Coverage of Jurgen Klopp since his very recent arrival on English shores has been almost universally positive. The gregarious German, who worked wonders at Mainz and Dortmund through the application of his gegenpressing philosophy – essentially pressing aggressively to counter the counter-attack – has been greeted with something of a hero’s welcome by the English media.
Questioning of the sustainability of his demanding methods has been relatively muted, compared to the plethora of personality-based articles that his installation at the Anfield helm has brought forth. Reaction to what was a pretty uneventful first game in charge against Tottenham on Saturday – a scoreless draw – was forgiving to say the least, with the post-match press preferring to focus on the running statistics rather than the lack of cutting edge in the final third that his side exhibited.
Admittedly, Liverpool did become the first side to outrun Spurs this season. And they also increased their number of sprints to 616, as compared to an average of 474 under Rodgers so far in 2015/16 – a significant uplift relative to those which other new managers have been able to bring to bear on their charges in the past couple of seasons. It’s tempting, however, to draw a parallel with the derision with which Brendan Rodgers’ citing of possession stats was treated during his teething period at the club.
That aforementioned lack of cutting edge was again laid bare for all to see this evening against current Russian Premier League whipping boys, Rubin Kazan. Klopp again opted for a Xmas Tree formation – or a 4-3-2-1 to you and me – with dual number tens in the shape of Adam Lallana and Phillipe Coutinho.
There are positives and negatives to setting up in this fashion – as indeed there are with any given formation. By fielding a 4-3-2-1, a manager forgoes the use of wide players in favour of overloading the opposition in the middle of the field. Width must come from the full-backs – something Nathaniel Clyne amply provided tonight, as the focus of Liverpool’s play down the right flank.
Liverpool’s problem tonight, therefore, wasn’t width – it was depth. When playing with two number tens, both must develop an understanding akin to that of an old-style strike partnership. When one looks to receive the ball between the lines, the other must spin in behind to add depth to the play. This was particularly important for Liverpool tonight, given the poor movement of the inexperienced Divock Origi upfront. However, neither Coutinho nor Lallana looked to run in behind the Kazan defence in the first half. As such, despite both players – and Emre Can – receiving the ball between the lines regularly, Liverpool were mostly limited to pot shots from range in the opening half of the game.
The other traditional drawback of the 4-3-2-1 is vulnerability to width in the defensive phase – as there are no wingers to track the runs of the opposing full-backs. One’s team is effectively defending with a bank of only three in midfield, which must shuffle across the pitch to shut down the threat from the flanks.
This didn’t happen for Kazan’s opening goal. Right-back and captain, Oleg Kuzmin, had been causing problems with his forward runs already before he ghosted infield in the 15th minute. He beat the left-sided shuttler, Can, far too easily before lofting a ball over Clyne’s head for the veteran Ukrainian striker, Marko Devic, to take brilliantly on his chest and prod home. Liverpool are still searching for that elusive first clean sheet at home since the Bournemouth game in August.
Can was again culpable for Kazan’s other big chance in the half – when Georgiev ran off his back and should have doubled his side’s lead from Karadeniz’s cross. It’s a lot harder to track runners when you’re defending with seven players.
And then, Liverpool got out of jail big time. Kuzmin got himself sent off for two unforgiveably needless yellow cards. Can leveled the scores off Origi’s knockdown from the resulting free-kick.
The second half saw Klopp flex his in-game management muscles. Immediately, it was apparent that he’d gotten in his number tens’ ears about making more penetrative runs to break the lines. Seconds in, Lallana got in off a Clyne pass to win a corner. And moments later, the same player got in again, only to see Coutinho stranded on the edge of the box as his cross skated across the face of goal. That presumed half-time team talk apparently didn’t have the same effect on the Brazilian.
Klopp again took immediate action. Coutinho was hooked straight away in favour of Benteke – Liverpool now operating with two strikers in a 4-3-1-2.
The Belgian striker’s movement, coupled with Lallana’s new-found enthusiasm to run in behind, made Liverpool look far more likely. Both men had big opportunities in the last fifteen, with Benteke hitting the post with a near-perfect guided effort from his number ten’s assist.
But there was no winner forthcoming. Klopp’s Liverpool failed to score for the best part of an hour against ten men, falling to their third consecutive 1-1 draw in the Europa League this season in the process. On the basis of tonight’s game, building a cohesive unit with this personnel will be a very tough ask for the German, in both the attacking and defensive phases. Expect to see him stick with the 4-3-1-2 shape – that saw out the last half-hour here – against Southampton on Sunday.