• The Football Notebook

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, Investigated.

Liverpool. A club that rings synonymous with English footballing royalty. Boasting a haul of 62 major trophies, including 19 league titles, they are one of the most successful clubs in the world, let alone England.

But coming off the back of a very turbulent 2020/2021 season, Jurgen Klopp aims to recapture the form of the 2018-20 glory. With the much-missed partnership of Van Dijk and Joe Gomez back to full fitness, this Liverpool side looks like they’re back at their strongest.

However, this team is ageing. The core of the team in Salah, Mane and Firmino are all 29, Van Dijk is 30, and skipper Jordan Henderson is 31. Liverpool needs to seek continuity at the peak of domestic football, and if they don’t take more action in the transfer market, they risk a ‘Last Dance’ situation in a year.

Who to Buy and Sell


After buying Thiago and Diogo Jota in last summer’s transfer window for £25 million and £45 million, respectively, and sealing a deal for Ibrahima Konate for £34 million this summer, it is looking increasingly likely that FSG will not invest any more money into the club this window.


Usually adopting a ‘sell-to-buy’ transfer strategy over their tenure at the club, the American sports group are precise and careful when taking the big splurge; Van Dijk and Alisson are such examples.


That all needs to go out the window now. With the departure of the very likeable and important figure in Gini Wijnaldum on a free and squad player Xherdan Shaqiri set to leave, this transfer window will make or break this season and future seasons to come. This is what the squad currently looks like:

From the table above Liverpool don’t look in the worst of shape going into the new season, but they do lack reliability in their depth, most notably in central midfield and possibly a backup striker to provide a goal threat off the bench. First off, let’s focus on that Wijnaldum size hole on the pitch.


Midfield

This Liverpool side knows more than most that injuries can derail a season and having quality bench players is the key to success in a tumultuous schedule. While Naby Keita has been very impressive in preseason and shown signs of quality when fit, can Liverpool really rely on a player who only managed to rack up 10 PL appearances last season? That, mixed with a 35-year-old James Milner and a Curtis Jones who looks very promising, means that although they have quality, they would not be able to consistently rely on that quality for the entire season


With this in mind, we suggest Renato Sanches as a transfer option Liverpool should pursue.

The Reds have been linked with Renato Sanches before and after yet another very impressive Euros campaign with Portugal, it’s time for FSG to pull the trigger.

Sanches has already tried his services in the Premier League before in quite a disastrous loan spell for Swansea in 2017 when he was only 19 years old. However, in the present, he has well and truly matured and found his Euro 2016 form again.

Currently playing the best football of his career at Lille, who became champions of France last season, he will provide much of what Wijnaldum did and maybe a bit more. The Dutchman is lauded for his agile dribbling, the ability to swerve through pressuring opposition midfielders, and the capacity to control the tempo of the game.


However, as you can see from the bar chart above, Sanches not only seems to possess Wijnaldum’s dribbling ability but seems to better it. The Portuguese midfielder also provides more of an attacking output with his dribbling ability, with his npxG (non-penalty expected goals) in the 91st percentile amongst midfielders in the top 5 leagues, with the other attacking stats seen in the chart remaining high.


Wijnaldum has been criticised for being too passive during games, with many passes sideways or backwards, not looking to take risks. While this trait of the Dutchman helps control possession and provides a solid base for the Liverpool side, there were moments last season where they needed that little bit of extra.


Renato Sanches is a man to take those risks, always looking to progress the ball to the final third and provide possible scoring chances. The graphic below further backs his forward-thinking mentality, something Liverpool was missing in Wijnaldum.

Keep in mind that these stats are coming from Sanches’ best season in the French League, and Wijnaldum’s possibly worst season in the more challenging Premier League. Even though it seems that Renato blows Wijnaldum out in most areas, it may not be the case if he were to come to the PL.


Having said that, not only do Sanches’ stats look impressive, he also passes the eye test. If you watched him play during this year’s Euros you definitely would have noticed his physical presence in the heart of the midfield for Portugal. His sheer strength is enough to muscle people off the ball and protect the ball from others at the same time. This solid aspect of his game makes him the perfect partner for the less physical Thiago in midfield.


However, the most attractive thing about Renato Sanches is his low price tag. Lille need the transfer funds and are willing to let one of their star players go for the mere price tag of £30 million, making him the optimum transfer target for FSG and the Reds.

Back-Up Striker

Liverpool were one of the league’s worst finishers last season, underperforming their xG by 4.2. To put that into context, rivals Manchester United overperformed theirs by 9.8 meaning they scored almost 10 more goals than expected.


While there is no doubting Firmino’s role in Klopp’s system, there was a ruthlessness missing in front of goal from the Brazillian with Mo Salah taking on much of the burden in terms of goal scoring. Diogo Jota is an option if Firmino isn’t firing on the goalscoring front, but he seems better suited to the wings.

Origi was the hero of the 2018/19 season, at least in Europe, but performances since then have been lacking. Expect him to move on within this window as well.

The African Cup of Nations also causes further annoyance to Liverpool as Salah and Mané are expected to miss 3 or 4 games in January meaning that a backup striker is more crucial than ever. Not necessarily one to perform the role of the false-nine, but a finisher, one who when given a chance will more than likely turn it into a goal.


A few names pop into mind. Karl Toko-Ekambi, Luis Muriel and maybe even Alexander Isak. But will any of the three be happy with the significantly reduced game time? Probably not.


That’s why we are opting for Sasa Kalajdzic. The 24-year-old Stuttgart man has only recently burst onto the scene, scoring 16 goals and racking up 5 assists in last season’s Bundesliga. His job is simple, get the ball and put it in the back of the net. Your classic target man but with a bit more agility and pace.

And he’s pretty good at it. As you can see from the table above, as a finisher he is top-notch, displaying high percentile ratings in all finishing categories. However, the most impressive thing about him is his physical stature. Standing at a huge 6 foot 6 inches his aerial presence can dominate the penalty box, and this, combined with the excellent crossing ability of Alexander-Arnold and Robertson makes the Austrian striker seem like the perfect fit.


He also shares some qualities with Bobby Firmino; his ability to press and be calm under pressure are all must-haves for a Liverpool number 9 and Kalajdzic certainly has that ability, while also offering something unique.


Now, I’m not saying he will be Firmino’s long term replacement as his style of play probably doesn’t align with Klopp’s long term vision of the team. However, he will provide a lot of the things Liverpool were missing last season off the bench.

A huge downside for him, however, is his asking price. Somewhere north of £25 million is where Stuttgart have set the benchmark, which is way too expensive for the type of budget FSG are on. Though we have seen Liverpool drive prices down before and if they can get the Austrian for £20 million or less it will be a really good deal.

So in conclusion, an ideal transfer window for the Reds will look like this:

In its quality and depth:


Tactics

Long-term injuries to Van Dijk and Gomez forced Klopp to change his tactical set-up for the 20/21 season. With the world-class defensive solidity rather than Trent and Robertson being allowed the freedom to move up and down the flank, they were instructed to sit further back, covering for the inexperienced centre-back pairing of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams.

This altered the whole system and is one of the reasons Liverpool were so sub-par last season.

But now it's looking like everything is back to the way it was and Klopp will revert to the set-up of the 2019/20 PL-winning season, which is what we will be looking at.

Brazillian goalkeeper Alisson, much like fellow compatriot Ederson, acts as a sweeper-keeper, responsible for the recognition of dangerous counter-attacks, ranking in the 94th percentile in terms of defensive actions outside of the penalty box per 90.

When in possession, Alisson is a key factor in the Red’s build-up playmaking the decision on whether to play out from the back or to use his elite distribution to find the front three.

The two centre-backs, Van Dijk and Gomez/Konaté will usually place themselves upon the halfway line when in possession being the escape route for the full-back when options are limited. Their pace is a major asset here, as their ability to catch up to most forwards in the world permits them to position themselves at such a high line, suffocating the opposition when the Reds lose the ball and enabling them to deploy their famous counter-press.

Van Dijk’s passing range also allows Jurgen Klopp’s men to use a more direct approach, something they do more often than not. This Liverpool side likes to play very aggressively and sometimes the best way of doing that is launching it forward and being a bit more old-fashioned.


But this isn’t just playing a long ball and hoping for the best; the front three and the full-backs perform very specific patterns for the best chance of creating a goal-scoring chance. And the Dutch centre-back is very good at finding them, placing in the 99th percentile for long passes completed per 90 in 2019/20.

The full-backs are the key to Jurgen Klopp’s system. While at Dortmund he had a key creative player in the midfield like Marco Reus, coming into Liverpool there was a distinct lack of attacking-minded central players. So the solution was to use the full-backs as Liverpool’s creative identity, giving them the freedom to move along the flank.

When the ball is with either full-back, the team will often overload the side of the ball, dragging opposition players to that side. The other full-back then pulls away, sticking to the edge of the touchline making him available for those diagonal cross-field switches to break forward.

A perfect example of this is their 2nd goal against Man City at Anfield (2019/20) - Multiple players surrounding Trent who then hits a left-footed cross-field ball to Robertson in acres of space who supplies an inch-perfect cross to the breaking Mo Salah. Classic Liverpool at their best.

Robertson and Trent are also responsible for overlapping their respective winger or positioning themselves near the edge of the penalty box where Mané and Salah would tuck into the box turning Liverpool’s shape into a 2-3-5 when attacking. This versatility in movement makes Liverpool unpredictable when playing stubborn opposition and the full-backs are the key to it all.


The numerical advantage supplied by this 2-3-5 shape means that while Liverpool aren’t the tallest of teams in attack, they still manage to score plenty of goals from crosses. This shape often disorientates defenders and the Reds are very good at capitalizing on mistakes from the intense pace of the full-backs' movement exploiting the 2v1 situation on the wings.

Fabinho plays the role of the defensive stopper. His job is to protect the back four from onrushing midfielders, moving to where the action is to act as cover for the other centre-midfielders involved in the counter-press. His defensive ability is crucial to the fact Liverpool don’t get exposed on the break. In possession, he’s responsible for dropping deep when building out from the back or supplying that escape outlet in the final third.

As for the other two midfielders, they both do most of their operations in the half-space providing the link between the winger and the full-backs if a direct pass is not on.

Henderson, the workhorse of midfield, acts in the box-to-box role - having the freedom to press and be a nuisance to the opposition while also needing the discipline to slot in the vacant right-back role when Trent goes forward.

Thiago/Keita is given a more creative role, to use their dribbling and playmaking ability to beat the press and deliver the ball to the front three. They would usually be positioned much higher the pitch than Henderson to provide that little bit of spontaneity at the edge of the box. Despite this, they are still responsible for covering Robertson when he pushes forward as well.

Liverpool’s midfield doesn’t usually get the plaudits of their success but they are an essential part of how this team functions and their identity.


As for the lauded front three, they are constantly switching and changing positions to throw off defenders and make them uncomfortable.


Firmino, in the false 9 role, aims to drop deep to leave space for Salah and Mané to run into. The Brazilian then receives the ball from either Thiago or Henderson and uses his creative ability to either lay it off to the wide runners or architect a shooting chance from outside the box.

Defensively, Firmino is responsible for initiating the press, something that he is exceptionally good at, ranking in the 97th percentile for successful pressures per 90 at 5.74.


As for star players Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, their main objective is to attack the box, not only leaving space for the fullbacks to exploit, but also to be ready to attack a cross that is played in.


However, Klopp gives them plenty of options. Instead of attacking the box, they can also choose to stay wide, readying themselves for those long crossfield balls that are used so often. This allows them to use their impressive 1v1 dribbling out wide and shoot or cross - Think Salah’s screamer against Chelsea in 2019/20.

In conclusion, Klopp plays a very direct and almost old-fashioned style that isn’t too common in high possession sides. While there is a blueprint to follow, most of Liverpool’s brilliance comes from the improvisation of world-class players, that unique ability to create something from nothing.


Predictions

After the events of last season, Liverpool will want to put things right and show people they can challenge for the title and the Champions League once again. However, the lack of depth they have compared to other competitors is alarming, something that may stop them from achieving their Premier League triumph again. Despite this, Liverpool’s starting XI is good enough to beat any team on their day which is why another Champions League might be in store.


Here’s our full list of predictions:


This Premier League season is shaping up to be one of the best ever with the quality in the league going to be at an all-time high. The question is can Liverpool match it. Reds fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the upcoming season, but also several reasons to be worried. This can go anywhere.

To close, this has been Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, Investigated.

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