Liverpool’s dip in form is a result of many factors. There is no magic solution for Jurgen Klopp but the manager needs to arrest the decline quickly or the season will run out of control. The last thing the German needs is an FA Cup tie away to Manchester United on Sunday followed by a trip to Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League during the week.
One of the most striking features of Liverpool’s subpar run has been the inability of the full-backs to influence games. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have been the creative spark for the team over the past two campaigns but in the 1-0 defeat by Burnley on Thursday they rarely knocked the defence out of their comfort zone. Alexander-Arnold has fallen way below his own high standards. The 22-year-old struggled defensively and was unable to hurt Burnley with his crossing – none of his 18 balls into the area from open play found a team-mate.
Liverpool’s full-backs are still getting forward but not in the same manner as when the team were at their best. One of the characteristics of the champions’ style was the passing between Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. The ability to switch the point of attack from flank to flank has been crucial to opening up the opposition. When one full-back received the ball on the edge of his own area, the other would charge forward in expectation of a long diagonal pass. Robertson in particular thrived in these circumstances, overloading the left wing alongside Sadio Mane and driving towards the box with intent.
The build-up in recent weeks has been more ponderous and likelier to develop down a single flank rather than using the width of the pitch. When the full-backs were in possession in crossing zones against Burnley, the defenders were generally set in position, facing the ball rather than back-tracking towards their goal. That made it much more difficult to pick out the strikers for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
Part of the problem goes back to Liverpool’s injuries in the centre of defence. The full-backs cannot charge forward with the same level of confidence as when Virgil van Dijk was marshalling the back line. The knock-on effect in midfield is important, too. Klopp’s preferred trio – Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum – play to the strengths of the full-backs and are equally keen to shift the ball from sideline to sideline while ensuring the space behind Robertson and Alexander-Arnold is protected. In recent weeks the midfield has lacked a pattern because of enforced changes.
The other problem for Liverpool is straightforward. Rival teams have finally come to grips with Klopp’s tactics. Now the champions have to execute their plan perfectly for it to work. The front three are at their best when the opposition are stretched but defences are determined to keep their shape and not be drawn out.
Change is in the air. Thiago Alcantara brings a different skillset to the team but his presence means the midfield has may not suit the way the full-backs operate. If Liverpool return to a more traditional defensive set-up and Alexander-Arnold is forced to become more cautious, the Scouser’s talents might be wasted.
Klopp has long talked about moving the academy graduate into midfield. With injuries in the back four this might not be the right moment but Alexander-Arnold could be an option in the centre of the park should Liverpool’s malaise continue. His passing may not yet be at Thiago’s level but his touch and vision are impressive. He also has the sort of engine that is required in a team that presses hard.
The decision for Klopp is simple. Does the manager persist with the formula that has brought so much success and put the last month’s malfunctioning down to injuries and tiredness? Or are there deeper structural flaws in the present set-up that require a change of tactics?
A section of the support still pins their hopes on Naby Keita slotting into the side and adding dynamism to the midfield but the Guinean is in his third season and is still attempting to come to terms with the physicality of the Premier League. Until the 25-year-old can put together an injury-free run it is hard to make a case for him being one of the mainstays of the side.
Klopp is never shy of being bold – few managers would play two midfielders in central defence against Manchester United – but shifting Alexander-Arnold to an advanced role is not on the immediate agenda. Neco Williams, who has filled in at right-back, is not ready for a regular starting role.
If United and Spurs nullify Liverpool’s flank attack, Klopp may need to reassess his approach. He needs to get Alexander-Arnold into the game.
If the wing becomes a dead end for the adventurous right-back, he has the range of skills to excel in the middle of the park.