Monday, 26 October 2015

Liverpool 1-1 Southampton: Post-Match Thoughts

Fans who thought that Klopp would immediately transform Liverpool have been left disappointed by his opening three games in charge. All have been drawn - while there are positives to take from all of them, the performances have not, in truth, been particularly different from those under Rodgers. The latest in this run of occasionally promising but ultimately disappointing games was a 1-1 draw with Southampton: Benteke’s bullet header was cancelled out by a scrappy late equaliser for the visitors.

Let’s start with the positives. While the team certainly haven’t developed a new, distinct identity just yet, there are signs of gradual movement away from the side we have become used to under Rodgers. These changes are most noticeable at the back – there is a clear focus on a tighter back line, and the constant presence of Sakho has helped to partially achieve this. He still makes the occasional dangerous sloppy pass, and is still partnered by the largely incompetent Skrtel, but even though we are only three games into the Klopp era the defence has definitely already improved a little. The Frenchman was probably man of the match against Southampton – his commanding presence at the back meant that the visitors had limited chances, and his game intelligence and technical ability meant that the transition from defence into midfield was usually fairly rapid. This quick movement of the ball was apparent throughout the team. Passes had a purpose to them, each ball stretched the opposition and opened up a little bit of space for the players to work in. This rapid pass and move style could well have directly resulted in a goal or two – Milner, Lallana and Coutinho all mis-controlled a pass to feet when a good first touch would have seen them through on goal. Finally, the good old gegenpressing must be mentioned: despite what the tactical analysis essays may tell you this has in reality basically turned out to be a simple high press, but it has certainly been effective. Although most of the players simply do not yet have the stamina to sustain it, the first twenty minutes of games have been very positive indeed. Southampton was no different – when not on the ball Liverpool put pressure on the visitors, pushing up to them to try and regain possession and return to the front foot.

Could the narrow diamond best utilise our players?
Sadly, however, there are also multiple negatives. Despite the newfound defensive strength, the silly errors and poor marking from set pieces are yet to be dealt with sufficiently. Misjudged risky passes out from the back nearly put Southampton through on a couple of occasions, and their goal came from a lofted free kick that simply wasn’t dealt with competently. Nobody came close to beating Van Dijk (who, to be fair, had an excellent game) to the first ball, and despite Mignolet and Milner’s best efforts Mane was still able to launch himself at the ball at the far post and turn it home. This simply has to be rectified if Klopp is intent on returning Liverpool to the top from the defence forwards – currently the back line cannot be trusted to keep a clean sheet in any match, and unlike in 2013/14 our attack doesn’t have the strength to repeatedly bail them out. Of course the diminished attacking potency can largely be attributed to the departure of arguably the best striker in world football, but that is no excuse for not fully utilising the players that we do have. Coutinho is getting visibly frustrated at the lack of movement in front of him, frequently resorting to long shots when he doesn’t really have the space for them. Meanwhile Firmino, a forward renowned for his movement, is sitting on the bench and only making cameos when Lallana gets tired from all of the Cruyff turns. To be fair, Firmino is returning from injury - hopefully he will soon be promoted to the starting line-up. Another problem is that Coutinho is arguably playing too far forward – he works best when running from deep, and there is a strong argument to be made that he may benefit the team more from a slightly deeper position. Sturridge’s absence is obviously not helping things either – hopefully his return will get Liverpool scoring freely once more.

It is ludicrous to definitively judge Klopp either way after just three matches, but I think it is fair to say that the start could have been a lot worse. His emphasis on the defence has led to a slightly less shaky looking back line already, and Moreno is looking very dangerous under the German’s guidance. The quick passing and high pressing is also refreshing, and with practice the team could be very well suited to this approach. Personally I believe he is under-utilising some of our attacking players, but that may change after he has had time to properly assess the squad once everyone is back fully fit. In short, while Klopp’s tenure could absolutely still go either way, I for one am happy in the direction we appear to be slowly heading in.
-James Martin

Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Tottenham 0-0 Liverpool: A Solid Start

Jurgen Klopp today began his Liverpool career with an unspectacular but promising performance away at in-form Tottenham. Although the club have had great success at White Hart Lane in recent times it would have been incredible for the new manager to conjure up any sort of inspiring performance in his first match – although not magical, what was produced was certainly better than what we have endured in recent weeks. Eager to press and to impress, the team put in an energetic performance and were unlucky not to steal a win. 

Straight from kick off it became apparent that Klopp intends to stick to what he knows at Liverpool. Players had clearly been instructed to press; Spurs were harassed from the off, and looked shaken at the intensity of Liverpool’s play. Lallana in particular looked determined to contribute in a positive way – for the first twenty minutes he seemed to be first to every loose ball, and was eager to get a foot in whenever a defender dwelled for too long. During this spell a Liverpool win looked likely: the hosts were forced to sit deep and, rattled by the strong start from the visitors, were sloppy when they did get the ball. Still, while the style might have changed, the underlying problems have not: Liverpool could not make their considerable pressure pay with a goal. Origi came closest, meeting Can’s flick-on from a corner and heading on to the underside of the bar.

Inevitably, the intensity began to drop off somewhat as the half progressed. Perhaps not used to playing in this way and working this hard, the players allowed Tottenham more time and space to control the game. Momentum shifted fairly drastically and for the second part of the first half it was all Tottenham. Clinton N’Jie, on early for the injured Chadli, came closest: his outside-foot effort was saved excellently by Mignolet. The Belgian could really flourish under a manager with less of an insistence on playing it around the back – ultimately Mignolet is a shot-stopper, and when asked to do just that he shows how brilliant he is at it. On two or three occasions he was responsible for keeping the clean sheet intact.

Although a victory would have been the ideal start to Klopp’s reign, the clean sheet in itself is a big achievement. Liverpool have looked extremely shaky of late, and despite only taking the reins a week ago (while many players were away on international duty) the German has already introduced an element of calm to the back line. Skrtel had a couple of iffy moments as per usual, but his partner was generally immense: Sakho’s highlight was probably a sprawling block to deny Alli. The full-backs were good defensively but also effective going forward: Clyne and Moreno both found themselves in advanced positions on multiple occasions, and while nothing came of it directly it at least meant extra players for Tottenham to have to deal with.

The only real complaint to be levelled at Klopp was the timing of his substitutions. It almost seemed as if he had lost track of time: the first sub was only made with about 15 minutes to go, with Allen replacing Lallana, and Ibe only got a five minute cameo. Sinclair was lined up to come on, but the final whistle blew before the change could be effected – even if he had come on, there would almost certainly not have been time for him to make any difference. Of course this is hardly a cardinal sin – I think we can hold back on the #KloppOut banners for the time being – but it did seem a little odd. That said, it is understandable if he was reluctant to make positive changes too early; a 0-0 draw is not a fairytale start, but away at a Spurs team who have been playing well it is definitely a good one.

The best way to characterise the game is a laying of the groundwork for what is to come. Clearly a tightening up of the defence is central to Klopp’s plans for the club’s rejuvenation – as this progresses and our attackers start returning from injury, draws and losses will surely start turning to wins. With Sturridge, Benteke and hopefully Firmino all returning soon, the future is definitely bright.
-James Martin


Sunday, 4 October 2015

Everton 1-1 Liverpool: Draw Not Enough For Rodgers

A fairly good performance from Liverpool in the Merseyside derby was not enough for Brendan Rodgers to keep his job. Depending on whom you believed before the match it may have been the case that his fate was already sealed anyway; regardless, the outcome is that Rodgers has parted ways with the club. His side showed more fight than in recent weeks, perhaps one last rally around the manager who nearly brought us glory in 2013/14 or, more likely, because of the intensity of the footballing rivalry between Liverpool and Everton, but this didn’t prove enough for a win as once again a defensive error meant that we couldn’t come away with more than a point.

A highlight of the early performance was Liverpool’s attacking pressing. This has been slowly returning to our game after a period of absence where we looked lacklustre, impotent and frankly uninterested – today, the pressure high up the pitch meant that the tempo remained high for much of the match. Danny Ings epitomised this: since coming into the side he has been one of the brightest players, and today was no exception. This positive approach meant that it was Liverpool, the visitors, who started on the front foot – Sturridge looked very lively, dancing and jinking in and out of defenders, linking up quite nicely with Ings. Everyone was getting involved; in a memorable attack, Lucas fed a clever pass through to Skrtel who tried to pick out Sturridge in the middle. The wing backs in particular showed talent going forward. Moreno continued his excellent vein of form, making things happen with his positive running style, and Clyne also looked dangerous when venturing forwards.

As is often the way with such an onerous style of play, the pressing began to fade after about half an hour. Everton still weren’t being allowed to dictate the play, with Lucas playing an important shielding role in front of the defence, but the game became more even. Chances became fewer and further between: a lovely little one-two between Coutinho and Milner nearly resulted in a brilliant goal, but Howard saved smartly at his near post. As is often the way, it was at this quieter phase that the goals came. Having wasted roughly six corners already, Liverpool capitalised on a momentary lapse from the Everton defence as an in-swinging corner was met by an unmarked Ings six yards from goal. It was no more than he deserved, and Liverpool too had been fairly good value for their lead. Sadly, however, it did not last long. A minute into added time at the end of the half, Emre Can made an error in defence that was punished clinically by Lukaku – his awful clearance hit Skrtel, and the Belgian was on hand to smash it home. This type of goal is becoming all too commonplace, and cannot have helped Rodgers’s cause. In truth it isn’t really his fault, and it highlights the fact that a new manager won’t immediately fix everything – perhaps his insistence on passing it out from the back has led to the rise of defensive errors, but most of the blame in this respect must fall at the feet of the players.

They didn’t cover themselves in glory in the second half either. The momentum seriously dropped off, and Everton were given the upper hand – a lack of sufficient pressure meant that the defence was called upon more and more. Mignolet was called upon, and showcased his strengths with two immensely good reaction stops – Naismith was denied from very close range before a drive from McCarthy, seen late due to Galloway standing in the keeper’s eyeline, was turned around the post. He gets some abuse for his occasionally nervy distribution and claiming of the ball, but what he does he does very well: he is a shot-stopper. He is potentially one of the players that will benefit most from a new manager: if he isn’t required to play the ball as much, he could truly be one of our greatest assets.

The second half did not have the intensity of the first, with both sides tiring. Liverpool managed to win a few more corners, but were extremely wasteful with them – the goal should not mask the fact that corners are something we really need to work on. Skrtel’s seven headed goals in 2013/14 were a not insignificant part of our success; certainly we could have had a lot more goals this year if that sort of form could be repeated. A small blessing was that we were at least beating the first man today, but for all the good it did we might as well not have bothered – goal aside, nobody in the middle even threatened to score.

In the end, the draw was probably a fair result. Everton came back strong towards the end, but on the balance of play neither side can complain about coming away with a point. A better performance than many we have seen recently, but not a turning point – certainly not enough to justify a change of heart from FSG over Rodgers. There are definitely positives, however – hopefully these, combined with the lift that a new manager will bring, will combine to bring about some better, top four standard form.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013