The Reds are still searching for the right balance in the middle of the park but they have two big-money signings ready to take off
Jurgen Klopp will hope Liverpool can break one of their recent trends this weekend.
It is a strange quirk of the Reds’ season that, in the three games which have immediately followed Champions League fixtures, they have managed to score exactly the same number of goals as they did in their European outing.
Having beaten Paris Saint-Germain 3-2, they defeated Southampton 3-0 that weekend. The 1-0 loss to Napoli was followed by a goalless draw with Manchester City, and having beaten Red Star Belgrade 4-0 last month they carried on their form with a 4-1 drubbing of Cardiff City.
If that run continues, of course, then Anfield will not be a happy place come Sunday afternoon. In a campaign where even a draw at Arsenal can be viewed as a disappointment, failure to beat Fulham, the Premier League’s bottom club, would go down like an El-Hadji Diouf book signing tour. This may be their best start to a league season in 28 years, statistically speaking, but with competition fierce at the top of the table, there can be no pause for reflection. The challenges are coming thick and fast; ‘progress’ must be judged against the incredible standards being set over at Manchester City.
Liverpool were, in Klopp’s opinion, far from themselves in Belgrade. Sloppy and sluggish, careless and callow, they got what they deserved against a fired-up Red Star side. Champions League qualification, as a result, will be far from straightforward now.
“It was a massive knock,” Klopp admitted on Friday at his pre-match press conference. “We want to show a reaction, of course, but the right reaction. Only the right reaction makes sense.”
That ‘reaction’ may apply as much to the manager as the players. Rotation has been a part of Liverpool’s strategy in recent weeks – sometimes successfully, other times not – and given the paucity of performance in Serbia, we can expect changes once more against Fulham. Few who started on Tuesday should feel safe for Sunday.
Klopp, in fairness, is usually able to contextualise defeats and setbacks pretty quickly and pretty sensibly. He is not one for outrageous highs and devastating lows. His Wednesday de-brief at Melwood, for example, was about encouraging, not reprimanding. His team, he says, are in better shape than the recent narrative might suggest.
“We have to see things in the right way,” he said. “To be positive and not the other way round.
“It’s like we win a game and we have to say sorry for not winning it in a City way or whatever. I get that, we have space for improvement, but there is no reason for any negative view.”
Still, there are legitimate concerns. Liverpool have actually only won three of their last nine games in all competitions, and still look a side searching for fluidity in terms of their general performances. Their stars of last season – Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino – are yet to hit full stride so far. Their accumulation of 27 points from 11 games has been attritional rather than scintillating. Their best, surely, is to come.
Midfield, in particular, remains a concern, with Liverpool still to find the perfect balance. That much was evident in Belgrade, where Adam Lallana, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum toiled, while at Arsenal last weekend Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Milner were rattled by the energy and aggression of Unai Emery’s side. In other games – Napoli away, for example – Liverpool have lacked control or creativity from the centre of the field. Plenty of graft, too little craft, regardless of personnel.
Klopp has chopped and changed, switching increasingly between his preferred 4-3-3 formation and a more imaginative 4-2-3-1 of late. Injuries to Jordan Henderson, his captain, and £53million ($69m) new-boy Naby Keita have not helped, but the manager knows his side can unquestionably improve in that area. Asked recently where Liverpool lag behind City, one of the greatest midfielders in Reds history remarked simply “the midfield.” And yes, what a difference Graeme Souness would make to this team.
Both Keita and Henderson are fit and available now, while Fabinho has been eased into action after being initially shielded. The Brazilian grew into games against Red Star and Cardiff before struggling at the Emirates. He, like Keita, was unused in Belgrade.
It would be a surprise if that was the case on Sunday, when Liverpool require improvement in terms of solidity, dynamism and creativity. Between them, Fabinho and Keita can offer all three, though Klopp remains keen to keep the pressure off his £90m (€$117m) duo for now.
“They are here because of what they did,” he said earlier in the season. “It’s not about changing these players, we want their football personality.”
Klopp’s feeling with Fabinho is that a ‘double six’ system – that is, a formation with two deeper central midfielders – suits him best at present, offering him protection against dynamic opposition and allowing him to impose his physicality on games. We have already seen his tackling qualities, and Klopp believes he will develop into a top-class passer as he grows in confidence.
Keita, of course, is a different type of player, one capable of breaking the lines from deep, running with the ball and making inroads into the opposition penalty area. At his best, few midfielders can match the Guinean for industry, drive and dribbling ability. Liverpool, without doubt, have missed the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at times this season, but Keita could prove an ample stand-in, even an upgrade.
“His start could have been a bit better, but only because of the injuries,” Klopp said earlier this week. “All the rest was good.”
Fit again, the hope is that we will see more of those ‘flashes’ from Keita, and that Fabinho can confirm Liverpool’s opinion that he is one of Europe’s premier holding midfield players.
If those two can deliver on their promise then the Reds really will be in business.