In other times, Liverpool’s run of form might draw more attention. Two wins from six and points dropped against West Ham, Brighton and newly-promoted Brentford doesn’t look on paper to be the hallmark of a team on course to lift the Premier League title.
But the Reds are still within touching distance of leaders Chelsea and in no need of panic. After all, Liverpool were the only unbeaten side in the division before their defeat at the London Stadium last time out.
Saturday 20th November 5:00pm
Jurgen Klopp’s team are also the highest scorers in the division, with arguably the best player in the world, Mohamed Salah, leading the charge. They have scored in every league match since a home defeat by Fulham in March, some 21 games ago.
Even so, there are concerns at the other end of the pitch. “Defensively, he’ll be worried,” was Sky Sports’ Jamie Redknapp’s brief assessment after throwing away a lead – twice – at Brentford in September. Little more was said at the time, and it appeared to be a one-off. After all, Liverpool had started the season with four clean sheets from five games.
But the run which has followed suggests it is not a one-off. Liverpool have shipped 10 in their last six league matches, more than the previous 17, and in all competitions have conceded twice or more in six games already this season.
Even at their free-scoring best, that doesn’t make life easy for Klopp, and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta will believe his resurgent Arsenal can become the latest to upset the Liverpool apple cart in this weekend’s Saturday Night Football clash on Sky Sports Premier League.
Is this a return to the gung-ho football of the early Klopp era? The goal tally would suggest so, but the manner of those conceded comes from more than just committing men forward. The Reds’ vulnerabilities are varied, but most link back to issues in midfield where injuries, form and the loss of Georginio Wijnaldum are being sorely felt.
On the surface, their statistics still stack up. Liverpool have won the ball back in the final third more than anyone else. They stop teams passing out from the back more regularly than anyone else. They force teams to start their own attacks further back than anyone else. So what will Arteta look to exploit?
It’s not so much the quality of pressing, and organisation, which has been a problem for Liverpool over the last six games – more one of consistency. Klopp has been forced to name nine different midfield combinations already this season, which has not helped build a sustained rhythm in his gameplan.
What he wants from his midfielders has not changed from the day he walked through the door at Anfield six years ago, as Jamie Carragher explained on Monday Night Football in 2018 when discussing why he was routinely picking a trio of Wijnaldum, James Milner and Jordan Henderson.
“What they are all about is energy, pressing and getting after people. We haven’t got passers, but as Klopp has said himself, the best number 10 in the world is counter-pressing. That’s why he plays them, to counter-press and win the ball,” he said then.
Three years on, Milner is about to celebrate his 36th birthday and Wijnaldum is gone. Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita, have each looked to step up to the plate this season but none have shown they are ready to fill the energetic presence Wijnaldum offered without the ball. Put his stats on possession won in the final two thirds and aerial duels side-by-side with theirs and there is no contest.
But it’s not just about him. Fitness has meant Henderson and Fabinho have started only five games together this season, and neither has looked fully fit at times. That has played a major part in Liverpool’s difficulty in controlling games – they have now dropped six points from winning positions in 2021/22, more than their entire title-winning campaign two years ago. The current rate is even on course to beat that of last season’s defensive crisis.
Even in a 3-0 win against Crystal Palace in mid-September, the last game before their recent run of six, Liverpool were unusually open and Klopp called their victory “one of the most hard-fought 3-0 wins I have ever seen”.
In-game warnings have gone unheeded too. From the very start of a 2-2 draw with Brighton where the hosts blew a two-goal lead and had their body language criticised by Klopp, they looked uncomfortable. With barely a minute on the clock, the Seagulls’ false nine Leandro Trossard was given enough time out wide to turn, look up and find Solly March’s run from deep, which needed a brilliant Alisson save to deny a shock early goal.
Both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson were given a real problem by the lack of support from their midfield as Brighton overloaded their left flank for that attack, with Salah and Sadio Mane staying further upfield to offer a threat on the break.
Liverpool’s midfield are out of the game as Trossard makes an early chance for March
Further up the pitch too, there were signs of trouble. For another early chance, Adam Lallana was able to skip past token challenges from Keita and Roberto Firmino, evade Henderson and play Trossard through onto the Liverpool backline before the hosts recovered possession. Soon after, Jones was caught in possession in his defensive third by Yves Bissouma, who then smacked the post from 20 yards.
Liverpool did not learn. Both of the Seagulls’ comeback goals were created by players in space out wide, and runs from deep going untracked.
Look how much time both Enock Mwepu and Lallana are given in the video below as they go on to punish lapses in concentration, and how much time there is to find them. Mwepu’s goal is out of the blue, but still comes from a dangerous area for Brighton’s first, while Jordan Henderson sees – but does not stop – Lallana’s support run for their second.
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool’s draw with Brighton in the Premier League
Even Klopp’s trusted lieutenants have looked off the pace and left Liverpool vulnerable in recent games. Fabinho, who missed the first two weeks of the season and another three games in October, has not always been up to full fitness and was caught on his heels for the second goal conceded against West Ham. The Brazilian, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Robertson collectively fail to stop Jarrod Bowen on the break, with Michail Antonio then taking Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip’s attention away from Pablo Fornals, who was slipped through to score.
We’re used to seeing Liverpool being hit by counter-attacks, and Jamie Carragher took aim at Klopp’s decision to hold a high line after the game, saying: “I just think when you’re in those positions, I don’t know what you gain by holding the high line.” But allowing an attack to build so easily plays its own part – and not just when Liverpool are high up the pitch.
Klopp has always been happy to make bold calls with Liverpool’s defending, and has spoken about the risk-reward strategy which has largely paid off during his time at Anfield.
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from West Ham’s win over Liverpool in the Premier League
A lot relies on his players defending their own box well, so they can afford to put it under pressure without conceding goals. It’s something they did so well during the title-winning season, with Van Dijk in particular imperious at the back.
Things have gone off the boil defending their 18-yard box too. Of the eight goals conceded in the three games mentioned, three have come from dead balls, and now only Crystal Palace and Everton have conceded a higher proportion of their goals from set-pieces.
Brentford scored one of those three in a sensational 3-3 draw – another comeback – in late September – but Yoane Wissa’s late equaliser, in open play, was more painful for Klopp to watch. Liverpool had eight shirts inside their own box, but Brentford’s two-man back-post move was still enough to overload Alexander-Arnold and allow the DR Congo forward to bundle home on the second ball.
Brentford’s two-man attack is enough to overpower eight Liverpool shirts in the box
Liverpool’s centre-back pairing could not be blamed for that goal, but none of Ibrahima Konate, Matip or Van Dijk – who you can forgive for taking his time to get fully back to his best form from a long-term injury – have been at the top of their game in recent weeks.
Arsenal will certainly smell an opportunity, given only West Ham have picked up more points than the Gunners in the last six Premier League games, but they will be under no illusions.
Defensive issues or not, Liverpool remain one of the most potent attacking forces in the Premier League, who started the season conceding once in their first five games. Just as they have come up short at times over the past six weeks, so too might they return to their punishing best with and without the ball on Saturday evening.