EPL

A wound that is bleeding again - Klopp keen to patch up Liverpool's battered and bruised attack

By Sports Desk May 01, 2021

Jurgen Klopp believes dwindling confidence in front of goal is at the root of Liverpool's ongoing struggles this season, as opposed to bad luck.

Although their active defence of the title has long since ended, Liverpool could formally end their stint as Premier League champions by claiming a much-needed victory over rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

If Manchester City beat Crystal Palace on Saturday and their neighbours lose to Klopp's men, Pep Guardiola's side will be crowned kings of England for the third time in the past four seasons.

That development might not be overly surprising, but the distance from which Liverpool have watched it unfold – having been the main counterpoint to City's pretentions of dominance over the previous three years – certainly has been.

The Reds are sixth in the table, four points shy of fourth-placed Chelsea with five games remaining heading into the weekend, meaning anything other than three points against United would make their chances of Champions League qualification increasingly remote.

Long-term injuries to key defenders Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have taken a significant toll but a misfiring attack has been under the spotlight over recent weeks.

Firing blanks

In three consecutive draws against Real Madrid, Leeds United and Newcastle United, Liverpool had 54 shots – including efforts blocked, as per Opta – and scored twice.

"We had a really detailed look at all the situations that we created over the last seven or eight games just to get an overview," Klopp told Sky Sports. "It is not unlucky. There are moments where we are unlucky. But if you are unlucky so often there must be something else.

"Sometimes it sounds a little boring, but we know we have to improve. The one thing we have to keep working on is the finishing. We have to finish the situations off. We have created [many] chances in the last three games and scored twice. That is obviously not enough.

"The performance around that shows you that something was right in the game. We had really good spells, but the important moment is the last moment. We cannot expect it to change overnight but we will not stop working on it.

"It is not exactly the football of last year, maybe, but it is all fuelled by that one moment. Either you score or you don't score. We have to keep working. We don't have to change inside out, 360 degrees or whatever. We only have to improve and to make it click."

Mane and Firmino under pressure

Such problems were unforeseeable at Christmas after Liverpool routed Palace 7-0 to go clear at the top of the table.

In the 19 Premier League games since, Liverpool have scored 19 times despite amassing an expected goals (xG) figure of 30.3. An xG underperformance of -11.3 is comfortably the worst in the division over this period.

Mohamed Salah has scored seven times in the top flight since December 25 and remains in the hunt for the Golden Boot on 20, one shy of Harry Kane. However, his attacking allies Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have managed three and one in 17 appearances apiece since then.

Salah and Mane are converting those opportunities Opta classes as "big chances" at 23.5 and 23.1 per cent success rates over the period in question, with Firmino languishing on 12.5 after netting one out of eight.

Compared to the trio most likely to feature in United's forward line this weekend, the lack of efficiency is stark. Since Christmas Day, Marcus Rashford has put away 37.5 per cent of his big chances, with Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani snaffling 40 and 50 per cent respectively.

"We can see the boys are not confident enough in the moment," Klopp said. "They don't use their first touch. They want to make sure the ball is in the right position and then it is too late, the defender jumps in.

"There are a lot of things. After not scoring for a while, you do not use some situations for finishing. That is normal because we are not flying."

Big six appeal

Funnily enough, the Untied game might be just what Liverpool need.

Shelling points to the likes of Leeds and Newcastle, due to late equalisers from Diego Llorente and Joe Willock, has been symptomatic of their season.

In games between the Premier League's 'big six' this term, Liverpool have won five, drawn two and lost two to claim 17 points – a level-best points haul from those matches alongside City.

"It is about talking to them, helping them to find solutions," Klopp added. "You can do that in training. All that is fine but then the game starts and the first ball does not go in, the second ball does not go in and the third ball does not go in. It is like a wound that is bleeding again.

"That is what you can see on the pitch. But a missed chance is information. You have to use it. The things we did to get in the position were right, so do it again but just adapt a little bit. Keep going. Stay positive."

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    Prior to last season, which began just six months into the coronavirus pandemic, Madrid were not able to make a single first-team signing. Their most significant business was the €40million sale of Achraf Hakimi to Inter.

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    The winger appeared to have no future under Zidane but will surely be the chief beneficiary if Ancelotti returns the team to the attacking approach he employed previously at the Santiago Bernabeu. Across his two seasons at the helm, Madrid scored 222 LaLiga goals – 22 more than across the past three campaigns combined now.

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    If that is Ancelotti's desire, though, between Bale, Vinicius Junior and Eden Hazard, Madrid should at least still have the players to tear through teams at pace. Indeed, getting Hazard fit and firing two years and four goals into his LaLiga career will be as crucial as rehabilitating Bale. The former Chelsea forward may put the famed 'diva whisperer' to the test, but Madrid cannot afford to have a €100m man not contributing.

    Age is against Ancelotti

    Madrid's play without the ball has also changed in the time Ancelotti has been away, and getting them to perform in this regard as they did during his first stint will be more difficult still. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro – Madrid's long-standing midfield trio – were on board when Ancelotti left the club six years ago. Modric will be 36 in September. Class and experience are on their side, but the energy of youth is not.

    With Di Maria occupying a key role in the 4-2-3-1 formation and Modric finding his feet in Spain, Madrid pressed relentlessly in 2013-14. Opponents were allowed only 9.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) amid Los Blancos' 499 pressed sequences. As a result, Madrid's attacks started 42.3 metres upfield on average, boosted by their 179 high turnovers, of which 45 led to shots and nine to goals.

    Even Ancelotti could not maintain these standards the following year, as Di Maria departed for the Premier League while a thigh injury restricted Modric to 16 games. Madrid regressed in every category.

    In 2021, it is not that Madrid do not press, it is that they do not do so with the same intensity. There were 430 pressed sequences last term and still an impressive 178 high turnovers, but opponents were allowed 11.3 PPDA, with Madrid unable to harry at a comparable rate. It is unlikely that statistic improves as Kroos also moves through his thirties and yet more minutes are pumped into the legs of one of modern football's great midfields. The emergence of Federico Valverde – young and versatile – helps, but Ancelotti may well face the unenviable task of dismantling a unit he helped put together.

    Alaba alters the complexion

    To this point, with a former coach returning to guide the same players, Madrid's approach appears closer to devolution than evolution or revolution. The defence at least will ensure this team has a new sheen, albeit not one that necessarily improves Ancelotti's chances of success at home or abroad.

    Alaba is a fine player with vast experience, six years younger than Ramos but with 10 Bundesliga titles and two Champions League triumphs to his name. It is a like-for-like change that makes sense, even with Ramos' emotional ties to the Bernabeu. However, asking Alaba to also replace Varane, the outgoing captain's stalwart defensive partner, feels like a tough ask.

    Rather than settle into a new club in a new country alongside a World Cup winner – "Varane, of course, I would like to play with him," Alaba said as recently as last week – Madrid's sole signing seems set to be asked to perform the role of the senior man alongside Eder Militao, who has made just 23 LaLiga starts across two seasons.

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    Militao could then be tasked with getting tight to opposition forwards, but Alaba might find it tougher to avoid being picked on in the air. He contested a meagre 1.2 aerial duels per 90, down on 2.3 for Varane, 4.3 for Ramos and 5.2 for Militao. As Varane won a league-leading 76.0 per cent of these duels and Ramos came out on top in 63.8 per cent, opponents faced a scrap against either centre-back. Alaba's 51.4 per cent success rate shows why he tends to avoid such encounters.

    An area of real strength for Madrid could now become a weakness. Only Sevilla (four) conceded fewer headed goals than Madrid (five) in the league last term, while Real Betis (five goals conceded) were the sole side to be tighter from set-pieces than Zidane's outfit (six). With Ramos and Varane marshalling the area, Madrid faced the fourth-fewest headed attempts (58). They are unlikely to rank as impressively again with 5ft 11in Alaba at the heart of the defence.

    Madrid are unlikely to make the most of Alaba's versatility – well stocked at left-back but now short in the middle of the back line – yet his ability on the ball, honed in different roles, should at least help to keep Ancelotti's men on the front foot. Part of a dominant Bayern team, Alaba was involved in 4.6 shot-ending sequences and 0.7 goal-ending sequences per 90, having a bigger hand in such opportunities than Ramos (3.9 and 0.4) or Varane (2.9 and 0.3).

    Being able to start attacks from the back plays into the idea Madrid should be set up to again thrill supporters under Ancelotti. Whether they can combine entertainment with results, as the 2013-14 team did so successfully, might be another matter.

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