It seems many lifetimes ago now that Jurgen Klopp replaced Brendan Rodgers at the Liverpool helm and delivered emphatically on his promise to bring ‘heavy metal’ football to Anfield. After having to endure Rodgers’ anodyne brand of football, fans were treated to a high-pressing, high-energy and overall exhilarating style of play during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons. However, that gegenpressing side is now unrecognisable from the current English Premier League champions. How did this happen, and where does this team go from here?
Once Klopp’s high-octane football brought Champions League football back to Anfield in 2017, it ironically became impractical to sustain this high-pressing approach to games. The heavier fixture schedule necessitated a less intense but even more effective style – and Klopp was once again equal to the challenge.
The 2017-18 season saw Liverpool, without completely dropping the press, certainly ration their energy and intensity. Explosive performances were reserved for high-key events like Manchester City at Anfield in the league and the Champions League, which ended 4-3 and 3-0 respectively to the Reds. However, the trademark Liverpool way that season became counterattacking and channel exploitation, as epitomised by the 5-2 Champions League Semi-Final victory at home to Roma.
Unfortunately, whilst one problem was mitigated for Klopp, another more pertinent one remained in view. Teams had grown wise to Liverpool’s tactics, learning to shut out wide channels and sit deep to douse Liverpool’s normally fiery attack. Klopp’s methods also placed a lot on the shoulders of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino creativity-wise. A bad game for them often meant a bad game for the team. Few will have forgotten the Champions League Final heartbreak in Kiev, where Liverpool looked toothless against Real Madrid without the services of Salah.
In response, Klopp decided to shift some of the creative responsibility to the full-backs. Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson are the ne plus ultras of modern full-backs: capable defenders and potent offensive threats. Klopp has utilised them to perfection, with the two amassing a combined 48 Premier League assists since 2018-19 and contributing to the league’s best defence in each of the last two seasons. This new system is undoubtedly Klopp’s best yet; It is a well-oiled machine, predictable yet unstoppable. The 196 points accumulated over the last two seasons with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson as unorthodox playmakers suggest that this method works.
Already, though, teams are starting to identify Alexander-Arnold and Robertson as the key creative outlets in Klopp’s team and are moving to mark them out of games. While that’s a tall order on most days, Manchester United did it successfully at Old Trafford, as did Atletico Madrid in Spain, leaving Liverpool hamstrung attacking-wise.
Klopp will not be blind to Liverpool’s relative dependence on his full-backs. It’s likely the reason he’s tried to ease Naby Keita into the side since the restart, to coax the attacking flair and incision that we know he possesses out of the Guinean midfielder. And while I do have high hopes for Keita, I think it would be naive to go into the new season with so much staked on his development.
That’s why I, along with so many others, have been lobbying for the signing of Thiago Alcantara, provided the deal is financially feasible. Thiago has been linked with the Reds. The Spaniard’s piercing diagonal passes and remarkable dribbling ability would be immeasurably useful in breaking down stubborn deep blocks, particularly when Alexander-Arnold and Robertson are off form. Should he cement a place in the side, Thiago would be a creative outlet in a midfield famous for its defensive diligence and boundless energy, if little else. It would certainly be another headache for opposition managers, who normally already have so much on their plate.
Another step Klopp may need to take in bringing this Liverpool team to another level is to introduce some dynamism to the bench. This current team lacks a super-sub that strikes fear into the hearts of the opposition when his number comes up on the board. While Xherdan Shaqiri and of course Divock Origi once did hold reputations for turning games on their heads off the bench, they don’t pack quite the same punch anymore.
Personally, I can’t see a more explosive substitute option than Wolves’ Adama Traore. The Reds have been linked with Traore. The thought of him running at defenders who’ve spent the past hour going face to face with Mane and Salah is a mouth-watering thought. However, given that his overall technical ability is a point of much debate, and his price tag being what it is, Klopp may have to look at other options.
The heavily-linked Ismaila Sarr could also wreak havoc if introduced in the midst of the game; Sarr’s creativity and pace have stood out in an otherwise unspectacular Watford side. And while this might be a long shot, Luka Jovic could also be a game-changing option for Liverpool. On days when Firmino isn’t delivering the goods, a fox-in-the-box striker like Jovic, if not the Serb himself, could give Liverpool a new dimension to their play if the game necessitates it.
Depth has, for some reason or another, never been a strength of Klopp’s Liverpool teams. But if this side is to reach yet another level, this could be exactly where to begin.
If there’s one thing that Klopp has consistently ensured throughout his five-year Liverpool tenure, it’s positive change. He’s never rested on his laurels before, and this is no time to start. There’s no telling what heights Liverpool could reach if they continue to build on the success of the last two seasons. Whether Klopp does this by signing a midfield maestro, some quality bench options, or simply reconsolidating the current squad, there’s plenty of room for this already great team to improve.