Liverpool are suffering from a self-inflicted sense of exposure.
A high defensive line that isn’t being patrolled by the players that were identified as being the ones that had the wherewithal to carry it, we are instead welcoming opposing teams by gifting vast quantities of space in what has become something of a demilitarised part of the pitch.
Targeted balls hit from deep landing around 45 yards from goal for a runner to meet. A Liverpool defence that hasn’t the time to recover as it turns to deal with it, and a goalkeeper who has the additional job of sweeper, vulnerable to being beaten to the ball if he comes to for it or exposed to the on-rushing player if he stays.
Stick or twist, Alisson is exposed and his confidence is badly affected. It is a simple, yet effective, tactic that is winning games against us.
There is a danger to being a slave to an ethos that isn’t working. Without adapting, clear weaknesses are there to be repeatedly exploited. Currently, there is something of Brendan Rodgers’ 2012/13 to Jurgen Klopp’s 2020/21 campaign.
Back in 2012/13, Rodgers had a propensity to defy the evidence of results in order to continue apace with a formation that offered opponents gifts aplenty; today, Klopp is defying the evidence of results in order to continue apace with a formation that is offering opponents gifts aplenty.
We are currently playing a formation and system that is designed to win the Premier League title when what we need is one that is designed for a very different mission.
A defence that needs greater protection than the one that won the league last season, and it certainly isn’t one that should be playing such a high line.
Zonal defending has long been a concept that many British football watchers have taken to with sharpened pitchforks and flaming torches but football has always been a zonal game, not only in defence.
Even in attacking situations, we are being undone in defined zones of the pitch. Deep-lying midfields and heavily populated penalty areas are not our friends while opposing managers seem happy enough to allow the likes of Thiago, Bobby Firmino and Curtis Jones as much of the ball as they want, safe in the knowledge that it is going to take something akin to threading the cotton through the eye of the needle in order to create something compelling in front of goal.
We are seeing Liverpool impressively keep possession and shadowbox in areas around the penalty area without being able to force the play where it matters the most. Against Chelsea, we managed only one effort on target.
The thing with a high defensive line is that the system is designed to compress play, it is a system that is designed to make the ball work harder than the legs. Full backs are vital in this respect as when they push forward to attack they stretch opponents across the breadth of the pitch, thus helping avoid dense defensive situations arising. But, at the moment, this theory is failing.
For Klopp and Liverpool, it is about identifying these problem areas and finding alternative solutions but balancing that with something that allows for expansive football to continue to thrive.
Giving too many gifts away at the back? Drop the defensive line back by ten, maybe 15, yards compared to what its current default setting asks of it. Make that gap between Alisson and his central defence a shorter one, thus giving opponents less space and time to respond to the inevitable long ball.
This doesn’t have to be a concession to regression, just a bit of necessary, and temporary, pragmatism. If something isn’t working right now, it neither means it won’t work again in the future nor shouldn’t you try a different approach.
Is Fabinho carrying the weight of responsibility while having only just returned to fitness in a position that isn’t his natural role?
Make their jobs easier. Even the introduction of a third central defender doesn’t have to mean an end of expansive football. Three at the back would give Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson freedoms unbound in a 3-5-2 formation that can be a wonderfully attacking one, when in the hands of the right manager and collection of players.
In the case of Kabak, he came to Anfield for the chance of a new life away from the weekly defeats being sustained in a Schalke shirt, only to experience weekly defeats in a Liverpool shirt instead.
A 4-3-3 isn’t the only fruit and a change in formation would make us infinitely less predictable. Currently, teams go up against Liverpool knowing exactly where space will be found, exactly what midfield three they will be facing, exactly how low on confidence their opponents are and exactly the parts of the pitch they need to flood to be able to strangle the life out of Klopp’s men.
Body language is everything, and Sadio Mane almost slumped onto the pitch for the second half seemingly bereft that we had only 45 minutes in which to score a goal.
The return of Diogo Jota and Naby Keita can make a difference, providing they remain fit. Both are players that fit the 4-2-4 formation that was briefly visible earlier in the season, while we’ve carried 3-4-3 well in the past and although 4-2-3-1 would arguably represent an act of conformity, it would be a formation that would protect a vulnerable defence and draw out dense defensive setups.
One thing that is certain is that if we continue to bang our head against this particular brick wall then we will struggle for a top-six finish, let alone the top four.