It is plain for all to see that Liverpool are too good a team to be ninth in the Premier League, but however great a team is, they can not be expected to maintain their ferociously high standards week in week out, season after season. Jürgen Klopp is also too good a manager to let standards slip for a prolonged period.
He has identified the reasons behind their relative struggles and started to correct them, beginning with the win over Rangers. Liverpool have kept two clean sheets in the league this season – Manchester City have double that. Klopp has looked at where the problems are and addressed them by putting Thiago Alcântara and Jordan Henderson closer together in front of the back four to give an extra layer of protection to Virgil van Dijk and Joël Matip. If Thiago moved forward, Henderson was always there to cover. It looked like they didn’t really get in advance of the ball and offer cover and support.
Before Rangers’ trip to Anfield, Liverpool had conceded nine goals in their previous three matches, which is not a recipe for success. Klopp tweaked the formation, praising his forwards despite having only one session to work together on the new system. “We surprised ourselves and these situations can then happen. It was difficult to defend,” he said.
It is important to keep things fresh within a squad because stagnation at elite level is something to fear. He found a way to freshen things up to get the best out of his incredible arsenal of attacking talent.
Against Brighton, Liverpool were repeatedly cut open, allowing the visitors to score three – and it could have been more. There have been too many gaps within the Liverpool team and they made the sensible decision to plug those holes against Rangers. Confidence was being sapped. So Klopp kept things simple by being more compact, building connections, helping to achieve a clean sheet. They will always score goals but securing that will bring the confidence back.
One of the other issues limiting Liverpool has been a drop in their pressing. This shows they have not produced the same level of intensity when they chased Manchester City to the final day of last season and reach the Champions League final. It is another reason why they have suffered defensively. When a team presses effectively, they win the ball high up and therefore their defence will have less to do, but if they fail to do this they can come under greater pressure.
Liverpool have been too transitional in their play; by failing to press aggressively from the front, it has a knock-on effect in midfield and if operating with a high line it can leave a team disoriented, which is helpful for opponents.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive capabilities are under scrutiny after his England omission. There are things he can improve on and he knows what they are. But to look at his career, seeing what he has achieved, speaks for his qualities, so pinpointing the flaws in an individual is not always the best way to analyse things. As mentioned if defensive pressing from the front is down it does have a knock-on effect on the defence and I was always told there are at least three mistakes to every goal.
The tweaks Klopp made against Rangers will help Alexander-Arnold play to his strengths and support him defensively, and his confidence will continue to grow. That is why we play a team sport: everyone has strengths and weaknesses and a team accounts for this. On Tuesday, he scored a goal and helped his team to a clean sheet and that gives him and the team something to build on.
Darwin Núñez was another to show his qualities, putting in a fine performance as a central striker in a front four, rightly earning praise from Klopp. It was only his third start for the club and it will take time for a young striker to settle in the Premier League. The Uruguay international is coming into a different culture and language, people do not always hit the ground running. People will see him as a Sadio Mané replacement but he is a completely different player and brings something new to this Liverpool side that will shine through as time passes.
It won’t have been helped by Erling Haaland because they joined the Premier League’s top two at the same time but it is unfair to compare them. We will see his confidence grow with time, helped by what he did against Rangers. I always said I think Núñez will be a hit in England and I stand by that assessment.
It is a crucial week for Liverpool, starting with Arsenal away on Sunday, followed by Manchester City at Anfield seven days later. They are 11 points behind the Gunners in first place, having played a game less, and it is a huge margin to make up even at this stage of the season. It may be expected that both these team are very possession-based so Liverpool are likely to have less of the ball than they did against Brighton and Rangers, making defensive solidity imperative against two potent attacks.
Back-to-back wins would be the boost Liverpool need in a congested period. They do not want to become a forgotten team – they are too good for that – and getting nothing out of these two matches would be a huge blow for their season’s aspirations, leaving Klopp with a reality check.
They know they have the attributes to win the matches, now they just have to show Klopp’s tweaks can make the difference to kickstart their Premier League campaign.