The Premier League has seen its fair share of dominant striking performances over the years.
With a 7-6 aggregate win over Roma, Liverpool’s season reaches new height after confirming their place in the final of the 2018 Champions League.
A team with scintillating attacking prowess backed by some of the most ardent supporters in world football, Liverpool can be confident about their chance against Real Madrid in the final taking place in Kiev. But in the meantime Jurgen Klopp needs to turn his gaze to the defence.
Liverpool’s defence has been under intense scrutiny compared to their brilliant counterpart up the field. However, it is undeniable that the defence has progressively improved over the course of the season.
The mid-season addition of Virgil van Dijk complemented by the maturation of Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Loris Karius have added resolve to the backline. Their collective efforts against Guardiola’s Manchester City in the quarter-final of the Champions League was a testament.
The latest concern, however, has nothing to do with the usual suspects in failing to deal with a long ball or set-piece marking or Dejan Lovren’s inevitable implosions. The concern is fatigue.
In the last four matches – two in the Premier League and two in the Champions League – Liverpool has conceded eight goals, with six of those in the last 15 minutes of the game.
These lapses at the end of games have created unnecessary uncertainty in securing a top-four spot where Klopp – describing the remaining two matches as “semi-finals” – ideally would like to cotton wrap all his players. The last thing Klopp needs is another injury to his midfield.
This late-game struggle is somewhat unexpected. The presence of Van Dijk has imposed leadership on people around him and his calming influence has largely eliminated the phenomenon of late goals, which was common early in the season.
So why has this problem returned?
Liverpool’s inability to close out games is due to fatigue. Regardless of the scoreline – leading by multiple goals in the first leg of the semi-final or searching for a late breakthrough against Stoke – the energy level of the entire team drops visibly. The will was there, but the legs disobeyed.
A common sight in the last 15 minutes of matches in the last two weeks: forwards struggled to string passes and test the opposition defence and the midfielders struggle to cover as much ground. As a result, the other team won the territorial battle, started flirting around the penalty box and at times scored goals.
Klopp’s heavy metal football demands intense physical exertion. The forwards lead the defensive efforts by pressing high up the field. The three midfielders are all two-way runners; they are expected to contribute on both ends of the field. While the fullbacks should roam the entire sideline. Klopp needs his players to run and run and run.
However, as pointed out earlier, the fact that the backline’s ability to limit late goals in Van Dijk’s presence during January until recently is a sign that Klopp’s philosophy is not to be blamed. They have demonstrated that they have the right system to withstand late surges. Rather, the team is leaking late goals because of fatigue from the lack of rotation, particularly in the midfield.
Since selling Philippe Coutinho in the winter, Klopp has only four fit and healthy senior midfielders – Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who has since also suffered a season-ending injury), and Georginio Wijnaldum – for most matches. Adam Lallana’s recurring injuries and back injury to Emre Can have denied Klopp’s opportunity to rotate the midfield in a long, intense season.
And in late games recently the effect of the lack of rotation has been exposed. Liverpool’s tired midfield failed to provide sufficient protection to the backline and was also unable to retain possessions to alleviate pressure, which led to goal-scoring opportunities for the oppositions. Despite being overrun, Klopp has no reliable midfield substitute that he could bring on to revitalise and close out the match.
This is why even reinforcing the defence with a third centre back – usually Ragnar Klavan – has failed to stop oppositions from scoring. It’s difficult to repel repeated entries into the box when the midfielders aren’t applying sufficient pressure to the crosses.
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This is a genuine concern for Klopp, because if Liverpool can’t retain their trademark intensity in the last 15 minutes in Kiev, Real Madrid will surely exploit it.
With little over three weeks until the final, Klopp should get Lallana back and, if luck permits, even Emre Can. However, both players will lack match fitness given that there aren’t many matches remaining. Their subpar conditioning might not be much of an asset against the precision machine that is the Real Madrid midfield of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
Klopp doesn’t have many options, but as a wildcard perhaps he could consider using Alberto Moreno as a late substitute in the midfield, as long as he doesn’t shoulder much defensive responsibility.
Whatever happens, no-one will doubt the energy and rigour that Liverpool will bring to the final. Until then, let’s just immerse and enjoy the beautiful achievement of Klopp’s Liverpool. Reality can hit later.