Liverpool were dumped out of the competition by Manchester United yesterday after their 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in the fourth round. There were more negatives than positives for the German manager. The nature of the defeat, against the club by which Anfield judges itself, was painful. Klopp has four days to rebuild the confidence of a squad that has only won once in the past seven games – and that was against a coronavirus-affected Aston Villa side comprised of mostly teenagers. On Thursday they travel to White Hart Lane to face Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur. The scent of decay is in the air and the Portuguese is enlivened by that type of odour in his nostrils. Mourinho will aim to expose every weakness in the defending champions.
There were upsides at Old Trafford. Mohamed Salah scored twice and Roberto Firmino gave indications that he is regaining his form. The Brazilian’s pass for Salah’s opening goal was exquisite. Firmino’s craftiness is crucial to the effectiveness of the front three and his hustle disconcerts the opposition when they are in possession. The 29-year-old never stopped being busy off the ball – which is enough reason alone to justify his inclusion in the side – but his link play floundered. Against United, Firmino was somewhere near to his best.
Salah’s dip was less pronounced and he has always looked sharp. Many of his missed opportunities were of the sort that could be attributed to fine margins. The way he finished yesterday suggested the balance has swung back the Egyptian’s way.
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Now the post-mortem gets ugly. Alisson Becker, so often the cornerstone of the side’s stability, has become increasingly scatterbrained in his adventures outside the area. His passing, too, has become careless. The goalkeeper put Fabinho in an invidious position in the first half and the Brazilian had to give away a foul on the edge of the area, a misdemeanour for which he received a yellow card.
To make things worse, Alisson’s weight was on the wrong foot for Bruno Fernandes’ game-winning free-kick. Goalkeepers hate being beaten on their side at a set-piece and the 28-year-old will have expected to do better.
Rhys Williams and Trent Alexander-Arnold had nightmares. United targeted Liverpool’s right flank and had plenty of success. Alexander-Arnold left too much room behind him when going forward and that allowed Marcus Rashford to run at Williams and Luke Shaw to overload the flank.
This would be a problem for an experienced centre back and it exposed the 19-year-old’s naivety. Joel Matip should return for Tottenham but Son Heung-min will be aiming to get behind Alexander-Arnold.
Alexander-Arnold’s problems would not be a worry if he was producing at the other end. Liverpool’s full-backs have been the creative force behind the team but they have been less effective recently. There are a number of reasons – uncertainty in the defence because of injuries and opponents sitting deeper are just two – but production from the flanks has slowed down. One of the things Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have done so well is crossfield passes to each other to change the point of attack. Marcus Rashford’s ball to Mason Greenwood for United’s equaliser could have been taken from the Alexander-Arnold template in the way it cut the midfield out of the game and exposed the space left by Robertson ranging forward.
Williams is having a bad time. He is not ready to play at the highest level and he will need to be a strong character to survive the sort of tests that he is enduring. The miskick that allowed Rashford to score was the lowest point in a grim episode. Matip adds solidity but Fabinho, who has been exceptional filling in at the back, needs to be relocated to the midfield as soon as possible.
For all his heroics, there is invariably an incident in every game that reminds the observer that Fabinho is not a natural defender. Yesterday it was the moment that Edinson Cavani drew a foul from the Brazilian on the edge of the box. That set up the opportunity for Fernandes to win the tie. It is a stretch to blame Fabinho for the goal but it was an avoidable free-kick.
Liverpool’s midfield is barely functioning. Fabinho, Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum never quite received the praise they deserved in the Champions League and title-winning campaigns. They provided balance, cover and energy but many supporters criticised their lack of creativity as a unit. Thiago Alcantara’s arrival was celebrated with gusto and although the former Bayern Munich playmaker is supremely talented, Liverpool’s system requires a level of athleticism that the 29-year-old does not have. It may be that to get the best out of Thiago there needs to be a complete redrawing of Klopp’s blueprint. James Milner, too, lacks mobility at the age of 35. Only Wijnaldum yesterday – and Curtis Jones when he dropped back from the attack – had the legs to do the job that was necessary.
It is too early to talk in terms of crisis but a defeat by Spurs would deepen the sense of malaise around Anfield. Liverpool’s success in the past three years was a magical confluence of talent and tenacity but in most teams individuals or even departments can be replaced with little drop-off. Klopp’s champions are more organic: take out one component and the knock-on effect sends a shudder throughout the team.
The Liverpool manager has spent a month trying to fill holes and paper over cracks. This is not working. A more radical approach may be needed sooner rather than later. Change is painful but it may be necessary.
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