Liverpool has endured a disappointing start to the 2022/23 season. The Reds have only recouped 28 points out of the possible 51 finding themselves languishing in 7th after 17 games. This is still far from being considered the worst start to a season in Klopp’s era, but it has everything to show that the team is in desperate need of change.
Football pundits and opinionated fans alike have mostly attributed this retrogression to the loss of Sadio Mane but the club’s problems appear deeper than that. While it is not unpopular to say that Sadio was a key player and his absence is really felt by the Merseyside club, it will be outright ridiculous to suggest that the loss of one player could bring a team inches away from pulling off an unprecedented quadruple back to its knees in a few months time. What then could have caused Liverpool’s decline in form this season?
After his arrival at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp quickly transformed the club into a physically dominant pressing machine.
No playmaker in the world can be as good as a counter-pressing situation.
Klopp famously said in one of his earlier interviews to ascertain just how important the system is to his managerial exploits.
The German’s effective use of the false 9 as well as quick and direct wingers who constantly ran in behind the last line created a team whose attacking prowess was mostly derived from quick turnovers in possession in the opposition half. This success was largely attributed to having the right attacking and central players fine-tuned to effectively operate in this system.
To the eagle-eyed Liverpool fans, there is little to deny that the team started losing this identity as early as last season. Yes! The season they almost won the quadruple. Since the 2021/22 season, there has been a noticeable change in how the Liverpool team presses for the ball.
The Red’s pressing has been on a downward trend and it is clear as day that teams have engineered a way to prevent Liverpool from getting adequate counter-pressing opportunities. As Carlo Ancelotti claimed following his Champions League win against Liverpool, the team(Liverpool) has a clear identity and is therefore ‘easier to decipher’.
Liverpool’s complete reliance on defensive transitions has rendered them predictable. Teams have opted for a negative approach against them, defending in low blocks and maintaining a compact shape that makes it difficult for Liverpool attackers to find spaces in behind. Jurgen Klopp admitted this earlier this season
“In terms of high pressure, it depends on the style of play of the other team. You can’t do it if they don’t play”.
This season, the Merseyside club have particularly failed to revitalise this area of their arsenal. They had averaged 45 and 47 counter-presses per game in the attacking third of the pitch in each of the last 2 seasons but we’ve seen a drop to around 33 per game this season. Testament to this was against Napoli earlier this season when the Reds had 0 counter-pressing opportunities in the first hour of the game (per FBref.)
— Celebvibestar (@Vibextaz) January 16, 2023
The above illustration (per statsbomb) shows Liverpool among the teams that have attempted the most counter-presses across Europe’s top 5 leagues this season. However, their success rate suggests they lack the compactness to retain the ball right after winning it back.
Liverpool’s midfield has lost possession (2687 times) more than any other team so far this season. Another explanation as to why Liverpool’s pressing statistics don’t quite reflect their actual performance on the field can be the fact that most of their possession regains do not occur in the opposition’s third.
Liverpool’s press appears to be working but not in areas it once was effective. More teams have worked out a way to bypass Liverpool’s press either by attempting long balls in behind or by simply outplaying their first and second line of pressure.
The former might be evidenced by the fact that Liverpool’s high line has been breached many times already this season while the latter can be explained by the incompetence of Liverpool’s midfield to win attempted duels. Taking the Wolves game as a reference, Fabinho and Henderson won a combined 2 duels out of their attempted 9.
They win a challenge and all of a sudden we are completely open, how is that possible? We have two or three players in a challenge, moving toward the ball. When you are there, you have to win the ball, if you don’t do that and they get out, it looks like ‘eh, where are they?’.
Klopp expressed his frustrations after the game.
From burn-out, system malfunctioning, injuries and an ageing midfield, what is clear is that the Liverpool squad needs a massive injection of fresh legs and ideas. This is especially the case in the midfield. The Reds have only signed one proper midfielder Thiago Alcantara over the last 4.5 years while losing Georginio Wijnaldum in the process.
68% of midfield minutes used by premier league teams this season have been from players aged between 22 and 28 years.
In the Liverpool squad, only Naby Keita’s 3x substitute appearances fall under this category. Hendo, Thiago, Fab and Elliot have been the usual names so far. With Fabinho not at his usual best, Hendo and Thiago past their prime and Elliot still in his early stages of development, the team is in desperate need of fresh legs.
Perhaps one or two combative, relentless and physically imposing midfielders might help get the team back on track. Moises Caicedo, Jude Bellingham and Kouadia Kone all fit this profile of a player.