“If this team doesn’t have a few things, like pressing and pace, it loses 50 per cent of its potential. The teams I’ve coached have always fought to win, or they’ve won when they’ve had anger and character.”
“We’re suffering from a clear drop in determination. We’re doing too many things carelessly. We’re soft in just about every aspect: pressing, marking, speed. Please don’t think it’s just a case of getting a few injured players back. We need to rediscover our game and our mentality.”
“We’re soft and floppy and only become more decisive when we go behind. We’re full of fear. At the moment, we’re loose cannons. Only a few players are trying to move in tandem with the others. And the chaos overwhelms them.”
If you were guessing who said these words, you might have imagined it was Jurgen Klopp in the aftermath of Liverpool’s chastening 4-1 defeat away to Napoli in their opening Champions League group match last week.
In fact, it was Arrigo Sacchi, quoting from his diaries in The Immortals, the book that chronicles the highs and occasional lows of his legendary AC Milan team, which won back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990.
Klopp’s Liverpool came to mind on several occasions when leafing through Sacchi’s book. The Italian coach has said it himself, lauding “a fantastic team without any real superstars, a true team, (…) one playing for 11 while other teams are 11 playing for themselves. If they were an orchestra, they would always be in perfect tune and in perfect time”.
Always? It has sometimes felt like that over the past four years or so.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Liverpool have played 158 Premier League matches, winning 112, drawing 30 and losing just 16.
In terms of results, it is a level of consistency surpassed only — in English football history — by Manchester City’s record-breaking performance over the same period. And in the case of both of those clubs, standards dropped only briefly. Of those 16 Liverpool defeats over more than four years, precisely half of them came during the two-month period in early 2021 when a defensive injury crisis snowballed into a full-blown psychological malaise.
That is the thing with a team like Klopp’s Liverpool.
When it works, they are indeed an orchestra in perfect tune and perfect time; frenetic as it might appear, their play has always been far more measured and precise than the “heavy-metal football” that Klopp memorable described during his days as Borussia Dortmund coach.
And on the rare occasions when the energy and inspiration desert them, things fall apart — much as they did with that Milan team during the difficult period Sacchi recalled in the winter of 1988-89, when they suffered miserable losses to Atalanta, Napoli, Inter and Cesena. “In terms of awareness and concentration,” Sacchi wrote at the time, “we just weren’t there.”
Every team goes through periods like that. Even great teams.
City “weren’t there”, relatively speaking, in the opening months of 2020-21, winning three of the opening eight Premier League matches, before Pep Guardiola and his players rediscovered the fluency that has now earned four titles in the past five seasons.
The great Liverpool and Manchester United teams of the past certainly had more sticky patches across a campaign than the great champions of the modern era. Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003-04? A great team, without question, but that aura soon faded once their unbeaten run was ended the following season.
In The Immortals, Sacchi explains the way out of that Milan slump in the late 1980s was by working his players harder than ever on the training ground.
He details, almost to the minute, his training schedules from the time. Such attention to detail (“15 minutes of 8×4 possession game on a 35x35m pitch, counting the balls per minute intercepted by the team of four”) is the norm now, but it was exceptional back then.
That 1988-89 season ended in European Cup glory due to, Sacchi says, “the usual reason: ideas and hard work”. But that cannot be as easy as he makes it sound. When fatigue and disillusionment take hold, they can be hard to shake off.
Right now, Liverpool look a mess.
They seemed to sleepwalk into the new season, with a remarkably listless first-half performance away to promoted Fulham on the opening weekend. With the notable exception of a 9-0 victory over Bournemouth, another of the new boys, they have barely got out of second gear since.
There is no shortage of issues for Klopp to address.
Virgil van Dijk, imperious for so long, has looked ruffled, exposed in one-on-one situations and giving away a couple of penalties; Trent Alexander-Arnold has been the defensive liability his detractors always wanted him to be; Fabinho has looked isolated at the base of midfield when, based on his performances, he needs all the help he can get; Mohamed Salah has been strangely peripheral on the right wing rather than tormenting opposition defences the way he can; Darwin Nunez was sent off for a headbutt on his home debut against Palace, leading to a three-game ban that has clearly impacted on his integration process.
We can talk at length about the symptoms of Liverpool’s early-season malaise, but this doesn’t look like a simple case of making tweaks. Because even if this was initially just a series of micro-issues, compounded by another pile-up of injuries, it now looks like something deeper and more widespread than that.
Their famed intensity is missing. So too is their aura.
Put simply, a team like Klopp’s Liverpool needs to be playing at full pelt. That mantra about how “intensity is our identity”? It has long been true. But it also means when that standard drops even slightly, whether due to fatigue, confidence or personnel issues, they are almost unrecognisable.
Of course, you could say the same about any team in any sport, but it is not always true. Teams who play more conservatively, defending deeper and soaking up pressure, relying on a rigid structure rather than on energy, can bank on a certain level of solidity even when inspiration eludes them.
Those layers of security don’t exist in Liverpool’s game under Klopp. They never have. There is a risk-reward calculation and, over the years, their daring has brought great success.
Every team they’ve faced have known there is space behind full-backs Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. But just try exploiting it when Liverpool are firing on all cylinders, swarming opponents the way they have done to such great effect over the past four seasons.
But that approach relies on supreme fitness and a burning desire.
Right now, Liverpool look jaded.
Mentally? Physically? It seems like both.
Running stats will never tell anything like the whole story, particularly in games when they are dominating possession after falling behind, but it is striking they have been outrun by their opponents in all seven matches this season.
According to FBref, Liverpool have still recorded a higher percentage of successful pressures — defined as regaining possession within five seconds of applying pressure — than any other team in the Premier League this season (39.1 per cent, followed by Southampton on 36 per cent and City on 35.5 per cent). But in their last two matches, against Everton and Napoli, those figures have fallen to 27.6 per cent and 25.9 per cent.
For a team who pride themselves on pressing, and were chasing the game on both occasions, that is concerning.
Klopp didn’t need to see the data to know that performance in Naples fell far short of the required standard.
“We were never compact,” he said. “I cannot remember a situation (all game) when we were compact. We had not one counter-pressing situation in 60 minutes, just because we were too far away from everything. That means too wide in possession, we don’t push up with the last line, the midfield is not connected. The problem was we never get close enough to put the opponent under pressure.”
It was a demoralised, lethargic display, and it raised the question of whether that lethargy — perhaps a hangover from a gruelling, deflating end to the last campaign, in which Liverpool played the maximum 63 games, compounded by such a short pre-season due to the winter World Cup — is a symptom of their problems or the root cause of them.
To put it another way: are Liverpool underperforming because of those individual issues or are those individual issues secondary symptoms of a wider malaise?
In almost every game so far this season, they have looked disconnected. Where once we spoke of “the front three” at Liverpool — invariably Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, who left for Bayern Munich this summer — we currently see three front players operating too far apart, barely linking up. Luis Diaz has been Liverpool’s best performer so far this season, particularly at times when others have been struggling, but his frenetic approach appears less cohesive than Mane’s style.
They are a team in transition.
Klopp’s squad had been largely unchanged for four or five seasons, which enabled a group of players signed in their early- to mid-twenties to reach a peak of performance together.
But Mane has gone, as has the vastly underrated Georginio Wijnaldum, while others (James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Joel Matip, Van Dijk, Firmino, Salah) are now in their thirties. Harvey Elliott and Fabio Carvalho, and indeed Alexander-Arnold and Nunez, bring dashes of youth and vigour, but it is far from a young team. In midfield, in particular, it has looked tired.
Klopp’s approach demands fresh, energetic bodies and minds.
During that alarming period two seasons ago, destabilised by injuries to Van Dijk and others and seemingly disheartened by the sterility of that crowdless pandemic-football period, it was tempting to wonder whether, having won the Champions League and then the Premier League in the previous two seasons, his team had moved beyond their peak.
Maybe it already had.
Many of us were surprised by the way they responded last season, not just by winning both domestic cups but by reaching a third Champions League final in five years and also pushing City to the final day in pursuit of the title. Of those 63 games in all competitions, they won 46, drew 13 and lost just four. From January onwards they looked unstoppable, even if at times in the final weeks, with Fabinho, Salah and others running on fumes, their momentum seemed to have come down to sheer strength of will.
To be successful, Liverpool need to be operating at full throttle. Right now, this team don’t look capable of that.
It is perhaps why Klopp found himself talking in Italy last week about whether it might be time to “kind of reinvent ourselves because the basic things weren’t there”, though he quickly clarified that “it’s not that we have to invent a new kind of football”.
It is not yet clear what reinvention would mean. A switch to 4-2-3-1? Playing Alexander-Arnold in midfield? It has sometimes felt this season that Liverpool have suffered from too much reinvention of a successful formula — Alexander-Arnold roaming into central positions, Salah drifting wide, Elliott catching the eye but not able to bring the same solidity to midfield — rather than too little.
Maybe, as with Sacchi at Milan, as with Klopp two seasons ago, it is less about reinventing and more a case of getting back to basics — the basic principles of their own game, that is.
The balance, depth and durability of their midfield options is a concern, but things should improve with the return from injury of Thiago, who brings a rare combination of energy and poise. Getting fellow casualty Diogo Jota back up front should help too. Nunez will surely benefit from a run of games now his suspension is over. It surely won’t be long before Salah is back in the goalscoring groove.
But the greater question is about intensity, collective mentality and whether — and how — Klopp can get this team back to previous levels, firing on all cylinders once more.
That is the thing. They have to be firing on all cylinders, not just relying on Salah, Diaz or any other individual to dig them out of trouble.
There have been highly successful teams in the past who have been able to do that, with one star player carrying a few passengers, but for a team built like Klopp’s Liverpool, like Sacchi’s Milan, it needs total commitment all over the pitch.
Without that, “immortals” don’t just look mortal, they look vulnerable in the extreme.
(Top photo: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
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How Klopp’s jaded Liverpool can take inspiration from Sacchi’s great Milan side
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