In his first press conference as Liverpool boss, Jurgen Klopp mentioned that history wasn’t something that one carries in their backpack, when asked about the long title drought at the club. His comment suggested that he wasn’t going to be weighed down by the expectations at Liverpool, but was however quick to add that he did not want to wait another 20 years. What made me do a double take was what followed.
“If we sit here in four years I think we’ll have won one title – I’m pretty sure.”
It was confident stuff and one got the impression throughout, and in subsequent sound bites, that this was a man who knew what he had signed up for and had belief that he would make good on his promise.
As fans, we sometimes tend to lose perspective, but Klopp has remained on message right from the first day. He has reiterated over and over again that this is a developing project, and that title success will take time, like it did for him at Dortmund. In fact, in this piece I wrote a few months back, I suggested that Liverpool would win the title in 2020.
Being a big-name manager who is coveted by other clubs, he will be given the time not afforded to poor Brendan Rodgers. He spoke about the long-term project too, and his work at Celtic this season suggests that he would have improved the club if given more time. However, he did not provide the star dust quality that Jurgen does, and more importantly, the conviction that the title will be won in the next few years.
When a club takes a long-term view, what one wants to see is progress. Have Liverpool progressed this season? Absolutely! I believe they have over achieved with the squad they have in the most competitive league in the world.
There have been times this season when it has been suggested that Jurgen has shown tactical naïveté with his formations or use of players, notably against Stoke where he started with three at the back in a 3-5-1-1 and asked players to perform roles they were not familiar with; and against Leicester where he tasked Lucas with dealing with Jamie Vardy in a high defensive line with disastrous consequences before switching to a 3-4-2-1 after the break, but not before the damage was already done.
We tend to forget that there is still quite a bit of deadwood left in the squad and injuries forced his hand sometimes. He has always adapted his tactics to the team he has, and while we associate his successful team at Dortmund with a 4-2-3-1, it wasn’t always the case. At Mainz, he used the 4-4-2 and implemented variations of the same initially at Dortmund.
At Liverpool, he has mainly used the 4-3-3, which his predecessor was accused of overly depending on. One reason for that could be that the formation allows for the press to begin further up field and he might have deemed it necessary to adapt his gegenpressing style to the Premier League. But as was the case with Rodger’s Liverpool, it has been a very narrow 4-3-3, with play hardly ever getting stretched due to an absence of width. One problem Liverpool has faced over the last few years is a lack of offensive threat from the full backs and this needs to be addressed.
The reason Liverpool have looked good playing the 4-4-2 diamond under both managers is that it solves the problem of an absence of width. However, good teams will take advantage of the space in the channels, and it needs to be used considering the opposition. The absence of a wide threat was partly addressed by the signing of Sadio Mane after Jordan Ibe failed to make an impression. But Liverpool have long been crying out for more quality wingers. For some reason, we have been missing out on our targets with Willian and Mohamed Salah being just two who have passed up on joining the team in the past few years. Both chose to go to Chelsea instead.
With the addition of another quality winger, we might see Klopp bed in the 4-2-3-1 at Liverpool. However, Klopp had Nuri Sahin and later, Ilkay Gundogan, at Dortmund who could dictate play and thread gaps from deeper positions. While Emre Can initially looked like he could fulfil that role, injuries have meant that he has just completed an ordinary season. Philippe Coutinho looked impressive in a deeper role towards the end of the season and maybe he could play that role.
Given that we can look forward to 3-4 top quality additions to the side this season, which are the positions that need to be filled on priority? The crying need is for a centre-back, as described in this piece dedicated to our problems in that role. The addition of at least one winger would be the next jigsaw piece in the puzzle, followed by the signing of a full-back who offers an offensive threat. If there is some spare change left, we should enter the market for a centre forward who carries a goal threat and offers the defensive work that Klopp’s system demands of his striker.
These signings will ensure that Liverpool can play multiple systems with the right players for the right roles next season and consistently offer strong options from the bench, unlike this season. This will be critical given that there is European football on offer next season. A well-equipped squad will ensure that the team will be ready for that challenge, and the Jurgen Klopp project will be truly on!