On Sunday, Liverpool beat Middlesbrough 3-0 to secure qualification for the Champions League. It is the first time since a Luis Suarez-led side almost won the title in 2013/14 that the club has done so.
Whilst the scoreline and statistics suggest a dominant, straight-forward win for the Reds, the first-half showing almost suggested otherwise. They looked desperate; short of ideas on how to break the Boro backline down and the pressure of the need to win to secure Champions League qualification was mounting.
Potshots from distance and aimless crosses. There’s only really Coutinho trying to create something.
— Sam McGuire (@SamMcGuire90) May 21, 2017
SEE ALSO: Liverpool: 25 players from 25 years
In the end, a moment of genius from Gini Wijnaldum, the midfielder signed from Newcastle United last summer, relieved the tension and broke down the deep-Boro defensive line.
An Ongoing Problem
For Jurgen Klopp’s side, matches against their top six rivals have been outstanding this year. They’ve gone undefeated; recording emphatic wins against Arsenal (3-1), Spurs (2-0) and Chelsea (2-1). In fact, Liverpool have taken more points against their top six rivals than any other side.
“This is characteristic of their record in the league so far this season, with their results against the league’s top six significantly more impressive than against the rest.”
This Is Anfield
The problem for Klopp’s men has been against the sides outside of the top six. A 2-0 loss to Burnley early on set the tempo for the rest of the season, with losses coming against Bournemouth (4-3) and Swansea (3-2), amongst others.
Liverpool dropped 26 points against teams outside of the top six this season. Where does adding those 26 points onto Liverpool’s final tally leave them? Champions.
Where has it all gone wrong?
When Liverpool are at their best, they are able to counter on teams and use their blistering pace and potency to punish sides. On countless occasions, led by the maverick Sadio Mane, they’ve done exactly that. It works best against teams that come at Liverpool – hence their record against their top six rivals.
Liverpool come unstuck against the sides that don’t do that; the sides that sit back and invite Liverpool onto them. This limits the space that Liverpool can operate in, leaving limited space to run in behind the defence and means that the Reds must rely on their creativity and passing intricacy to pull the opposition apart. They’ve struggled.
Against the already-relegated Boro side, Liverpool’s woes appeared to be continuing. Throughout the first-half, the Reds grew frustrated at the deep banks of the Boro defence and midfield. They failed to break through them and, as a result, resorted to peppering Brad Guzan’s goal with shots from distance.
“They were limited to shots from outside the area as no player could find a way to breach the opposition back line, either by passing through them or dribbling around them.”
This Is Anfield
It looked as though at their biggest moment, the story of the Reds’ season would come back to haunt them. Thankfully for the Reds faithful, Gini Wijnaldum broke the deadlock moments before half-time to ease the nerves.
How does Klopp fix the issue?
With the season now over, Jurgen Klopp must address the issue as a matter of priority. If Liverpool are to stand any chance of challenging for the title next year, the German must find a way to break down opposition defences that sit deep. It’s going to happen – teams will always play like that against Liverpool, especially at Anfield. With the Champions League beckoning, teams in Europe will undoubtedly play like that against the Reds, too.
Liverpool take Champions League play-off place. Quite possibly vs a team deploying exactly the tactics they’ve struggled with all year. #LFC
— Duncan Castles (@DuncanCastles) May 21, 2017
Firstly, Klopp must urge his players to resist the temptation to shoot from distance. It can be tempting – you want to score, so why not shoot at all costs? Well, with the opposition sat so deep and little space to manoeuvre with, the shots are often tame and easy for the goalkeeper to collect.
Instead, Klopp’s Reds must spread the play and position themselves in wide positions. By doing so, they will drag the opposition banks apart and create more space between the lines.
Liverpool are painful to watch. Need to go wide and stretch Boro blocks not pepper pointless shots from distance over and over again #LFCMID
— Scott Salter (@scottsltr) May 21, 2017
Secondly, the selections that Klopp makes will be key. Whilst Nathaniel Clyne is a stellar right-back and James Milner has done an adequate job at left-back this season, their conservative nature against sides like this hinders Liverpool’s play.
On occasions, despite his questionable record defensively, Alberto Moreno would’ve been a better option at left-back for Klopp’s Reds. His pace and attacking nature would stretch the play and give the opposition another man to think about. Instead, Milner’s lumbered style meant that life was comfortable for the opposition players.
Whilst the summer acquisitions at Liverpool will be key, Jurgen Klopp’s priority this summer should be working out a way to break down defensive sides. If he does that, we may well be looking at a first Premier League title for the red half of Merseyside.