Written by Charlie Ellis and Rhys Desmond
It’s not been the most incredible start to a Premier League season for Jürgen Klopp’s Redmen, and in fact, statistically, his worst on record. The 9-0 flurry against Bournemouth and the hard-fought clean sheet to Guardiola’s City serve as reminders that Liverpool are still a force to be reckoned with in the Prem. But as Arteta’s Arsenal surge into form and the likes of United and Chelsea gain traction under new management, Liverpool are slowly falling behind in the top four race. With that, we break down the tactical concerns behind Liverpool’s start to the 2022-23, and provide suggestions for Klopp’s men moving forward. Here is our analysis!
POSITIONING IN THE PRESSINGEmbed from Getty Images
Liverpool are known for their heavy metal approach under Jürgen Klopp, which has often been signified by workhorses like Gini Wijnaldum and Sadio Mané. This season, they’ve fallen off a cliff when it comes to pressing success, and are struggling to handle the wide overloads that are created to combat their high press. Trent Alexander Arnold’s received the bulk of the criticism for his positional sense and persistent ball-watching, and unfortunately for the young scouser, the Reds have conceded twice as many shots down his flank as opposed to the other.
Opposition teams know they can target his side, which also happens to be away from tough-tackling Thiago and brawny Virgil Van Dijk. This problem is only exacerbated by Liverpool’s own desire to attack down the right (39%), meaning that Trent is often starting from either an inverted or high position, that leaves space in behind to exploit.
Of course, amongst sections of the footballing world, this has led to scapegoating aimed at the young fullback. In 1v1 duels, Trent’s held his own and boasted impressive numbers. It’s the positional sense and his desire to step and press that is sometimes leaving him caught out. But it’s also a matter of team structure, and this has completely gone overlooked in all the criticism surrounding the Liverpool man.
Often pressing in the same shape as their starting formation, the fullbacks are often called upon to step once the ball advances behind their winger, or into their zone. As they step, they leave their position, thus leaving space in behind that others must cover.
In Liverpool’s historic 4-1 defeat to Napoli, Trent faced much criticism, and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia received all the plaudits for his ability to win 1v1 battles. But the reality of the situation was that Trent never got close to Kvaratskhelia. Not mentally, physically or technically/tactically; but structurally. The fullback’s desire to constantly step out of his position and/or win the ball back from his inverted position meant that it was actually Joe Gomez who struggled massively with the 1v1 duels on the day, as the man persistently thrown into covering the wide areas to handle the wing wizard.
If players are being asked to pressure when closest to the ball and forego their own positioning, structural concerns like this will open. Opposition clubs can then correctly overload one side of the field against Liverpool’s press, and play quick combinations as the likes of Trent fly into the challenges too fast for their own good. The gaps are widening, the intensity is slowing, and the legs are going as the bulk of their players age into their thirties.Embed from Getty Images
Liverpool have accumulated the lowest tackle success in the league (43.6%), and their numbers are way down in pressure success and possession won in the final third (5.0). Liverpool ranked second in the former and first in the latter last season (7.1), and are now falling behind to their closest top four competitors. The departure of Sadio Mané to Bayern Munich hasn’t helped in their defensive endeavours, but the midfield feels more lightweight than it has in years. Since moving to a midfield two, the concerns over their ability to cover ground has only intensified.Embed from Getty Images
This is only amplified when you add in Liverpool’s desire to throw their fullbacks forward into the attack. It’s worth noting that Trent is creating from a deeper position this season than in the past, and that he’s been a pivotal part of their rest-defense in making recovery challenges. But Liverpool can be susceptible when that rest-defense structure goes missing. As soon as Fabinho is beaten in the centre of the park, the centre-backs can immediately find themselves isolated and alone against a speedy striker.
With the right quality behind the attacking thrust of the opposition, a 2v2 can then quickly become a 1v0.
The high-positioning of the fullbacks in certain moments can also cause the same consequences further down the field. The collateral damage means that the opposition can immediately exploit the wide areas, and the centre-backs are drawn out of position to cover. Quick counter attacking teams like Palace and Fulham can then immediately use those wide areas to explode into action, and simultaneously create space through the centre. A great example of this can be found in the 3-2 defeat to Arsenal, where the Gunners used Saka to run at Virgil Van Dijk, in behind the space that Kostas Tsmikas vacated in his attacking endeavours. On Arsenal’s opening goal, this attracted the attention of Jordan Henderson toward the ball, leaving his own man in the pursuit of covering ground for his fullback. Saka then slipped in Ødegaard through the gap, leading to the assist for the goal.
This is potentially one of the reasons why Trent has been given more of a reserved role in attacking phases throughout 2022-23, although his predisposition to play hopeful long passes from deep seems to be more likely to be a contributing factor of his positioning. Either way, Liverpool must start factoring in more of a sound rest-defense to their plans, and the defensive midfielders have to be mindful of their positioning in support of that process. If only two remain in the team, gaps will naturally open through the centre as they widen in the attack.
WANING IntensityEmbed from Getty Images
Against the odds of a heavily condensed schedule, Liverpool are suffering for the same reasons we’ve already identified. The gaps are widening, the intensity is slowing, and the legs are going as the bulk of their players age into their thirties. Fresh faces in the form of Núñez, Carvalho and Elliott have helped to formulate some sense of speed back into the team, and the likes of Alexander-Arnold and Salah already handle their own in a foot-race.
But psychological problems seem to be popping up, particularly as they throw themselves into tackles (again – last in tackle success this season). It’s not just the success that’s been dropping, but the sheer volume of pressures and tackles. Liverpool made the most tackles (2.82 per 90) and pressures (45 per 90) in the final third last season – as opposed to now where they sit firmly in the middle of the table (2.18 per 90, and 36 per 90). With this drop in intensity, Liverpool can kiss their ambitions goodbye. They’re not latching onto second or third balls the way they normally might, and as Trent inverts, he often doesn’t know where and when to counter-press to stop the opposition from exploiting his position.
It’s worth noting that Liverpool saw a significant boost in intensity against Manchester City, where they showed a glimpse of their old selves and attempted 178 total pressures against the heavy possession of the Sky Blues. This shows some encouragement that they still have it within them to maintain this heavy-metal mentality. They just need to find this mentality on a regular basis, and consistently be that team that they aspire to be.
As Klopp said in interviews, the Reds need to amplify their intensity, and ensure they become the team that nobody wants to play.
FAILURE TO FIND CONSISTENCY
When Liverpool have faltered in the past, Klopp has never been afraid to change formation. The Reds are now firmly sticking to a 4-2-3-1 as opposed to their traditional 4-3-3, and if they get the right mix of personnel, this could pay dividends. The formation allows all of their attacking options to flourish as one, and positions Roberto Firmino in what is truthfully his best position. Fabinho and Curtis Jones showed some signs of positivity in playing together at the weekend, but Klopp is yet to find his preferred set of personnel within the system. Again, the condensed schedule has only played into this, as several players step up to cover the absences felt by the likes of Thiago and Diaz.
It’s then been difficult for Klopp to create harmony and balance in his side. The likes of Elliott and Carvalho will naturally want to play the wide role from an inverted position, but also in a way that enacts precision and creativity from deep. Without Diaz, that leaves only Mo Salah to race in behind the opposition’s defense, as the others compete for space. Darwin Núñez has been a bright spot in running the channels whenever he’s been given time to shine, but has lacked the final touch to finish off chances. His xG has reached higher heights than Haaland this season (1.05 per 90 to 0.97), and that’s a serious concern given the goal discrepancy.
Perhaps Klopp needs to resort back to Diogo Jota in the number nine role, as someone who can simultaneously create his own sense of harmony between dropping deep and running beyond. Playing Núñez off the left and Salah from the right might inject the maximum amount of pace needed into the attack, as the Reds try to replace both the departed Mané and injured Diaz.
ConclusionEmbed from Getty Images
Liverpool’s start to the 2022-23 campaign has not gone as planned, but it’s not too late to turn their fortunes around. As Klopp’s elucidated in interviews, they need to become the side that no-one wants to face again.
Harnessing Firmino in his natural position has worked wonders in seeing his best form come to life again, and Klopp has much to build around in seeing his team surge up the table again. The 4-2-3-1 can persist without worry, but Klopp must find the right set of personnel to achieve balance in his ranks. Simultaneously, the Reds need to pick up their intensity and positional sense in pressing phases, and ensure they don’t get caught out of position in their pressing quests (or in transition). If Klopp can nail down these items of concern, Liverpool should be set for a surge back up the table, where they rightfully belong.
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So there it is! Our tactical analysis of Liverpool’s tactical concerns in 2022-23, spearheaded by Charlie Ellis and edited by Rhys Desmond. Credit to Charlie for getting those FBRef pressure stats in just before the site took them down. Don’t forget to give the Liverpool man a follow on Twitter @C3llis8. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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