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Klopp the problem?

Liverpool’s demise this season has been quite the show to watch. Less than 12 months ago, the team was two wins away from a quite remarkable quadruple; now, they are languishing in 8th, 29 points off the top of the league and leaving manager Jürgen Klopp to remark that he is only still in a job ‘because of the past’, rather than his team’s current form. 

So, is Klopp really at the heart of Liverpool’s rapid decline? The majority of pundits and fans alike have been reluctant throughout the season to point the finger at the manager first and foremost, proposing a variety of other factors as larger contributors. Areas such as the team’s ageing midfield, a loss of form of some of the team’s key men such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil Van Dijk and long-term injuries to others such as Thiago and Luis Diaz have all been posited as contributors to Liverpool’s well below-par campaign. 

As the season has progressed, however, the poor form has only worsened and it has become increasingly clear that Klopp should not be rendered exempt to such accusations. Liverpool’s high defensive line has been a key feature of their tactical success over the past 5 years or so, but it is undeniable that this season it has been repeatedly exploited, to the extent that their expected goals against averages out to 1.63 a game this season, compared to an xGA of just over 0.99 per game last season. The defence is far too vulnerable and the team seems to lack the energy to press from the front in the way they have in years gone by that allowed this tactical system to flourish. Part of this may be due to the physical toll that last season’s accomplishments will have inevitably taken on the team, with the team playing 63 games, compared to just the 45 that current league leaders Arsenal played in the last campaign. Irrespective of this, though, Klopp needs to be able to adapt to such circumstances and find and develop a Plan B that leaves the team less defensively susceptible. Instead, fans are left frustrated by seeing the same game plan for each game and repeatedly seeing the opposition exploit the conspicuous issues of the high line and in particular  target the particular defensive weaknesses of Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right side of the Liverpool defence. 

We have in the recent 2-2 draw against Arsenal perhaps seen Klopp’s response to the issues of Alexander-Arnold’s defensive vulnerabilities. In the match, he took up more of a midfield position, a role much of the fanbase have been calling for him to adopt for many years. Arsenal themselves have employed a similar system this season, with the left-back Zinchenko stepping into midfield at times to provide more offensive options and create overloads in central areas, as have Man City in years gone by, namely with Cancelo. Alexander-Arnold’s midfield role certainly had positives, with him getting on the ball frequently and affecting the game, even providing a sublime assist for Firmino to level the game in the 87th minute, but it did continue to expose Liverpool defensively, with Arsenal’s second goal coming from a Martinelli cross down Liverpool’s right hand side. The results, therefore, are so far inconclusive and it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks if Klopp employs a similar system or introduces new tactical nuances but this example acts as a potential indicator that Klopp maintains the tactical foresight to make adjustments that can yield positive outcomes. 

Klopp’s reputation should not render him immune to criticism. Football is a ruthless industry and owners have short memories so is his time running out? Well, Liverpool as a club operates slightly differently to other footballing titans. Chelsea, for example, have already sacked 2 managers this season, the first of which, Thomas Tuchel, less than 18 months after winning the club the Champions League. Liverpool, instead, are willing to give Klopp the chance to rectify the rut, and I believe they are right in doing so. Klopp, as he says himself, is still here on account of his prior merit and he has earnt the right to get to the end of the season, get the necessary squad reinforcements in the summer transfer window, and see what he can do with the team next season. If the 2023/24 campaign takes off much like the current one, however, then it may be time after 8 years of his tenure for Liverpool to bid farewell to one of the most iconic and successful figures in the club’s history. 

Image credit: Pete//CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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