With the help of Jurgen Klopp‘s substitutes, Liverpool came from behind vs. Wolves for another Premier League win, but the first half showed the manager is still learning to play with his new deck of cards.
Klopp’s side are 16 games unbeaten, so something is going to plan. With four wins from five, Liverpool look well-placed to be competitive as the season progresses.
The manager and his players are still learning, though. Only about half of Liverpool’s starting XI in the 2019 Champions League final remain first-choice and Klopp is still to fully nail down his ‘Liverpool Reloaded’ strategy.
The opening stages of this season indicate that the manager and his team are ready to challenge for trophies, with a re-energised midfield helping to rejuvenate the Reds.
There is no doubt that 13 points from the first 15 on offer can be deemed a success but, come May, if Liverpool are to remain in touching distance, or better, of Man City, Klopp will have to learn from some of his early-season mistakes.
Substitutes have bailed Reds out
While the Reds have four wins from five, they have actually trailed in three of those games.
The three points gained at St James’ Park felt momentous. Klopp even said: “I think in my 1,000 games as a coach or a manager I never had a game like this.”
Darwin Nunez was the hero that time around, but Harvey Elliott was also integral to building Liverpool’s confidence when he came off the bench.
Down to 10 men, you would have bet on Liverpool crumbling under the pressure last season. However, the Reds found the resilience to stay in the game and eventually got their reward for persevering thanks to Nunez’s quality.
Against Bournemouth, the Reds found themselves 1-0 down after just three minutes, but two first-half goals, followed by Jota’s tap-in after 62 minutes, meant Klopp’s side ended the game comfortably, despite playing with 10 men for the last half an hour.
A dismal first half against Wolves forced Liverpool into another fightback. Thankfully, Cody Gakpo launched Liverpool’s comeback, allowing Andy Robertson to score the winner with just five minutes of normal time left.
Hugo Bueno’s deflection on Elliott’s shot put the three points beyond doubt for Liverpool, but the final result wasn’t reflective of how the Reds performed before the break.
At half time, Klopp’s decision to start Alexis Mac Allister as the No. 6, despite only just returning from a game at high altitude, looked like it could cost Liverpool.
Mac Allister has shown he can play as a holding midfielder already this season, but the decision to leave out Wataru Endo suggests Klopp doesn’t yet rate or trust him enough to start the Japan captain away from home in the Premier League.
Instead of bringing on Endo, Klopp introduced Luis Diaz and moved Gakpo into a slightly deeper position.
Defenders defending & a system change
Something that is becoming more apparent with every game is the need for tactical flexibility.
Late last season, the decision to move Trent Alexander-Arnold into a new position as an inverted right-back signalled a change in Liverpool’s fortunes.
While all the Reds’ ills weren’t instantly cured, the attackers looked more free to express themselves and Liverpool were suddenly playing to their own strengths.
Defensively, this wasn’t really the case, though – the team conceded 18 goals in their last 12 games of the season. However, after an arduous campaign, supporters were just happy to see some exciting football again.
Liverpool have played well in this system with Alexander-Arnold as the key component. Without him, though, the Reds attempted to replicate this vs. Wolves without the No. 66 and it simply didn’t work.
Joe Gomez is a centre-half and the attempt to deploy him as the team’s creator, even in part, failed miserably. It was a bizarre decision given the coaching staff have known for nearly two weeks that Alexander-Arnold wouldn’t be available.
As it happened, Liverpool were so bad in the first half that Gomez rarely had a chance to get forward and play that position, with Pedro Neto and Jeanricner Bellegarde causing mayhem for the Liverpool defence before the break.
Thanks to the changes at half time, the defence was much improved after the break, with their roles simplified and Robertson allowed to do what he does best, relentlessly terrorise the opposition’s right side.
The Scotland captain agreed that the half-time shift benefitted the team, saying: “Second half we came out, changed our formation slightly, went to a kind of 4-4-2 and I think it worked.
“We started pushing people higher up the pitch and I think we dominated the second half, probably got what we deserved out of the second-half performance.”
Klopp had similar feelings, adding in his post-match TNT Sports interview: “It gave us a bit more speed up front, natural speed, and we had the control of the game better.
“We changed pretty much everything at half-time and that worked out pretty well.
“The first half was really bad and the second half was really good. Do I want to see that every week? No. But for today, I take it.”
Flexibility & simplicity
Even with a first-choice side, it is becoming clear that the box midfield is best used at home, when Liverpool are more dominant.
It also relies heavily upon Alexander-Arnold being fit and playing well. That is no permanent guarantee across a season in which Liverpool will hope to compete across all four competitions.
Even with a fit Conor Bradley, his passing ability isn’t the same as Trent’s and is more suited to playing as a traditional wide right-back.
There was a reason Liverpool altered their formation towards the end of last season. The 4-3-3 that had seen Liverpool stride to so much success was no longer working.
However, with Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai helping to completely overhaul last season’s stuttering midfield, it stands to reason that the problems Liverpool suffered would now be partially diminished.
A return to the slightly less complex 4-3-3, at least away from home, would help the defenders do their jobs, empower Robertson to flourish again and still allow for Alexander-Arnold to showcase his talents like in previous campaigns.
The opposition, the players available and the form of those players are all factors in deciding how Liverpool should play this season – horses for courses is the term, I believe.
The transition between first and second XI should be as seamless as possible, like in the 2021/22 season. If the squad can become a single unit, then we could be in business.