at a better time, as his side’s January travails have seen them drop back into the tightening pack of league contenders in what is shaping up to be a dogfight for Champions League places rather than a title challenge that had been in the offing only a few short weeks ago.

With the charismatic manager looking to right the ship post haste, Liverpool will end the month with a final six-day, three-tournament bonanza, with Wolverhampton on Saturday in the FA Cup sandwiched between tomorrow’s aforementioned league cup matchup and Chelsea at home in a vital league fixture on the 31st. As always, we dive deeper into the plot lines from the weekend’s disappointing result, looking at how the Reds have arrived at this point and what the future might hold.

Klopp needs a very specific type of player...and that player just isn’t available now + How on current evidence, Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can might not be long for Liverpool

**It is impossible to separate these two points, so they’re detailed here as one block**

One can presume that the requirements section of the Craigslist job ad for players looking to join Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool is some variation of the following, and I paraphrase:

Must have ALL of the following in equal measure:

  • Exceptional technical ability on the ball
  • Lightning speed of thought
  • Versatility, able to excel in multiple positions
  • Relentless work-rate on both ends of the pitch with matching levels of conditioning

If you do not possess ALL of these traits, please DON’T BOTHER APPLYING

For three magical months to open the season, the Reds individually and collectively, ran, shot, pressed and tackled more and harder than anyone else on the continent, and it can be argued that the football side that Klopp forged over on the red half of Merseyside this past summer is, when fit, arguably the best pressing and counter-attacking side in European football.

The Reds manager masterfully reinvented two established internationals and a 30-year old in Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and James Milner, establishing them in unfamiliar positions in which each has gone on to deliver at virtually world class levels. What unites these three along with everyone else in that first choice XI is that all possess each of those four required traits and have displayed them to a tee.

The torrent of flowing team goals, the manic but coordinated harassment off the ball, the technical masterclass/mind meld on display in the attacking third, the trail of traumatized and depleted opponents left in their wake...none of these happen unless every outfield player in the side exhibits these traits for 90 minutes game-in and game-out.

Roberto Firmino, for example, might not make it ahead of the likes of Sergio Aguero or Robert Lewandowski in a World XI, but both of those world-class strikers would in turn struggle to supplant the Brazilian dervish—with his relentless pressing motor and telepathic connection with Coutinho—on Klopp’s team sheet. Let that sink in: the best strikers in terms of pure talent in both the England and Germany would most likely not be guaranteed a spot on this Liverpool team.

The point bears emphasizing, because it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are some in the squad who also might not fit the bill, namely Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can. The Sturridge debate has been intractably raging since the mercurial forward first set foot into Anfield, even despite his many exploits in the four full seasons he’s plied his trade in red. But this time, it feels like matters are finally coming to a head.

Despite undoubted world class striking ability, Sturridge supporters, such as this columnist, are increasingly resigning themselves to the conclusion Klopp himself came to almost a year ago: namely that old Sturridge simply does not want to work hard for the team in the aspect of the game essential to Liverpool’s success i.e. the famous gegenpressing, where, whether due to injury or some other reason, Sturridge appears simply to have given up. Coupled with an almost defiant unwillingness to be flexible for the good of the team, Klopp has been left with little choice but to begin to phase the Englishman out of the team, playing him only when absolutely necessary and sometimes preferring even the still raw Divock Origi.

Emre Can is another story: what he appears to lack is the technical ability and speed of thought to consistently adhere to the game plan both going forward and in the press, often slowing play down when in possession and failing to recognize the pressing triggers when off the ball.

However, the impetuous German is not yet a lost case and if there is anyone currently in the side that possess the strength of character to buckle down and figure things out, it is Can. One would imagine that the 23-year-old(!)’s current route back into the side is as captain Jordan Henderson’s understudy in the holding role. To do so, he must vastly improve his reading of the game, extend his passing range and learn to channel his tremendous work rate smartly.

Success here would represents the resolution of at least one key depth issue in the side, as knocks to Henderson and several other key players has been shown to completely hobble Klopp’s game plan. As injuries have conspired to sap the side of their early season momentum, the concerns have not been one of quality as much as depth in vital areas of the squad, a questioning that predictably rises to a clamor during this winter transfer period.

Although most of us as fans happily cast off reason in this silliest of seasons, some of the cooler heads on this site (a category this columnist will admit to not being a partaker of) will have noted that this very specific type of player: technically-gifted, sharp, tireless and versatile with the added FSG preference of also being young, just aren’t in abundant supply this particular January. The ones that are, simply aren’t being made available by the club and Klopp is understandably refusing to settle.

The depth predicament might seem apparent now in hindsight, but one has to take into account that prior to the start of the season, Klopp and his coaching staff would have most likely made several reasonable bets on the suitability of current squad members to deal with some of the problems that we are seeing now. Of course, now that we’re more than halfway through the season, we can see that some of these bets simply haven’t panned out at least as of yet, including:

  • That Sturridge/Origi, though not first choice, would manage to competently execute the gegenpressing game plan during the scheduled absence of Mané (presumably in a Coutinho-Sturridge/Origi-Firmino front-line).
  • That Can would acclimate to the No. 6 position to back up Henderson.
  • That either Sakho or Dejan Lovren would function as a starter-quality 3rd-choice center half for when the inevitable knocks to one of the first choice duo occurred over the course of a season.

While Can still might work out and Origi still has room to develop, one can easily see in hindsight that these will have been completely rational assumptions for Klopp to make and that the (eventual) return of Mane along with a return to fitness of the first choice XI will hold us over for this year’s campaign, at least until some of these issues can be addressed in the summer.

Here’s an answer to one of those issues: go get VVD. That is all

Seriously, this is a no-brainer, be it now (unlikely) or in the summer. Big, strong, powerful, flawless in his defensive technique and instincts, composed ball-playing skills, nailed on future captain of any side he finds himself in.

Pep Guardiola desperately needs the Southampton colossus at Manchester City, as the John Stones experiment—that seemingly everyone besides the Spanish manager knew was destined to fail—draws to a close and their best defender in Vincent Kompany seemingly unable to string consecutive games together without going down injured, nears the end of his career.

However, the team is a mess defensively, with the moody Guardiola recently having to walk back comments hinting at a possible early retirement amidst well-publicized first year struggles in the rough and tumble Premier League. Why subject yourself to that hassle when you can join forces with the sublime Matip to handily supplant Tottenham’s duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld as the best center back pairing in the league?

We even have the pieces for one of those player swap + cash deals that never seem to actually happen, with the exiled Mamadou Sakho already the subject of concrete interest from the south coast club.

What’s the point of earning Most Favored Nation status with Liverpool’s favorite feeder club if you can’t cash in those reward points when you really need them?

Until then, we can simply content ourselves with the reliable opioid of Youtube highlight reels and dream:

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