05 Jul Will Liverpools Perfection Be Their Downfall?
From the 2012 containing Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets to the Real Madrid 5 in-a-row team from the 1950’s led by Di Stefano and Puskas, football has seen some special teams and based on the past 18 months, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side have the potential to be mentioned in the same bracket. The great teams of football were consistently successful for a sustained period of time and while Liverpool have not quite been dominating major competitions for more than 18 months, the manner of their eventual Premier League title success following their Champions League success last season has led many to believe they are on course to global domination.
The relentlessness of their pressing, their never say die spirit, togetherness of the team, connection to the fans, late goals and an entertaining manager has seen the squad go from aiming for Europa League qualification to becoming almost unbeatable. Alisson is the perfect mixture of shot stopping and distribution, Alexander Arnold has revolutionised the full position while Robertson is arguably the best full back in the world, Van Dijk almost won the Balon D’or for his masterclass displays at centre back, Gomez seems to be the perfect understudy to Van Dijk, Henderson has emerged as the perfect leader, Wijnaldum has provided many key goals from midfield, Fabinho is up their with Kante as the best holding midfielder in the world while the front three of Firmino, Mane and Salah contain the perfect combination of pace, power and finishing. With the exception of Gomez and potentially Wijnaldum, I really cannot think of a player who Liverpool could realistically sign that would improve their squad – Koulibaly at Napoli is probably the only possible improvement Liverpool could hope for, after that it is improving what is already a strong bench. Players like Milner, Matip, Origi and Chamberlain do not start week in, week out but get enough game time to be happy and with youngsters such as Harry Wilson and Rhian Brewster impressing on loan while Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliot are knocking at the door, it really seems pointless for Liverpool to even fathom signing anyone at this moment in time, especially given their financial situation. Anyone they sign will have to be happy with a place on the bench and considering Liverpools options on the bench, I do not think there are many top players who would be happy with a place on the bench.
Timo Werner seemed destined for Merseyside until the dramatic switch to Chelsea. He seemed like the perfect fit for the club too – Hard working, pace, energy and clinical. But while there is a difference in rumours regarding why the move fell through, the thought that Werner was not going to be getting regular game time as being the reason why the move fell through would be a slight concern for me if I were a Liverpool fanatic.
Mane and Salah are both 28 while Firmino turns 29 this year. The Gegen-Press’ constant pressure relies on an extreme level of fitness and pace in the front three and as we have seen with all footballers, they decrease with age. That is not to say that front three will not be able to perform to the levels they are now in 3 years when they are all in their 30’s but it is certainly not a guarantee and as of right now, Liverpool do not have a back up option which seems to be a running theme throughout the squad.
The goalkeeping department is always exempt to the rule of having two of the best players in each position. Goalkeepers are specialists as they cannot tog out anywhere else on the pitch and no outfielder and just jump in goal. If the number one is on form, you are not playing. Adrian is a decent back up to Alisson and despite several errors this season, most notably against Southampton, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, he has proven a decent signing and Liverpool will not find much better in terms of a back up keeper.
The problem begins to set in when you begin to look at the outfield. For their defence and front three, anyone who signs for the club knows that they will be back up which immediately can deter players from signing for the club. Kalidou Koulibaly, Aymeric Laporte and Raphael Varane are the only centre halves in the world who I can say would safely start ahead of Joe Gomez or Joel Matip in that system, the rest is up for debate and considering the latter two are not realistic targets, it leaves very little room for improvement. However the big problem is replacing Van Dijk. The Dutch international has completely flipped the team from having a leaky, timid defence to one of the meanest in Europe single handily but like Firmino, he turns 29 this year. A huge part of Van Dijks game is his pace and athletic power and one must wonder will he be able to maintain this level of performance at his current intensity for such a sustained period? If he were to get injured, this Liverpool team suddenly become very vulnerable at the back and their over reliance on Van Dijk can be exposed. Quite simply, Liverpool do not have a plan B.
The same can be said for Alexander Arnold. There is no other full back in world football who can do what he does with the ball; his distribution and attacking threat cannot be matched by anyone in world football and the significance of this to the Liverpool team has become more and more each season, his switching of the play for Mohammed Salah’s goal in their victory of Manchester City this season being the perfect example. But nobody else in the Liverpool team can make that pass with that level of accuracy and consistency. Fabihno, Van Dijk and Milner are all excellent passers of the ball, but they cannot switch the ball from one corner to the other like TAA at that level and consistency as very few footballers on the planet can. The fact Liverpool significant rely on his unique ability makes it a concern that they have no natural replacement at right full. James Milner and Joe Gomez have slotted in their when needed but they cannot carry out Alexander Arnolds role anywhere near to his standards. Again, no Plan B.
Andy Robertson is, for me, the best full back in the world right now. Defensively, he is excellent and is a nightmare for attackers while his attacking threat makes him one of the most dangerous wide players in world football – The perfect balance between attack and defence. But just like with Alexander Arnold, Klopp has no natural left back to replace Robertson. Milner featured at left back in their goalless draw against Everton and was replaced after 45 minutes by Joe Gomez and the difference was astonishing. While it is hard to criticise players for their performances given they have not played a competitive match in 3 months, the lack of attacking threat down the left flank eased the pressure on Evertons right flank which played a significant factor in Everton right back Seamus Coleman winning man of the match. It is fairly obvious that Liverpool need a plan B but if the rumours of a lack of financial backing are to be true, Klopp and the rest of the red half of Merseyside must hope Robertson does not miss many more games through injury down the line or find a top left full on a free transfer which there are not many options.
The midfield is an interesting situation for Liverpool. I feel the midfield’s role for the team is to simply aid the opposite thirds of the pitch – Secure the defence and supply the attack which is why their midfield options are primarily made of players who are not quite holding midfielders but not exactly a 10. A classic number 10 like David Silva would not suit the team while players who are not as physically complete like Scholes or Pirlo would be lost in this teams system. Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Milner, Keita, Chamberlain and Minamino are all mobile players who can cover vast amounts of ground but finding players who can do that is not the hardest thing in the world and I feel it would be a waste of time finding cover for that position, especially with someone like Curtis Jones breaking through unless a top, top player became available.
The front three is where the real future conundrum lies. The passing up of 24 year old Timo Werner just shows the position Liverpool are in but while Origi has scored crucial goals of the bench, he is not the man to lead the line consistently should Firmino get injured while Mane and Salah do not have capable replacements – Shaqiri’s initial good start at the club has petered out, Minamino has not settled in but it is still early days while despite showing good form at Bournemouth, questions remain if Harry Wilson can step up to the plate next season. Yet again, there is no plan B.
The lack of a plan B in many key positions highlights a potential problem for Klopp and his squad. They do not have anyone to replace Alexander Arnold and Robertson positionally while the have no back up near the level of Alisson, Van Dijk, Fabihno, Henderson, Salah or Mane. They have plenty of players who can “do a job” but if Liverpool are to reach their potential and become “a great” side in footballing history, they need a great squad.
The argument that top players are not going to come in and sit on the bench or your bench players are never as good as your starting XI is simply not good enough if they are to progress. Guardiola’s City have one of the best strikers in the Premier League’s history leading the line but have Gabriel Jesus as back up, Mahrez, Sane, Sterling and Bernardo Silva are fighting for the two wide spots, Rodri is competing with Fernandihno in holding midfield, De Bruyne, Foden, Gundogan, David Silva are competing in the advanced positions, Mendy is fighting Zinchenko at left back, Cancelo and Walker are fighting at right back while Otamendi, Stones and Laporte are competing for the centre back positions. While David Silva and Sane have both announced they will be leaving at the end of the season, there is no doubting Pep will replace them and Klopp should look no further to his arch rivals for an example of what can happen if you don’t have a plan B.
When Vincent Kompany left City at the end of last season, a huge void was left at the back for the club both on and off the pitch. While Pep did not buy a centre half as he felt he had enough cover, the injury to Laporte saw the centre of his defence become a target for opposition teams. They conceded 23 goals over the course of the 2018-19 season and 27 the season before yet they have already conceded 31 goals this season with 9 games to go highlighting the significant effect a lack of a plan B in just one position can have on a team.
If this team were not to reach its full potential, it would not be the first time the club have suffered at the lack of a plan B. The club were overly reliant on Luis Suarez in the 2013/14 season that when he left for Barcelona at the end of the season, Liverpool achieved 22 less points and scored 49 less goals in the league the following season and finished in 6th place, just two points ahead of Southampton in 7th having finished 2 points off the title the season prior.
Every great team has had a plan B. A great example was Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. They prided themselves on attacking football and were always supplied with top attacking talent but always had a plan B. Solskjaer and Sheringham were the plan B to Yorke and Cole while Tevez proved to be plan B to Ronaldo, Rooney or Berbatov. Liverpool currently have no Plan B for Alexander Arnold, Robertson, Fabinho, Van Dijk, Mane or Salah that would see the quality of their positions maintained. If Klopp can keep this team fit and injury free for the next 2/3 years while maintaining their level of performance, we may just see one of the all time great teams but if an injury or two creeps in, a player is sold or form drops for even just one or two players, this teams dynamic and performance changes for the worse and with reports stating there is no financial backing in the transfer window due to Covid-19, the club does not look in any position to strengthen significantly. For Liverpools sake, let’s just hope Jurgen can maintain the players and find a few bargains otherwise their claim to being one of the greatest teams of all time may be in jeopardy.
Blog piece by Andy Kavanagh