Why Liverpool's absence of a Plan B plays into the hands of bottom half clubs
“Now the question is about the next game against Burnley and 'oh f**k, how can we do this?” –Jurgen Klopp.
It is because it is so counter-intuitive that it provokes so much intrigue. The contrast between Liverpool’s results against the best and their form against the rest goes beyond mere inconsistency, it challenges widely accepted expectations of sport and subverts the established order of things.
A one-off upset can be explained by an off day, but when it happens so regularly that it undermines a team’s outstanding record against superior opposition, it veers towards the inexplicable. No wonder Klopp is trying to work out how the fuck Liverpool can beat Burnley having just inflicted defeat on Arsenal.
As ever, there was a touch of self-effacing theatrics about Klopp’s comments following Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Arsenal last weekend but the fact that his tongue was burrowing into his cheek did not disguise the reality that the German is yet to solve a problem which was first made evident by Burnley when this season was still in its infancy.
“It is information I did not want but I knew it before,” the Liverpool manager said in the aftermath of a 2-0 loss at Turf Moor but in this case knowing what had gone wrong and why has not led to the required solutions. With two months of the campaign remaining, Liverpool’s status as reverse flat track bullies remains unchallenged.
For a club which increasingly prides itself on its use of data to shape its performance, there is something incongruous about a statistic which shows that Liverpool have dropped 25 points against teams positioned from sixth to twentieth in the Premier League.
Chelsea, by contrast, have yielded just four. Given the league leaders currently enjoy a 14-point advantage over Liverpool, it is not difficult to see why the title will be heading to West London rather than Merseyside. Chelsea might not have beaten Liverpool this season but they have demonstrated an ability to make their superiority count against inferior opposition which Klopp’s side has failed to match.
Of course the irony of it all is that the qualities that have allowed Chelsea to dominate are ones which Liverpool once took for granted. In the days when such relentlessness was taken for granted at Anfield, the mantra that was consistently trotted out by everyone associated with Liverpool was that they would be taking one game at a time. It wasn’t just a soundbite, it was a fundamental element of the much fabled Liverpool way, an unwritten philosophy designed to remove any risk of progress being stymied by complacency.
As Phil Thompson explained, “The next game was always the most important and we had that drummed into us whether we were playing Man United or Bristol City.”
Now it does matter though. Now, Liverpool are unable to perform against Burnley and Bournemouth in the manner that they do when facing Manchester City or Chelsea. Whereas Chelsea have taken 2.73 points per game against teams in the bottom half, Liverpool’s average is just 1.64.
Klopp refuses to accept that attitude is an issue but approach, be it tactically, mentally or physically, clearly is, particularly given how impressive their form has been when facing the division’s best sides as evidenced by the fact that heading into mid-March Liverpool are yet to lose against any of the division’s top ten teams.
When faced with a similar problem, Brendan Rodgers maintained there was no need for Liverpool to come up with an alternative strategy, insisting “Plan B is to make Plan A better,” and ahead of Burnley’s visit to Anfield Klopp claimed to have come to a similar conclusion to his predecessor.
“It is not the first people have said something like this but I don't have a Plan B in my mind,” Klopp said. “We know how to play but in the end you have to come into specific spaces and make the right decisions. We don't concentrate only on set-pieces, counter-pressing - it is an all-around challenge.
“Often enough we are in the right spaces in all the games - except perhaps the first half against Hull - and they made the right decisions. My job is I have to help them find the right decisions more easily. That is what training is for. It is a challenge. We knew it after the Arsenal game these questions would be asked. We have to prove it on the pitch. Before the Arsenal game the mood here was quite optimistic but I think a lot of people thought if we lose then we have real problems. In this moment I am not sure we will win against Burnley but I am quite optimistic because I know about the boys. No-one should expect an easy game. We are ready for the fight we will face.”
There is no reason not to take Klopp at his word but it should also be accepted that there is an element of realpolitik about his response. Until the transfer window opens and players can be acquired which would give him the kind of options that would allow him to have a Plan B there is little point in publicly longing for one.
The reality is that, like pretty much everyone else, he has long since noted that Liverpool’s vulnerabilities are more likely to be exposed against teams who sit deep and prevent his own from pressing as effectively on the break and that these weaknesses are caused mainly by the personnel at his disposal.
Whereas Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are willing to play football in deeper areas, exposing themselves to being robbed of possession high up the pitch, opponents like Burnley, Swansea and Hull City recognise their own limitations and adapt accordingly.
They are also more likely to play direct when in possession, an approach which Liverpool continue to struggle with and one which has seen them concede almost three times as many goals against teams in the bottom seven as they have in matches against the top seven.
It was Burnley who first exposed Liverpool’s Achilles heel in the second week of August, sitting deep, allowing them to dominate possession (the post-match stats revealed they had 80% of the ball) and winning the game with their only two shots on target. Klopp sees no reason for Sean Dyche or his players to change that approach, particularly as it was so effective the last time the two teams met, but he remains hopeful that being forewarned about what to expect will allow Liverpool to be forearmed.
"This game in a few ways is really special,” he said. “Even if we had won all the games against other teams (in the bottom half) Burnley is special because they have the clearest plan of all these teams. I think Burnley are happy with their position in the table. It is 100 per cent clear what they do but it is 100 per cent that it is not easy. Against Burnley it is clear what you have to expect: the knowledge about our problems against other teams is not for this game. They defend like they defend, long balls, counter-attacks, but it is really tuned: Ashley Barnes, Sam Vokes, Andey Grey are running, channel balls in behind, set-pieces so you know it can’t be easy.
“I know when we prepare for a game against the top side and then we prepare (against lower teams) in the public eye it can be a little bit stiff. It will be hard. If you don't score early then it will be difficult. We need to be ready for work again, creating an atmosphere on the pitch and in the stadium. You miss a chance against Arsenal and no-one is surprised. You miss a chance against Burnley and everyone thinks differently 'Ah, difficult, difficult, we won't have another chance like this'. We need to feel free for playing football. We know about a few problems already but we've had good sessions and we have to go and win the game.”
But while Klopp hopes that the solutions to the problem of Liverpool asserting their superiority against lowly opposition will begin to emerge tomorrow he will do so in the knowledge that he has presided over significant progress already this season. With eleven games still to play, Liverpool are just eight points short of their total for the entirety of the previous campaign and the objective of achieving Champions League qualification remains in sight.
So while their record against Burnley, Bournemouth, Hull, Leicester City and Swansea City is clearly in need of improvement, the bigger picture indicates that Liverpool are continuing to make strides as their rivals in the upper echelons of the Premier League have experienced at first hand.