Fixing Liverpool's Problems: A Simple Guide
A Deeper Dive
One of the chapters in my new book (which looked at the difficulties of two seasons ago and the resurgence last season) focused on the 'Black Swan' events of 2020/21, and how diagnosing an issue when there are so many variables at play is nigh-on impossible.
Sometimes a whole bunch of things go against you, and each player's failings may be, in part, as a result of another's, with the whole system failing because it's not what it was designed to be.
In 2020/21, there was an emotional, dragged-out season (of great success) followed by a truncated preseason, followed by high-line issues (7-2 at Villa Park), followed by an injury crisis involving ten or more players. Big decisions, like conceding penalties and being done by tight VAR calls, were more prevalent in going against Liverpool in 2020/21 than 2021/22, and already Liverpool have conceded a penalty, had a red card, and seen a goal that would have been disallowed last season given, while opponents have somehow escaped their own red cards, and Liverpool are yet to win a penalty. In 2020/21, Liverpool lacked a lot of their taller players, and were bullied, as the results showed to such a dramatic degree that it cannot be coincidental.
The problem with Liverpool's team against Man United was that it was too old (in parts), too short, too slow, too one-dimensional, and in some cases, too rusty.
There was not on the bench beyond one not-quite-fit world-class holding midfielder and one incredibly promising 19-year-old; good squad players, but not game-changers.
It feels like the kind of issues that, say, the absent 10 players might fix. Or even half the absent 10 players.
Even with the injury crisis not fully over in 2020/21, the Reds got eight wins and two draws in the final ten games, as Klopp turned to the towering Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, to somehow shore up a defence – even if needed players like Thiago to be fit and sharp again, after months out, to offer enough quality.
Again, it showed me how important height was, with set-pieces so vital at both ends. Liverpool went five months without scoring one with their giants missing, and conceded five in that time, to cost point after point. Just shoving Phillips and Williams in led to six set-piece goals scored for the Reds in the final four games, to land Champions League football.
To address why Liverpool couldn't beat Man United, we have to look at how Man United were different to usual, and also, how the Reds were only essentially able to bring out paper, without scissors or stones.
Liverpool could not match United's energy, but that's in part because United were at home, fighting for their lives, and against a Liverpool side lacking so many vital dimensions. (If Liveprool looked one-dimensional, it's because the other dimensions were unavailable. Take the wings off a plane and suddenly it looks more like a toboggan.)
I was warning all week that United would fight back; and I've been saying for a year – indeed, even before he arrived (having written about "the toxic rot of the ageing superstar" a few years ago) – that Ronaldo was plonked into a fast, improving side, and killed their mojo. Ronaldo is just too much of a sideshow.
He was not part of a promising preseason this year, then he returned and they got beat 4-0 at Brentford. It's all about him, always. Ronaldo and Harry Maguire being absent (as well as another egotist, Paul Pogba, back in Italy) allowed Man United to return to the dangerous, if not amazing side that they had when top of the league after three games last season (at which point Ronaldo arrived), on the back of a promising 2nd-placed finish when never really in a title race. Good players up to when Ronaldo arrived are good again.
Freed of Ronaldo's overbearing presence, they played like a team, as I always thought possible. But Liverpool were not able to field an XI to trouble them, in a way that the usual Liverpool side would have. You have to credit Erik ten Hag for United's response, but it wasn't a tactical masterclass given that Jürgen Klopp could not field an optimal, balanced Liverpool side. He could only really field a side that had severe limitations, like a throwing star with its edges filed down.
I found it funny (as did Mo Salah) that United's tiny defenders set out to leave a foot, shoulder or an elbow in, to show how tough they are. They're spiky alright, and eager, and that will help compensate for their incredible tininess; they have a certain shithousery about them that will help. But only to a certain degree.
Do that to most teams in the Premier League (who are not as zen as Liverpool's attackers like Salah and Firmino) and they'll know about it. Liverpool didn't have the kind of strikers who will trouble them: big guys, fast guys, tall guys out wide, as well as power and pace from midfield.
A lot of other teams have those players. Year on year, Liverpool are the nicest team in the league; fewest yellows, no real hotheads until now.
Brentford showed that the same tiny defenders will wilt under physical pressure (and Brentford weren't actually that tall or physical, with their usual giant centre-backs not in the team; they're the 2nd-smallest team in the top division so far this season, but they had one good aerial target, Ivan Toney, who destroyed Lisandro Martinez.)
People talk about pressing in the Premier League overtaking longer-ball football, but with 6'4" Alexander Isak joining Newcastle (even if he's not a traditional target man), it's just one more giant forward arriving in 2022/23, with Darwin Núñez a mere average 6'2" compared to Erling Haaland (6'4"), Gianluca Scamacca (6'5"), and Newcastle's Chris Wood and Isak; with umpteen other teams having 6'3" strikers, as I've listed before.
And the promoted players of Kieffer Moore (6'5"), Forest have Sam Surridge (6'3") and Fulham have the aerially dangerous Aleksandar Mitrović (6'2", but also extra-powerful), who already has two headed goals by going up against smaller defenders. I'd like to see Lisandro Martínez go up against some of these guys a few times before people think that, just because he could handle Bobby Firmino dropping deep, he's got the Premier League sussed.
I think I made it that only five teams don't have a giant centre-forward who either starts or comes off the bench. (Chelsea might add Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he's often a tall wide attacker.)
Here's an excerpt from a recent piece, to just highlight the importance of size once more, before going onto some of Liverpool's other issues:
"Spurs have gone bigger across the whole team, with every single signing in 2022 over 6ft: this summer, a 6’1” winger, a 6’1” forward, a 6’0” midfielder and a 6’7” goalkeeper (with centre-back Clément Lenglet, 6’2″, also joining on loan); while Antonio Conte’s winter signings were a 6’1” winger and a 6’2” midfielder. They were already a team of six-footers.
It’s almost as if he understands English football.
(Harry Winks, 5’10”, is up for sale. Tanguy Ndombele, under 6ft, is up for sale. Sergio Reguilón, 5’10”, is up for sale. Giovani Lo Celso, 5’10, is up for sale.)
Newcastle’s signings so far under Eddie Howe include a 6’7″ centre-back, a 6’5″ centre-back and a 6’3″ centre-forward, and even the midfield playmaker Bruno Guimarães is 6ft. The new left-back is 6ft, and the new goalkeeper is 6’3″. They are interested in Chelsea striker Armando Broja, 6’3″. They are surely going to score a ton of set-piece goals this coming season, with one smaller buy (Kieran Trippier) a set-piece delivery expert."
This was before 6'4" Isak arrived on Tyneside, and indeed, before the season even started. There are strikers who are 6'6" and 6'7" linked with moves to the Premier League right now.
Funnily enough, Liverpool scored a set-piece goal at Old Trafford, but as noted, United have a tiny defence. (The alternative is a giant lumbering oaf, so it's swings and roundabouts.) Still, while they press better and have more pace, they will be absolutely battered in the air at times this season, as seen at Brentford.
Núñez would surely have given them far more trouble, both in the air and with darts in behind, and with his relentless running and his cojones.
But he was suspended, for reacting badly to constant provocation, and hopefully he's using the time to build up determination to atone, rather than to lose his head again. Channel that aggression, and no defender will easily stop him. (Fall prey to the dark arts shown by Bruno Fernandes and Martinez – who appeared to pinch James Milner's face amongst other sly moves – and he'd have got sent off at Old Trafford too.)
The training time will help Núñez, but Firmino and Salah were never going to trouble the tiny United left-side (5'9" centre-back, 5'7" left back, both very tenacious and talented but there to be bullied by bigger players). For all I talk about height, the main need is in the heart of the pitch: keeper (obviously), both centre-backs, at least one midfielder (preferably the holder unless elite like Ngolo Kanté), and then maybe one striker, if possible (but this is less essential).
Five really tall players gives you enough to cope at both ends on set-pieces, while Spurs have no-one about 6'2", but also, no one below 6'0"; as such, it's a spread of height.
Both Martinez and Malacia have pace, and I think both have good qualities. But Núñez would have tested them more. He'd have pulled them out of shape due to his runs in behind, in a way that Firmino couldn't. He would have leapt above Martinez like Toney did.
Maybe it's a sign of United's impending problems that Mo Salah scored a header from a corner, albeit a second-phase. Not only could Núñez have had a field day, but one of Matip or Konaté could have too (Fabinho as well, who had a header from a corner saved, even from an innocuous floaty corner), and as I've noted, the more tall players Liveprool have, the more often van Dijk gets free. (And with several tall players in the team, Roberto Firmino scores a surprising number of set-piece headers; in a smaller Liverpool side, he rarely gets on the end of things.)
Crucially, Núñez and Konaté offer elite pace, height and strength. They are a big dose of Liverpool's "physicality". (As is Matip, the tallest player, who is also the best at breaking the lines and taking the ball into midfield, and sometimes, the best at taking the ball into the final third!)
You can have elite small players (Thiago, Mo Salah), but you need heft, too. You need a balance. Liverpool don’t even have all their elite small players fit, either.
Newcastle could test Man City at the weekend because they had giants and therefore physicality, but also, the elite speed of Allan Saint-Maximin. Saint-Maximin with the same skill level but half the pace would trouble no one. As it stood, he could make the pitch bigger, by terrifying the City defence. Without that pace, City had far less to worry about.
Newcastle just don't look like a team who can be bullied anymore, and height plays a role. It's hard to quantify the intimidation factor of playing against bigger, stronger opponents, even if you're the better technicians. Again, I fixate on height, as it’s something I can measure; but even allowing for some confirmation bias on my part, it still seems to play a bigger role than people think.
Newcastle are now the 2nd-tallest team in the league (all averages based on the three games so far) after their spending spree of 2022, having been rooted towards the bottom until the end of 2021. Eddie Howe is seen as a modern coach, yet he's buying bloody big bastards, as is Conte at Spurs. Isak will increase the average height. I don't think any team has signed more players between 6’3”-6’7” in a calendar year than Newcastle. They haven't gone for superstars or big names, but big bastards.
By contrast, Chelsea have gone from the 2nd-tallest team in 2021/22 to 16th in 2022/23. They've been done on set-pieces, and lack aerial authority in several areas.
Spurs have risen to rank as the tallest team (virtually every player over 6ft, as noted, including every single senior player signed in 2022), with a new set-piece coach and are winning games and points via corners. They press, they're intense, but their bigness matters.
Height is not everything, as I always say. But it's almost always very important – certainly to a team, if not to every individual within it. Virtually every game I've watched this season has set-piece goals as a big factor.
Leeds ranked 14th for height last season. They were a small, pressing team. This season they rank 2nd for height, and have set-piece goals to show for it, along with points. "Set pieces were practised daily and some sessions devoted to them entirely," the Athletic noted this week, about Jesse Marsch's approach. They still press, but if you can press and win corners with big players, you'll mount pressure on the opposition.
Fulham and Bournemouth, promoted sides, rank 4th and 5th on height (ranking higher than all three relegated sides), with Nottingham Forest 10th. (Bournemouth perhaps lack quality with their height, albeit we’ll see at the weekend.)
All three sides are around the height of Watford and Burnley (ranking 7th and 8th last season), who were relegated, but Norwich were one of the smallest teams in the league. So the promoted teams are taller than the relegated teams. All have big, bustling target-men.
Arsenal are 6th on height rank (aided by a young giant centre-back, and the too-small-for-my-liking-at-centre-back Ben White moving to the more sensible position of full-back), with Man City up from 20th to 10th. Crucially, Arsenal have more height in the important areas, especially ahead of a dinky, overly busy keeper (who is talented but needs to calm down and compose himself a bit more).
Liverpool's average height against United on Monday – 181.6cm – would rank 17th this season against the average heights of the rest of the league; United, while shedding a lumbering giant, were still taller, at 183.1cm, and now rank 7th on height, having ranked top (but which didn’t help much due to their tall players also being so slow and ponderous, and at times, lazy). Liverpool's XI at United was smaller than 32 of the lineups Klopp fielded in the league last season (the tallest being 184.6cm, and the average being 182.8cm, ranking 9th overall).
While a fraction taller than the height-shorn issues of 2020/21, look at the points per game from that difficult season when the team were below 181cm on average:
To say that it was tall quality players absent is only part of the issue, considering that the addition of two giant rookie centre-backs helped turn things around. With the rest of the 25 selections, Liverpool had title-winning form, no matter if it was van Dijk or Rhys Williams. The 13 smallest selections was clear relegation form, at less than a point per game, and involved a mixture of quality of opponents, home and away. At an empty Anfield, Liverpool got bullied by Burnley, Fulham and Brighton.
Again, it's also not just about height and aerials, but the heft (and longer sprinting power) that can come with height, providing the tall players are athletes and not leaden lumps of meat.
(Albeit I still think United, while still a fairly tall side even without Maguire, Pogba and Ronaldo, as well as Matic, have a dangerously short defence.)
Other Absent Attributes
It was also a Liverpool side that was nearing 29 in average age (over three years older than United's), and with an average matchday squad cost of 50% less than United's.
I said on the eve of the season that the team could look too old, but there were enough younger players to keep the average healthy. But many of those were injured or suspended.
It's obviously not possible to rank pace accurately (it’s not a hard and fast number like height, price or age), but on height, age, and cost of players, Liverpool trailed United.
If pace were to be added, then Liverpool surely trailed there, too. A lack of height and a lack of pace must demoralise a team somewhat, as mostly all that's left is passing, and that has to be precise and "to feet". And even then, the Reds didn't have their best ball-player (Thiago), who is usually the Premier League's most progressive passer.
Again, the other elements were not available to Klopp, to balance it out.
Similarly, take 10 senior players out of any squad, and given that most big clubs like to have 20-22 senior players and the rest be kids (so as to not have costly, unhappy squad players moping about), you'll be down to kids on the bench. If you can cobble together 11 proper first-team players for the XI, as Liverpool did, you'll have one left for the bench (and in Fabinho's case, possibly not 100% fit).
So, rather than any tactical brilliance on United's part, the situation favoured them, as long as they gave it 100% effort. And after the humiliation at Brentford, they did that.
They fought hard, played the ref, and got a goal that would have been deemed offside last year. They almost scored two own goals, and Liverpool had the lion's share of possession and shots. They just lacked the cutting edge in midfield and attack that the absent players would have given, and the presence of either Matip or Konaté at the back. On the break, United were superb; Marcus Rashford waking up after a season in the doldrums and Jadon Sancho finally coming to the party.
If Liverpool have to continue with 10 absentees, then it should get better, but not a lot better. (As I said the other day, the slow starts to games remains a worry, but Palace were blitzed early on, and the ball wouldn't go in.)
Joe Gomez was great in 2019/20 – world-class alongside the same three other defenders – but has since had a third major knee injury. He did okay on Monday, but he's barely played in two years. The pace is mostly back, thankfully, by the rhythm isn't. He's rusty, as you'd expect.
He's also weak in the air compared to the Reds' taller defenders, and offers nothing at all – zero – at the Reds' own set-pieces (with the team's delivery being poor in general since before the Champions League final; the whip has gone, and everything is a bit too "safe" and floaty.)
As for the midfield, I generally like Jordan Henderson in Fabinho's role, but only really with Thiago and Naby Keïta (or Harvey Elliott) ahead of him, to balance it out. Henderson was poor at Old Trafford, but Fabinho had been poor in the first two games.
Obviously Fabinho and Thiago are almost always great together, and then you can pick anyone else and it'll likely still work. Ideally Henderson and Milner would be squad players now, brought on to shore up games. But with 10 absentees, what can Klopp do?
Bringing in a new midfielder only makes sense if they are high quality, but the recurring injuries to Thiago, Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain suggest possibly calling time on the latter two (whose contracts end in 2023), and then making the most of Thiago when he's fit.
Even a new signing could take months to settle, as seen with Fabinho.
Excluding Fabio Carvalho, 19, who could play there, Liverpool have eight senior midfielders, vying for three berths. Ages 19, 21, 27, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 36. So quite a wide spread of ages, but maybe not enough in between 21 and 31.
One option might be to see if Carvalho can replicate what Keïta might do, but equally, you probably don't want two 19-year-olds in the midfield, just as you don't want two guys at the end of their careers.
Harvey Elliott is elite for his age, but he needs pace ahead of him, as he's nippy but not someone who can scare defenders in behind with deep runs. He's tidy, and clever, but not rapid (as well as being small; which suggests he might flourish most in a taller midfield). Carvalho looks quicker.
Curtis Jones, still only 21, might finally click, and mix his clear talent with consistency (albeit my only big issue with him is that I never know when he's going to pass the ball, so he looks hard to play alongside.) He has the ability to be an elite attacking midfielder, but I still can't quite work him out.
The all-round maturity and quality of Stefan Bajcetic has impressed me greatly in the youth sides for over a year, and aged 17, looks almost ready. He's 6ft, a ball-player and a fighter, but maybe, as is often the case at such a tender age, needs to fill out a bit.
I also remain blown away by the ultra-explosive Ben Doak, aged 16, who looks built for men's football, as seen by playing for Celtic's first team last season before the move. I've no idea why he's in the Reds' U18s, as he's tearing that level apart; it's almost embarrassing watching him bamboozled defenders who are often 17 and 18. He's strong, quick, skilful and can finish.
If his attitude is right, then both he and Bajcetic could be getting first-team minutes this season, without likely to get a run in the team. (It's also easy to forget Kaide Gordon, who has been injured since impressing last season.)
Development of Díaz?
I'm curious about the idea of using Luis Díaz in midfield when Diogo Jota is fit, as per-90 minutes, Jota is the Reds' best finisher (non-penalty goals).
Jota can be patchy, albeit he's come back from a couple of unfortunate injuries a bit sluggishly, especially the bad knock to his knee in 2020. But he can run with the ball and score goals. He misses sitters, but per-90, he's elite. He's an excellent poacher, especially when finding space at the back post to head in unchallenged.
To me, Díaz is perhaps more like Philippe Coutinho, in that he's a dribbling drifter, who scores goals from distance, and who therefore needs to be in the box a bit more, as was the conversion made with Coutinho under Klopp.
I read that Díaz has made the second highest number of off-the-ball sprints in the Premier League this season, but so far it's seemed a bit wasted.
I think he could thrive in a freer role, as the 1 in a 4-2-1-3, but as ever with me, it's just a theory. (I can throw stuff out there, as I don't have to coach the players and take the blame when it ends in a 7-0 defeat.)
Díaz is perhaps the most flexible attacker Liverpool have, in that he has the pace, but also the skill, desire, character and stamina.
He feels more like a very attacking midfielder than a striker playing wide, in contrast to Sadio Mané and Mo Salah. (But of course, Núñez was brought in to balance things; you can't bemoan the loss of Mané when the guy whose goals will replace his is suspended.)
I feel that Núñez has the ceiling to get 40 goals a season in time, but equally, he'll miss a lot of chances, and it's not clear how long it will take for him to feel settled, which is essential to relaxing in front of goal (so you're not snatching at chances; you want to be both intense in your style of play and relaxed about your place in the team, and in your own sense of belonging at that level).
He causes chaos, and even when he can't control the ball, he can get an assist simply due to the intelligence, speed and determination of his movements to get him into dangerous areas. He can make the pitch bigger by forcing opponents to drop deeper.
Also, I’m sure Núñez has been intimidated before, in Uruguay, Spain and Portugal. They're hardly leagues full of saints and genteel wallflowers. I’m also sure that he’s not going to react to things just because he did this one time, even if it's a terrible way to start.
Núñez's stats from the brief time he has played for Liverpool are insane: his non-penalty xG plus xA (per 90) is currently 2.12, which is off the charts. Next best for Liverpool after two games was Salah at 0.85. (That doesn’t include the Community Shield either.)
Núñez looks like someone who won’t “score” his xG (currently he should have two goals but “only” has one), but it feels like he’ll generate super-high xG, and if he falls short of that it will still result in a ton of goals.
(Small sample obviously, but the Community Shield suggested the same, where he got a goal, won a penalty, and went close on a few occasions in the space of just 30 minutes or so against Man City, while he scored a 45-minute quadruple against RB Leipzig in preseason. There are so many qualities there, but he needs to work on aspects of his game, and his teammates need to learn to pick out his superb runs. He suits the way Liverpool now want to play, but it still needs a lot of training drills to build understanding.)
So, I wouldn't be too judgemental of anything until the injuries are down to five or so. Once you go above eight, you're almost playing with one hand tied behind your back. It's normal to be concerned, but if it was Liverpool's best XI failing to win, that would be much worse.
Having got back to his best after a slow start last season after injury, and a slow start in 2020/21, van Dijk's poor form this season is a concern, but he seems to need a few games to get going, as does Fabinho (and as does Joe Gomez or any other centre-back coming in from the cold).
The lack of the usual full preseason can't be helping, and once you start carrying injuries as a team, it puts more load onto those who are fit, who themselves feel the strain.
A bit more luck with the injuries, a bit more luck with the finishing, and a bit more luck with the officiating (all big decisions have gone against the Reds so far from the small sample of three games), and Liverpool could be easily sitting with five or even seven points, and from the very same performances no one would be saying there's a ton to worry about.
The only issue that really must be addressed, no matter who plays, are faster, sharper starts to games, albeit that's not been an problem at home yet.
It could be a while before Klopp fields the most balanced side (age, height, experience, pace, etc.), so whoever plays has to battle and run for 90 minutes, and be switched on from the first whistle.