There is no need for panic, but three games without a win raises slight concerns for Liverpool after experiencing a dream start to the season. Defeats like the one suffered in Naples on Wednesday evening have to be taken on the chin, the better team won and despite the late goal, it was the least that they deserved.
Losing away at Napoli is by no means something to be embarrassed about; the San Paolo may be crumbling in places but the atmospheric arena can test seasoned European travellers. The team that call it home are also a tough prospect for any opponent; albeit not quite as impressive as they were last season, Napoli have quality throughout.
And yet, Wednesday’s match would not have happened last season. Both sides would have addressed it differently, with more fight, expression and – dare it be said – drama. Napoli under Carlo Ancelotti are more pragmatic than when Maurizio Sarri was their coach, rather than playing the single-mode of Sarri-ball that involves expansive and expressive football, Ancelotti has ensured the team are capable of switching into a more defensive and measured side when needed.
Liverpool have also experienced somewhat of a change from last season to this and there were times during this game when you had to seriously question whether this was the same team that swashbucklingly beat Manchester City, Roma and Porto in last season’s knockout stages of the Champions League. The performance here was more pedestrian and another sign that Jurgen Klopp’s conscious decision to make this a more careful team slightly comprises their major strengths last season.
By seeking more control, Liverpool have foregone the lightning bursts that worked well for them only six months ago. Maybe playing with so much enthusiasm and carelessness suggests naivety and hence the change of tact. But Klopp has to be careful not to take his team too far in the other direction and make them too passive. Conserving energy and ensuring a greater dominance in games is a positive, but this game showed that Liverpool must maintain some of the spark and pizzazz that they have often shown.
A late Lorenzo Insigne winner guaranteed that this Liverpool performance did not go into the category of ‘professional job done away from home in Europe’ because that’s where it would have gone and undeservedly so. This was a deserved defeat, but more of an issue for Liverpool was the performance.
It is no understatement to suggest that Liverpool were unrecognisable. Uncharacteristically subdued, error-strewn and on the back foot throughout, they didn’t manage an attempt on target. There was no head of steam nor any intricate attacks. Roberto Firmino was forced to drop very deep to see any of the ball whilst Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah remained in their rather incognito status. Much of the play was in the centre of the pitch, and Napoli dominated that.
Klopp is asking his midfield to dominate, and they’re struggling. The more combative setup of Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner and Jordan Henderson, which started the game against Chelsea last Saturday, is ageing and currently not up to enforcing themselves and dictating the terms in the manner that Klopp demands. Naby Keita is the one midfielder that Liverpool have who can truly be both combative and creative, he is the leading light of the Liverpool midfield. Though, his back injury picked up in the opening 20 minutes in Italy is a blow. Creativity is a quality that Liverpool are lacking at the moment.
Perhaps when playing a more measured style, in which the aim is to dominate more of the 90-minutes than when playing in short sharp bursts, creativity is more of a thoughtful process rather than an instinctive action when playing at full-throttle. Are Liverpool overthinking? Does Roberto Firmino, who started his career as an attacking midfielder, need to be deployed in that position by Klopp? Or possibly, Xherdan Shaqiri? Starting with Manchester City at the weekend, there needs to be signs of some answers.
Reading too much into a defeat can be damaging, it often isn’t necessary – especially against a good side who deserved to win and did so albeit through a swift late goal – but it would be ignorant to ignore the performance. For the first time in a while, Liverpool have a fair few questions to answer. Struggles against Chelsea and Napoli cannot lead to rushed judgements, nor can they be ignored. The outlook continues to look bright, but taking Liverpool too far away from their expansive and free-flowing mode may be rued if this winless run continues.