Systems in football these days are a lot like Kerplunk and Jenga; they are finely balanced and removing the wrong pieces could see all your hard work come undone. Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool FC, they found this out the hard way.
It quickly became apparent that the the key men to Liverpool’s title charge were Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and a resurgent Adam Lallana. The quartet seemed to strike a perfect balance which enabled them to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
They were able to back up their flicks and tricks with clinical finishing when the opportunity presented itself. It’s been years since Liverpool have been able to execute that ruthless aggression in front of goal. Granted, throughout Premier League history they have been fortunate enough to have great goalscorers, the likes of Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez but they’ve never pieced together an attacking unit quite like Klopp’s fantastic four.
The team weren’t reliant on just one player to score the goals. It was shared responsibility and they all revelled in the new system. In the 10 games the four started the Reds scored 28 goals and of those goals they shared 19 of them and chipped in with a further 16 assists. This was an attack capable of firing Liverpool to the so far elusive Premier League crown.
However, all good things must come to an end. The 6-1 triumph over Watford at Anfield was the last time fans witnessed the four players start together.
Balancing the Liverpool team
At the beginning of the season the German raised a few eyebrows when he tweaked the system. The team moved away from his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 system and into a more 4-3-3 shape, on paper at least.
Plenty offered up reasons for Klopp’s decision but the former Borussia Dortmund manager revealed nothing.
Did he fail to bring in the Liverpool transfer targets he wanted? Did he simply just feel the team needed more protection defensively and a midfield three would offer just that?
Whatever his reasoning was, it’s safe to say he’s been justified.
Adam Lallana has flourished in a slightly more withdrawn role. Instead of starting as one of the attacking three he’s starting as part of the midfield and arriving late to join the attack. The fact he’s able to play the ball confidently with either foot makes him one of the key men Liverpool look to when they are attempting to break down teams happy to just sit deep.
Pre-game the graphics may show him in midfield but he’s very much part of the attack. The seven goals and seven assists so far this season go someway to showing that.
According to reports Sadio Mane cost anywhere between £30-36million. Whatever the actual figure was is irrelevant. He’s been a bargain. He’s the clubs leading scorer with nine goal and has four assists to his name but his impact on the team is much more than just output figures.
He’s made himself at home alongside Firmino (eight goals and three assists) and Coutinho (five goals and five assists). He’s part of a synchronized press. His movement, in unison with the others, has befuddled many defences and it will confuse many more. He’s aids Nathaniel Clyne defensively and there’s nobody in the current squad capable of doing what he does.
Liverpool had guile and they had finesse but they lacked power and pace. Mane that in abundance and the attacking unit looked complete after his arrival. Now Klopp can play tactical chess against the very best because his attack is filled with intelligent, creative grafters.
It’s showed in the results they’ve managed to pick up against their rivals and why they are in the position they find themselves in now
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) 1 February 2017
The Domino Effect
The wrong piece was removed.
Liverpool don't have the biggest of squads and Klopp relies on flexible players covering a number of positions. So when even one of those players isn't available it has a detrimental impact on the team and like that the foundations of his fledgling masterpiece began to crumble.
No Coutinho more often than not means Firmino is deployed there and in his place is Sturridge. The profiles of the two number nines are completely different so of course the overall dynamic is different.
Fluidity isn't the same. Movement isn't replicated and it's just as natural.
It was the loss of Mane, and in turn Lallana from his central area, which resulted in a dry January and a sobering experience for fans after the highs of earlier on in the season.
Since the turn of the year Klopp's men have won just once, against Plymouth in the FA Cup, and have struggled to overcome sides who look to sit deep. In the seven games which Mane missed due to his participation in the AFCON Liverpool scored just the five goals.
The marbles looked to have all come crashing down to the bottom.
But he's back now.
His return restores the Lallana to his central midfield role and means Klopp finally has all the final pieces of his jigsaw back in place. The structure is once again sturdy and it's a starting point for the team to build from. Is this Liverpool's second wind for the season and could it mean they are about to start firing again?