Jurgen Klopp admits Liverpool need to get back to basics in order to find form again after a difficult start to the season.
When Jurgen Klopp first stepped in at Anfield almost seven years ago, his soundbite of turning “doubters into believers” captured the imagination of both Liverpool supporters and the gathered media throng.
As a call to arms, it was both compelling and convincing. But away from the headlines and hyperbole, the Reds boss also offered a hint of what to expect once he got to grips with his new squad.
“In these days in football, all the world-class teams play the opposite of football,” he said. “I like to watch this; Bayern Munich, great team, great club; Barcelona, yes; Real Madrid; maybe on some days, Manchester City, but nobody starts as a ball possession team.
There were trials and tribulations along the way, false starts, tears and disappointments. But the regular updates to the Champions Walls over the following years was testament to how Liverpool had successfully bought into Klopp’s methods.
None more so than last season, when the Reds’ refusal to accept defeat saw them come close to an unprecedented treble, sweeping up the League Cup and FA Cup while narrowly beaten to the Premier League and Champions League crowns.
Indeed, no team in England has been harder to beat than Liverpool in recent years.
There is, of course, the glaring exception of a nine-week period midway through the dreadful pandemic season when, with the centre-back injury crisis at its absolute peak, the Reds suffered nine defeats in 15 games. But before that run, Liverpool had been beaten just 13 times in 106 games, three of which were penalty shoot-outs. And after finally arrested the slump, they have since lost just seven times in 85 outings. Over that entire period, Liverpool lost 29 times to 31 of Manchester City.
The worry isn’t just that two of those losses have come in nine games this campaign, however. The manner of the performances even in victory has been unconvincing, Liverpool too often making it easy for opponents to score the opening goal – an affliction carried over from last season that has hampered eight of their last 10 Premier League outings – and inviting pressure on an evolving attack.
True, only Brighton and Hove Albion have conceded fewer goals in the top flight this season than Liverpool, albeit with the Reds having played a game fewer than most teams. But nobody would claim the backline has been particularly watertight, a shortcoming horribly exposed by Napoli in the Champions League earlier this month with Liverpool’s heaviest European defeat in 56 years.
This was always going to be a transitional campaign – or, as Klopp hinted back in May, a “transformation” in the squad – with Sadio Mane having departed and younger players introduced. What has worked against Liverpool is the lack of a full pre-season, allied to an alarming injury list that has decimated the midfield, chopping and changing at centre-back and the self-inflicted absence of new signing Darwin Nunez at a key time in his adaptation.
Throw in a dip in form of several key players, and it’s not difficult to see why matters have been going awry. Performance levels will eventually improve, but time is already becoming of the essence. Liverpool stand four points off the top four already, nine off the lead.
The problems are already having one obvious impact on results. While Liverpool remain impressive at Anfield, they have yet to win an away game this term. And their lack of resolve is particularly untimely given Premier League road trips ahead of the World Cup in November consist either of top-six rivals (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), promoted teams (Fulham and Nottingham Forest) and neighbours Everton – arguably the three sets of clubs the Reds wouldn’t want to face early in a season, not least given their ongoing travails.
For Klopp, then, defensive solidity is more important than ever. “When I first arrived at Liverpool almost seven years ago, I set an ambition for us to become the hardest team in the world to play against,” he says. “This hasn’t always been possible of course – although there have definitely been times when we have been pretty close, I would say. But in Naples we were as far away from this target as I can recall us being and this cannot carry on.
“I know everyone focuses on the goals, the stories and the big moments, but being hard to play against and hard to beat has been at the heart of everything we have done over the last few seasons, so it would make sense if we could get back to being this way.”
Speaking to the official matchday programme, Klopp adds: “The basics of football are a big part of this. Defending together, attacking together, winning challenges, competing, stopping your opponent from doing what they want to do. A lot of these qualities would not get their own showreel but they are absolutely vital if you want to win football matches.
“The boys have been absolutely brilliant at this and that should not be forgotten, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that right now there is room for improvement.”
The postponement of successive Premier League games against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea may have proven frustrating for supporters, but it gave Klopp and his coaching staff welcome extra time to work with the players at the AXA Training Centre.
And the immediate schedule after the international break will provide a litmus test of any progress, with home Premier League games against in-form and newly-managed Brighton and champions Manchester City sandwiching a trip to leaders Arsenal, along with an emotional and potentially pivotal Champions League double-header against Rangers.
The believers may have become doubters again. But only by taking matters right back to the beginning under Klopp can Liverpool ensure an early-season wobble isn’t the sign of something more serious.