I’m not going to lie, yesterday’s loss to Everton stung. A lot. It’s been a rough couple of months since Liverpool lead the league in December. While there have been a couple of bright moments during that time, it has mostly been a frustrating slog, for the team and fans alike.
After yesterday’s frustrating derby loss, Rory Smith, the soccer correspondent for the New York Times, took to twitter to say Klopp needs to change his system up.
I’ve been a bit sceptical about the “this always happens with Klopp, look at Dortmund” theory, but increasingly strikes me there’s one significant parallel. It’s not that his teams burn out or his methods stop working (though you can’t disprove that).— Rory Smith (@RorySmith) February 20, 2021
Smith is not the first person to say Klopp needs to change things up during the doldrums of the last couple of months. People have been frustrated with Klopp’s steadfast belief in his tactical set up when the goals and results have dried up. In fact, certain corners of fandom and punditry have proclaimed Klopp’s lack of “Plan B” for when his system isn’t producing a major flaw for years.
So, should Klopp change his system up?
To answer that, let’s take a little bit of a deeper look. Over the past several seasons, Jürgen Klopp has honed his tactics, and the players who implement them, pretty much to perfection.
At the start, he didn’t have the players he needed to play his vaunted 4-3-3 with his vaunted gegenpressing philosophy, so he played a 4-2-3-1, creating chaos in the final third and launching lightning fast counter attacks. The next few season, Klopp was able to implement his preferred formation, but the team still leaked goals. Adding Virgil van Dijk to the mix helped firm things up defensively, and the side made the Champions League final where they lost to Real Madrid.
Over the next two seasons, while the formation stayed the same, the tactics changed. While the team still pressed high at times, there was much more of an emphasis on controlling the game. The focus of the attack shifted to the fullbacks, especially the gifted right foot of Trent Alexander-Arnold. The midfield was tasked with ball retention, recycling possession to change angles of attacks, and providing cover for the advancing fullbacks. What we saw was a team that never panicked, even when openings weren’t presenting themselves. The team kept their heads, and shifted defenders around to create the tiniest gaps of space to exploit. When space wasn’t there, Liverpool were able to rely on timely set piece goals to save their bacon. This led to two straight seasons of over 90 points in the league, and Liverpool winning the Champions League and the Premier League in consecutive seasons.
In the two major tactical focuses while at Liverpool (4-3-3 with gegenpress, 4-3-3 with control), Klopp has always stressed patterns of play over making major tactical changes. Klopp didn’t care if other teams knew how his squad was going to play, his squad was going to do what they do so well that teams wouldn’t be able to stop it.
Implementing these systems meant a lot of understanding between players. Depending on game state, the team was well drilled to know where everyone else on the field was, and where the best options were. And being well drilled means lots of repetition in training, with the players working together to build those seemingly telepathic relationships. That’s one of the reasons why it took players like Fabinho and Andrew Robertson over a quarter of the season before they could comfortably step into their roles.
This season, we expected to see the next evolution in Klopp’s tactics. The focus seemed to be on providing more attacking thrust through the midfield when teams focused on shutting down service from the fullbacks. Naby Keita had been brought in previously for his ability to glide forward with the ball into good attacking positions, and Thiago Alcantara was brought in for his ability to pick a killer pass from seemingly anywhere on the field. Both players were seen as key pieces to the next evolution of Klopp’s tactics.
Of course, with the world turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, teams had to deal with a shortened preseason, and then extreme fixture congestion when the season started. Couple that with a massive injury list, and players missing weeks at a time from contracting covid-19, there has been no chance for Klopp and his team to build those patterns of play. Makeshift line-ups with major components either out of the team or playing in completely different roles have meant that there has been a lack of fluidity and understanding. Even the smallest hesitations in playing a ball or making a run has meant the difference between a clear shot on goal and a defender getting a foot in to block a shot.
Despite the struggles this season, despite the difficulties of putting the ball in the net these past couple of months, and despite the late collapses, Liverpool haven’t been as bad as people would be led to believe. Liverpool have scored 45 goals thus far, good for third highest in the league. That total is in spite of over 4 goals under their expected goals for the season per Understat.
So, should Klopp change the system and tactics at Liverpool? As seen above, it seemed that Klopp was already tweaking things coming into this season, but the cascading effects of injuries and players being played out of position have compounded and exacerbated issues. Despite the issues, Liverpool have been so close to having a very different narrative. A goal or two from one of the many clear cut chances Liverpool have generated could have the team comfortably in the top four, but the bounces just haven’t been there. So I say no, Jürgen. You keep doing what you’re doing. Block out the noise. As frustrating as it is from the outside, this team is close. Changing up the system would cause more chaos, create more gaps, and cause more issues for the long term plan.
What say you? Should Klopp change the system up?