Liverpool’s style of play has been feverishly debated throughout the season, with particular emphasis on their inability to get better results against lesser teams.
Asked about the latest disappointment — a 0-0 draw at home to Southampton — Gary Neville offered up his views.
There’s always a fraught relationship between the former Manchester United full-back and Liverpool supporters. David Beckham and Eric Cantona were renowned for their skills, while Neville was a steady enough defender. He was certainly no Dani Alves.
Occasional comments about how much he disliked Liverpool often ratcheted up the rivalry and helped make him a United favourite that way, but after his playing days ended few can doubt the impact he’s had as a pundit, especially in a forensic and often humorous partnership with Anfield stalwart Jamie Carragher.
His views are always worth considering yet a little flawed in this instance. In terms of how Jurgen Klopp’s team play, few expressed misgivings in the last days of 2016 after Liverpool had built up an impressive total of 43 points in the first half of the season.
That’s an obvious statistical feature of every Reds team that has reached 80 or more points this century. Gerard Houllier’s team in 2002 took a similar 43 points in the second section of a season where they pushed Arsenal all the way before coming second.
Liverpool’s best team in the post-title era played under Rafa Benitez in season 2008-09, gathering 42 points in the first half and 44 in the second.
A Brendan Rodgers team that included Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in full flow took an amazing 48 points during the latter part of season 2013-14. It still, incredibly, wasn’t enough for first place.
Klopp’s tally was exceeded by Chelsea’s incredible run and then rendered moot by Liverpool’s poor January and February form, when they dropped 15 of a possible 21 points. He will therefore not be joining Liverpool’s “80 points” club.
There were various reasons for that but not many would have questioned Liverpool’s Plan A for it at the time. Fitness and a lack of squad depth, including a failure to find a suitable back-up for Sadio Mane, were the main reasons for the Reds stalling in winter.
There’s been some dispute lately over who has been Liverpool’s player of the season. The three main candidates were Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana.
Whoever gets your vote there is no denying that all three players — plus captain and midfield lynchpin Jordan Henderson — have missed significant chunks of the season because of injury. That, more than any question about Plans A or B, needs to be rectified if Liverpool are to progress further.
If Chelsea are a template for where Liverpool need to be, they have benefited immensely from their star men being fit for nearly all of their successful campaign. Just the loss of their midfield powerhouse N’Golo Kante might have hampered Chelsea enough to put them within reach, certainly of second placed Tottenham.
As Neville says, teams have always gone to Anfield intent on defending deep, letting Liverpool have most of the ball and challenging them to break them down. In the earlier part of the season, the Reds had little problem doing so. Four goals against Leicester, five against Hull and six against Watford testify to that.
After beating Manchester City on New Year’s Eve, Liverpool had scored 46 goals in half a season. They now have 71, a mere 25 added since then. They’ve won a reasonable amount of points in March and April, but most performances left a little to be desired; scrappy, rather than fluent.
At times any thought of a Plan B has seemed beyond Klopp, though concessions must be made to the weakness of the squad and whether he’s ever had the players to instigate such a plan.
Managers like Antonio Conte at Chelsea and even Arsene Wenger at Arsenal have reverted to different formations, most notably three central defenders, in order to arrest a decline in fortunes. That worked spectacularly well for the Italian, about to win the league in his first season in England.
Nobody is saying three at the back could have worked for Liverpool — finding three fit enough and good enough was the obstacle there — but at times the Reds have looked short of new ideas. This was especially true when their good start might have been the platform for a genuine title challenge, not a nervy scramble for a top four spot as it’s become.
If fourth place is achieved, many fans will be satisfied with that. Not many expected a title challenge at the beginning of the season, that’s for sure.
Liverpool’s Plan A was good enough for the first half of 2016-17. Fans will wait to see a full strength, fit and firing Liverpool being thwarted by numerous teams before expressing doubts about Jurgen Klopp’s main plan of attack. They’ll be more critical of it being his only plan.
Support InfoStride News' Credible Journalism: Only credible journalism can guarantee a fair, accountable and transparent society, including democracy and government. It involves a lot of efforts and money. We need your support. Click here to Donate