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Insulting defeat, nonexistent press & subdued Salah – Last word on Napoli 4-1 Liverpool

Liverpool’s poor start to 2022/23 got even worse after a humiliating 4-1 defeat to Napoli on Wednesday, and it’s clear something must change if they’re to have any chance of competing for titles this season.

Naples has been an unhappy hunting ground for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool in recent years, and with Luciano Spalletti’s side unbeaten in all competitions in this campaign, all signs pointed towards another testing trip to the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.

However, nobody could have quite foreseen the way in which the Reds would capitulate like they did in the first half, with Napoli cutting through Liverpool’s backline at will.

Here, This Is Anfield’s Jack Sear (@JackSear) is joined by Danny Gallagher (@Danny7Gallagher) & Mario Aquilina (@mario_aquilina2) to discuss a miserable start to Liverpool’s Champions League campaign and what exactly must be done to ensure their form improves sooner rather than later.

 

Fair to say that result had been coming?

NAPLES, ITALY - Wednesday, September 7, 2022: Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk looks dejected as his side conceded the fourth goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 1 game between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

DANNY: It seemed inevitable that a match, sooner or later, was going to end up like that.

Napoli didn’t even have to be on their A-grade, which is the most insulting element to everything.

This disconnect in the Liverpool team which has been showing in flashes over recent weeks was fully prised open, and a hostile European away ground was the ideal setting to facilitate this.

MARIO: Whilst I agree that Liverpool have been far from good enough recently, I wouldn’t say that our previous performances suggested we’d be beaten so heavily here.

While we haven’t been particularly impressive defensively, we’d only conceded one goal in the previous three matches.

NAPLES, ITALY - Wednesday, September 7, 2022: SSC Napoli's André-Frank Zambo Anguissa celebrates after scoring the second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 1 game between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

However, with the way Napoli have been playing this season (a more direct game since Lorenzo Insigne left), our very high line and, most importantly, our forwards and midfielders seemingly unable to press early and effectively enough, this was a game that exploited our current weaknesses to the full.

Once again, we’ve been outrun and, once again, we’ve conceded early in the game.

JACK: Yep. Given the previous performances at Napoli, I don’t think many Liverpool fans were particularly hopeful heading into this game, but to fall apart in the way in which we did was truly unforgiveable.

We actually created more openings than we have done there in recent years, but we completely shot ourselves in the foot with the lack of cohesion in defence and in midfield.

Something needs to change.

 

Thiago’s cameo showed us what we’d been missing in midfield, didn’t it?

NAPLES, ITALY - Wednesday, September 7, 2022: Liverpool's Thiago Alcântara during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 1 game between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

MARIO: For sure. He was a level or three above when he came on, both in possession and defensively, winning more tackles than anyone else in our team in just 30 minutes.

The absence of Thiago and Keita, who’d typically deputise for him, together with Fabinho’s poor form and Milner having to be used too frequently given his age, have been key factors in this poor start.

We’re being hurt in transitions and our buildup has been slow and erratic. Beyond midfield, though, a key issue is the poor physical form of the squad.

Apart from the fact that we’ve already had around 12 injuries, including many players missing significant chunks of pre-season, the players who haven’t been injured have seemed, with a few exceptions like Luis Diaz and Harvey Elliott, tired and slow.

NAPLES, ITALY - Wednesday, September 7, 2022: Liverpool's Luis Díaz celebrates scoring his side's first goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 1 game between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Then there’s the attack. Darwin Nunez has great potential as a number nine, but I don’t believe we’re playing a game that works well for him. Roberto Firmino still has a great touch but also seems to have lost a yard or two and is not pressing as well as we’re used to.

JACK: It was great to see Thiago back, and you could instantly see how the ball retention improved when he came on, but the sad reality is that he can’t play every single game. Klopp shouldn’t have to rely on him.

DANNY: Definitely. His cameo was bright and rightly hailed by Klopp afterwards. The counter press was all but nonexistent until he arrived.

It’s a worry, as it suggests those on the field didn’t have the drive to stick to the usual game plan of exhaustive pressing of the spaces, on and off the ball.

If Liverpool do lose that entirely – we’re looking at a very troublesome period ahead.

 

With Nunez and Jota back in the mix, is it time to give Salah a rest vs. Wolves?

NAPLES, ITALY - Wednesday, September 7, 2022: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) speaks with Mohamed Salah during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 1 game between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

JACK: Tough one. I’d certainly make some changes in attack. In an ideal world, both him and Diaz will be handed rests of some kind before the international break, where they’re both likely to feature for their country’s.

Whether Wolves is the right time to take Salah out, I’m not sure. There’s not really another natural player for the right-hand side, unless you put Elliott out there.

DANNY: Taking Mo Salah off in the second half was a huge statement by Klopp. We’ve seen repeatedly in years gone by his go-to method of always leaving Salah on, even if it came at the fury of Sadio Mane.

Subbing him off in Naples was a public rally cry, telling the talisman that he isn’t doing enough.

Dropping him for Wolves would be bold – but Salah isn’t the sort to sit back and simply be happy with his huge contract – especially with Erling Haaland currently hoovering up all the Premier League plaudits.

For that reason, it’s perhaps a risk worth taking.

NAPLES, ITALY - Wednesday, September 7, 2022: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah during the pre-match warm-up before the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 1 game between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

MARIO: He’s been strangely subdued in the last few matches. Nowhere near his level and nowhere near good enough. However, as you say Jack, as a right forward, none of the alternatives we have are an improvement.

Diogo Jota was erratic and ineffective when he came on. He too has been out for a long time and is still not sharp.

I wonder if instead of dropping Salah, a potential solution might be tweaking the formation a little, either to have Nunez playing from the beginning or to have Salah in more central positions than recently.

The key will be midfield, though. The earlier we can get Thiago on the pitch, and the more alternatives we have there, the stronger the team will be.

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