Suspicion swirls around Jurgen Klopp. Defeat to Swansea City at Anfield and an outright and aggregate loss to Southampton on the same ground four days later have dulled his glow. His Liverpool aren’t exactly struggling and their fourth place in the Premier League isn’t an illusion, but Klopp’s counter-press suddenly looks limited. Recent opponents have not necessarily exposed flaws in the native ideology, but have shown the clear need for its expansion; Liverpool appear to be a side capable only of winning in one way.
On Tuesday night, Chelsea travel to Merseyside. Their most recent result, a 2-0 win over semi-resurgent Hull City, may not have shown Antonio Conte’s team at their grinding best, but it was efficient nonetheless. Chelsea are Liverpool’s current antithesis: a pro-active unit who worry only about their own approach and appear resistant to the changing tactics and selections they face. While their recent defeat to Tottenham showed a degree of vulnerability, it also demonstrated the level of performance required to beat them. Spurs were brilliant at White Hart Lane, both remarkably efficient in front of goal and water-tight in their own half. Chelsea lost and surrendered their unbeaten record that night in early January, but the game itself set a dauntingly high bar: perform to that level or lose.
Tomorrow night’s encounter is full of natural intrigue. Clear this hurdle and Conte will be well on his way to a maiden league title. It’s first versus fourth and one celebrated manager against another, but it’s a game which also aligns theoretical strengths and weaknesses in a way which will suit the visitors ideally.
Liverpool enter the game in turmoil. An horrendous January reached its nadir on Saturday lunchtime when Klopp’s players were upended by a spiritely Wolverhampton Wanderers. Unlikely a loss as it was, it still felt semi-inevitable: the standard of performances has been dipping week-on-week and Liverpool are now without a league win since New Year’s Day. Sadio Mane’s absence has clearly blunted the side and the absences of Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho have been similarly tough to bear, but there’s a sense too that Klopp’s small squad is loosening at the seams. Perhaps the cost of all the early season intensity is this protracted malaise? Like Tottenham last year, Liverpool have perhaps reached a point of collective exhaustion and, with their strategy reliant upon physical intensity, their greatest strength has become their biggest weakness.
But they will likely also run into a strategic problem on Tuesday night. While Chelsea have drawn praise for their attacking play and their 3-5-2 shape has been credited for creating such width in opposing halves, it’s perhaps their ability to exit from their own zones which presents the biggest challenge. As and when circumstances dictate, Conte’s back-three becomes a back-five, with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses dropping deep into more traditional full-back roles. Similarly, while N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic have more celebrated functions as a unit, they are extremely adept at creating out-routes up the pitch. The created effect is a series of escape hatches: while Liverpool have been able to counter-press most defences into turmoil, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to exert quite as much pressure on Chelsea – or at least to do so in a way which genuinely restricts their options. Conte’s components are all extremely well-drilled and, married to a back-three who are comfortable and capable on the ball, that would seem to add up to an insurmountable problem for Klopp; how can pressure really be built if, by way of an out-ball, Chelsea always have access to a release valve? It may lack context to serve as a proper example, but against Hull City at Stamford Bridge eight days ago, the hosts three most regular passing combinations were Cahill to Alonso (15), Moses to Azpilicueta (15), and Azpilicueta to Kante (14). In their own third, Conte’s players always seem to have a spare man; they are rarely hassled and rarely are the passing networks between the back-six interrupted. That’s where their rhythm comes from and, by implication, the start point for their long unbeaten run.
There is evidently more to Klopp’s style of play than counter-pressing and, at their best, Liverpool can create and take chances from a range of different situations. However, over the past month they have been shown to be offensively rigid and unable to rely on shape and possession alone to score goals. Southampton had to resist some pressure in that league cup semi-final but were hardly holding back the tide, Swansea’s fragile defence found it remarkably easy to survive at Anfield and, at the beginning of the month, over 70% of the possession at the Stadium Of Light translated to just a single point in a 2-2 draw. Additionally, while the defeat to Wolves was partly attributable to a weakened side, it was remarkable how easy the Championshp team found it to stay clear of trouble. Liverpool’s sheer weight of numbers caused some difficulty in the closing minutes, but for the majority of that game they were startlingly comfortable; neither Kortney Hause nor Richard Stearman were ever made to look like second-tier centre-halves.
There needn’t be any melodrama in conclusion, because any analysis which damns Klopp for his lack of an alternate approach ignores the limitations Liverpool currently face. In fact, their excellent performances in late 2016 were counter to the assumption that a small squad boasting only a few genuinely excellent players would be unable to compete. That they remain semi-relevant to this season’s title at all is testament to what Klopp has been able to extract.
However, that over-performance seems now to constitute a deal-with-the-devil scenario in which short-terms gains were collected in advance of inevitable cumulative fatigue. That’s what has brought them here: to a showdown with an opponent strategically equipped to probe their growing vulnerabilities.