By Luke Power
Xherdan Shaqiri plays an incisive pass behind the defence to Sadio Mané, who turns and tees up Roberto Firmino on the edge of the box. In bounds of space to the left, Andy Robertson cries for the ball, but the pass never arrives. Firmino has jabbed the ball wide. Disastrously wide. With his weak foot. Another chance wasted.
This game was one many fans had circled on their calendars. Liverpool vs Manchester United at the top of the table? What a joyous celebration of English footballing prowess! Except it wasn’t- the defences were far too stern to let anybody score. In particular, Fabinho marshalled a makeshift backline with the wisdom of a wizard, while Luke Shaw did well in nullifying Mo Salah.
Watching Liverpool at the moment is a crash course in frustration. Despite controlling possession and peppering the United end with shots, Liverpool failed to score for a third consecutive game. It was as if Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert had returned to haunt Anfield once again, possessing the bodies of Liverpool’s current superstars to alarming detriment.
Hang on, you cry- isn’t that a tad harsh? Maybe. It depends what your standards are. A draw with Man Utd and only one loss in 12 games- most teams would bite your hand off for that! But Liverpool are not most teams, and it’s evident watching them that their utopian efficiency has vanished, at least for now.
When in the attacking third, Liverpool seem something like a medieval archer armed with an AK-47: brimming with destructive potential, but unsure how to apply it.
If it means anything to you, by this season’s average, Liverpool register 15.5 shots per game, of which over 1.9 are expected to hit the net. Yet over the last four games, even though Liverpool are taking the exact same number of shots, their expected goals tally has dropped to below 1.6.
I am of the romantic belief that football is too contextual, haphazard and poetic to be reduced to numbers, but the interpretation is clear. Liverpool are still creating chances, but they’re of lower quality.
The two reasons that seem most likely juxtapose: either Liverpool are snatching at chances instead of fashioning clear ones, à la Firmino-blasts-it-wide-when-he-should-have-passed-it-to-Robertson, or, conversely, they’re waiting too long for the perfect chance, as if they’re waiting for basically any train in England., and shooting when it’s too late.
It would help if they stopped relying so much on crosses. There’s a common perception that Liverpool have made crossing fashionable, but in reality it’s a myth. For sure, you occasionally get a sumptuous laser-precision cross: Robertson’s against Brighton, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s against Barcelona. But Liverpool only have the 13th -best percentage for their crosses finding a man, despite crossing more than any team in the league.
It’s an unimaginative alternative to the zipping passes, flicks and tricks that Klopp’s team are also associated with. It’s not even a logical way of attacking- though Salah does react blindingly fast and is stronger than he looks, we shouldn’t pretend he’s an Andy Carroll or Peter Crouch in the box.
Moreover, it’s putting undue pressure on the full-backs to get up the pitch, leaving Liverpool especially vulnerable to counter-attacks. It sounds harsh, but Liverpool commonly concede goals when Alexander-Arnold isn’t even on the screen. For all the philosophical fervour about him redefining the role of the full-back, we need to ask whether this is a wise redefinition, and why so few other full-backs embrace such a radical style of play. Maybe looking over one’s shoulder every now and then isn’t a bad thing.
That said, such a formula worked perfectly well for Liverpool for a long time. It’s probably time to point to the elephant in the room, then: the fact Liverpool have no fit, specialised centre-backs. While Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have filled in well, there’s no denying that each of the missing centre-backs bring something unique to the side when they’re not filling the treatment room with their cries.
Besides his obvious defensive mastery, Virgil van Dijk is an attacking asset. He hits long passes with such power and precision that opposition defences are caught off guard, and it allows Liverpool to keep players higher up the pitch and transition fast. Joël Matip’s ability to carry a ball out of defence is unparalleled. And Joe Gomez’s acceleration and sprint speed have compensated for Liverpool’s gung-ho attacking style on many an occasion. Their absences, alongside that of Diogo Jota, are crucial to Liverpool’s slump.
It’s hard to see why Liverpool aren’t pulling out all the stops to sign David Alaba. While Liverpool are fastidious in their scouting of players- Director of Research Ian Graham told the Liverpool Echo that they use the ‘same technology that is used for missile-tracking’ to gather data on prospective signings- at the end of the day, Alaba is one of the best players in the world. What’s the risk with a solid, versatile, intelligent, nimble, ball-playing, English-speaking defender in his prime with six months left on his contract? Very little. Liverpool should make every effort to beat Real Madrid to his signature.
This Premier League season is shaping up to be extremely tight, but that’s what makes it for the taking. With no side being absurdly impressive, you can climb the table quicker than ever before. We all know the potential is there with Liverpool and Manchester City, and it’s the subject of some dramatic tension. Allowing my bias to creep in: as a Liverpool fan, I can only hope we sort ourselves out sooner rather than later.
Image: daniel0685 via Creative Commons