Picking a midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum could now be considered a throwback to yesteryear. Jurgen Klopp opted for this selection against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday and it only exemplified again that they are struggling to adapt to Liverpool’s new approach this season. Not for the first time recently, the midfield lacked cohesion and consequently the front three failed to sparkle.
There have been changes, both in personnel and in requirements. The combative trio have only started six games so far this season, albeit Henderson has been nursing an injury. The additions of Naby Keita, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri have bolstered the midfield ranks, putting pressure on Klopp’s tried and tested trio. The Liverpool head coach has swapped and changed his setup in the middle of the pitch this season. On Wednesday, it was clear he’s still some way from finding the ideal setup for his new demand for control.
Klopp has opted to stick with the Henderson-Milner-Wijnaldum axis when playing away from home in Europe, but Liverpool have lost all three matches. Not only have they come away defeated, they have also only managed five shots on target whilst their opponents have had 17. It must be remembered that Liverpool have faced difficult trips, either in terms of their opponent’s quality or a ferocious atmosphere, and even both. However, the performances have been in stark contrast to those seen in Rome, Porto and even Manchester.
In Paris, Liverpool were roundly beaten. Milner’s penalty was their only shot on target and the front three were reduced to mere spectators of PSG’s second half histrionics. This season the focus has been on Liverpool’s sturdy defence which has only conceded five league goals, and the more subdued but still relatively efficient attack which has produced a combined 16 goals in 13 matches. However, it really should be on the midfield, as this is from where Liverpool tick. Ultimately, where they were beaten by PSG.
The midfield three lacked balance and were unsure if and when to apply pressure to Marco Veratti and Marquinhos. A trio in midfield is naturally compact and did at times force PSG to play the ball to the wings, but there was a noticeable amount of space for Veratti, in particular, to exploit. Liverpool’s midfield were rather stationary, maintaining their position if nothing else. That is a factor of Klopp not wanting his midfield to press as aggressively as last season; there’s less movement and urgency. Control, stability and domination are what the coach wants, but in the Parc des Princes is was evident that that particular search continues.
PSG’s first goal came initially from Veratti running at the three Liverpool midfielders and finding Neymar who drifted inside along with Angel Di Maria to make it three against three. The pressing wasn’t there and one-touch passes were able to create Juan Bernat’s goal. Following Neymar’s goal with PSG very much in control, the hosts dropped deeper, giving Liverpool more time to start the build-up. Credit must be given to PSG’s defence for eliminating the very small threat that their opponents created, but the reluctance of Liverpool to fully commit was apparent.
The same three midfielders were so effective for Klopp only a few months ago. These are good players but appear to be better suited to the high-pressing hard-running style that creates chances from almost chaos. When told to press, as they were last season, they initiate a sense of panic in their opponents and consequently the system creates the chances, even if there may be a negative effect of being too far away from their own defence and leaving them exposed. However, clearly now they are being told to hold back and not commit as aggressively as they once did. The chances thus are not as readily created from the system.
The additions that have been brought in, especially Keita and Shaqiri, bring more creativity and as individuals can create more chances than Milner, Wijnaldum and Henderson. Hence, compensating the reduced creativity of the new approach with more creative players, but when Liverpool have neither, it is telling – just like in Paris.
With a lack of creativity, the front three starve. The difference from the quick and incisive balls that where being thread through to them last season to the more methodical approach at the moment is clear. The frustrations begin to show and Liverpool’s performances have reflected that; Sadio Mane has been the brightest whilst Roberto Firmino has shifted from centre forward to a deeper position to try and instigate more attacking chances.
Yet the huge caveat is that Liverpool have remained unbeaten in the Premier League. The answer as to why Klopp has stuck with this more sedate and static approach lies there. The loss to PSG and even away against Napoli were narrow in terms of the scoreline and are far from a crisis, however, the way in which they lost should come as little surprise given how and who Liverpool have opted to play this season.