In just two fixtures this season, Liverpool has conceded nine goals: five against Manchester City and four last Sunday at Wembley against Tottenham. They are worse off than the Arsenal they walloped 4-0.
Like Arsene Wenger must have felt then, Jurgen Klopp and the rest of the Kop fraternity must have felt humiliated and really hurt on Sunday evening.
With that must be anger, simmering out of Klopp’s mouth today. His remarks in relation to Dejan Lovren’s abysmal display said a lot. Klopp suggested he could have defended better than Lovren even in his current ‘unfit’ state.
In that case, it will not take a genius to predict that the Croatian international will be benched henceforth. But that will not solve Liverpool’s problems. Instead, the magic is in tweaking the system/formation in which Liverpool line up to revitalize the team again, and limit the exposure of the team’s shortcomings.
Klopp has limited options. And because of that, he has little to do. But it would be significant in protecting Joel Matip, Lovren and Ragnar Klavan, his main centre-backs, who week-in, week-out continue to keep Liverpool fans on tenter- hooks.
Liverpool should revert to a 3-5- 2. You see, since the beginning of the season, one key weakness in Liverpool’s centre-backs is failure to cope in one-on-one situations. And matters have not been helped by the incessant all-out attacking approach, which is not balanced by collective unit defending.
This has made it easy for opponents to isolate Liverpool’s defence like Watford and Tottenham did well. In addition, their heading out of balls has not been up to scratch. Just to borrow a leaf, Barcelona’s defenders do not head out balls so much because in the La Liga, it is not so much in the identity of clubs there to play that way.
There, the ball is kept low most times; so, Javier Mascherano can look like one of the best defenders, which he is not.
Also, the kind of press on the ball, that the entire Barcelona team does, rushes opponents, making it difficult for their centre-backs or defenders generally to be isolated and eventually exposed.
Yet, when you look back on the Sunday game, and you see the gap that was normally there between Liverpool’s defenders and the rest of the team, the outcome was inevitable. It is, therefore, important that Klopp addresses that.
With the 3-5-2, there can be better compaction in the midfield, creating little space for opponents to easily outnumber you. Secondly, when being attacked, Liverpool would have five defenders, which would give them more solidity, with little space for opponents to manoeuvre.
Last season, when Chelsea lost 1-2 to Liverpool and 0-3 to Arsenal playing their back four in a 4-3-3, Antonio Conte realized something had to give for them to recover.
Conte made the big and bold decision, after realizing that John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic did not have pace to burn anymore, and were easily beaten in one-on-one situations.
Only a back three could create the stability the team needed. Of course it is not that in acquiring David Luiz, he had bought the best known centre-back. But the bottom-line is that while Luiz did not succeed playing in Jose Mourinho’s back four, he was smart and comfortable in a back three.
His passing and ball carrying ability were good. In the end, Luiz turned out to be one of the best players in the Premier League last season. And at the same time, a hitherto hopeless- looking Chelsea won the Premier League. The foundation was having a solid back-line.
It is, there-fore, not by accident that the cliché is that you build from the back to succeed. When Barcelona were on the peak of their powers, they rarely conceded a goal. And Klopp could not have forgotten that the same applied to Dortmund with Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Tomasz Pisczcek and Marcel Schmelzer.
They were tenacious and took no prisoners. But if you have a player like left-back Alberto Moreno, undoubtedly talented, and smooth going forward, but cannot defend, you help him. And how do you do that?
Go with a back three, to exploit Moreno’s powers marauding because he will know there is enough security at the back to cover him even when he is delayed.
For what it is worth, Klopp should never have let go of midfielder Lucas Leiva. Because of his defensive skills, that are far and above those of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can, Leiva would have provided more security by foiling attacks while the others looked for goals.
Otherwise, as it is now, even with the firepower Liverpool have up-front in Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Mohammed Salah, it is rendered useless if the back is wide open and leaking.