After his side dropped points again to a relegation zone team on Saturday, Jurgen Klopp admitted that the fans were justified in their anger and that the team deserved all the criticism they have received over the last few weeks, and especially after the defeat at the KCom Stadium.
Indeed, the fans are justified in expressing their anger over the team’s performances. In their last five league games, Liverpool have dropped points to Sunderland, Swansea and Hull, all of whom were in the relegation zone when the year began. They have dropped out of FA Cup against a Championship side and have also lost their only realistic chance of silverware when they lost the League Cup semi-final to Saints. Criticism they deserve and criticism they have received in huge servings, especially in social media.
But I do feel that the fans have gone overboard a bit. Fans had a problem with Firmino going out with his wife after the Hull match and posting a picture on Instagram. They have a problem with John W Henry tweeting about the Superbowl and Patriots on Sunday night. I mean, what do they expect the players and owners to do? Wallow in the misery of the loss until Spurs come knocking at Anfield next week? And how is that going to end, if they approach a fellow top-four opponent with that kind of negativity? Some of the fans even asked for FSG to go, accusing them of not spending (yep really) and for Jurgen Klopp to go, accusing him of a failure to spend.
Those who want FSG to leave, should be reminded that Monday was the tenth anniversary of that day when Gillett and Hicks acquired the club. Yep, those guys who wanted a new stadium built in a flash and got a loan for it in a flash. We all know how that ended. Then there are those who accuse FSG of acting like businessmen while acquiring the club and getting it on the cheap. Well, that’s what investors do. They look for great assets, with great brand value and see if the value can be enhanced with better management. Liverpool fans should be worried if the owners did not think like that, because then a boatload of debt is imminent.
An accusation is that FSG and Henry do not spend money on transfers. Just because, the Reds have not splashed too much cash in the transfer market in the last two windows, it is unfair of the fans to forget that in the two years before that, the Reds had splashed more than 200 million pounds in the transfer market and it is those transfers that form a large part of this current team. There is no proof that transfers can really impact push a team up, especially immediately, and Liverpool have not really been miserly spenders. Yes, a good January signing would have helped but good January signings are not that common – Coutinho, Sturridge, and Suarez notwithstanding.
And to get good players, you need a manager who commands international respect among players and fellow managers. In Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool actually have that guy and he should definitely not lose the fans’ respect because he did not splurge as much in just two transfer windows or made a couple of tactical errors. In my opinion, I think FSG’s biggest coup after landing the club itself for a bargain, was that they lured Klopp to the club. Klopp’s Dortmund team also took a couple of seasons to start winning trophies, but they were improving, as are Liverpool. They have run into some difficult weather recently but that does not mean that they are out of the contention for top-four. In fact, they are two good results away from recapturing the second spot. The question then arises: how can they get those good results? What can they do better than what they are doing as of now?
If we look at the stats for the first 19 matches – up to the New Year’s Eve when Liverpool hosted Manchester City, and compare them to the stats for the last five matches, a few numbers really strike us. Liverpool have been shooting 1.6 times fewer in the last five matches, compared to 17.4 times per match in the first half of the season. Now this alone cannot perhaps explain the difference between goals per match, which is 1.2 in the drab period and 2.4 in the first half. However, when we add other stats such as shots inside the box (down by 0.8 per match), shots from outside the box (down by 0.9), perhaps the lack of goals is explained a bit. Obviously, it is not a one-to-one causal relationship, but one thing is certain – the three relegation threatened sides and two top-four competitors together have thwarted Liverpool from shooting at least a little bit. How did they manage it?
In the two avatars of the Reds, stats like total final third passes and successful ones among them remain very similar. In fact, the passes into the penalty area have increased to 43 per game, from 37 per game in the first half of the season. But the decline is evident in other stats like shot assists and big chances created as well. They are down by 1.7 fewer shot assists and 0.7 fewer big chances created. These have resulted in fewer goal assists – which are down to 0.6 from 1.7 in the first half. Accurate through-balls are also down to 1.0 from 1.8.
However, crossing has increased. Liverpool have been crossing 21.6 times in each of the last five games, compared to 15.7 times in the first half of the season, and that too with better accuracy.
What these stats tell me is that, perhaps the narrow and compact defensive shape of the opponents has forced Liverpool to attack from the flanks, while earlier they were less likely to use crosses and more likely to use a through-ball attack than they are now. Also, perhaps as a function of the opponent’s compactness, Liverpool is unable to use whatever service it is getting in opponents’ penalty box as effectively as they used to. It could be an issue with mentality as well, as they will need to be patient when trying to thread a goal through eight or nine defenders.
Beating The Opponent To The Ball
This plays a huge role in Jurgen Klopp’s style and early on in the season, when Liverpool did this really well, it was starting to be called the “swarm”. They used to engage in almost 118 duels in a match. This number has now dropped to 107. In 2017, Liverpool are also less successful in beating opponents i.e. dribbles (8.2 vs 10.7 per match) and they also lose possession 8 more times than they used to (169.2 vs 161).
Defence-wise, albeit they have conceded a bit more than they would like, the stats are not really too different. And it is true that Liverpool even in the first half were notorious for gifting goals. But now they are unable to score as many. I think it is due to many different things – opponents are sitting deep and compact, forcing Liverpool to cross more and height is not the attribute that either Firmino, Mane, or Coutinho (even Lallana and Sturridge) are famous for. I also feel that Liverpool’s play has become more ponderous in the midfield with more touches and successful passes but the ball just moving around to find an opening. It also seems that what was considered Liverpool’s strength – spreading the goals around the team – has come to haunt them as most of the players seem to have just gone off the boil, especially in terms of goal scoring. Only Firmino is showing the verve that he used to in the first half of the season. This collective drop of form and ponderous play could be a result of exhaustion, which is a major worry for any Klopp team. Clearly Emre Can is struggling and Henderson is not the same player after his injury.
So, Liverpool are suffering, as all of these things are occurring together. Liverpool need to fix these aspects of their game, not start searching for a new manager or a new owner.