KABIR ALI | 17th November 2020

22nd October 2017. In front of the highest attendance in Premier League history under the Wembley arch, Tottenham dismantled Liverpool in a ruthless 4-1 win. It wasn’t so much a matter of the scoreline – Liverpool had endured bigger defeats, not least the 5-0 thrashing at Manchester City just weeks before. This time however, there were no mitigating circumstances for Jürgen Klopp and his men to hide behind. The defensive frailties that had underlined their mixed start to the 2017/18 season were laid bare by Harry Kane and Co. to the extent they could no longer be overlooked.

Dejan Lovren was infamously hooked at the half hour mark that night but that was just slapping a band-aid in comparison to the surgery that was needed to fix the Merseyside outfit’s backline. When Klopp came to England in 2015, it was with the promise of bringing his famed ‘heavy-metal’ style of football from Borussia Dortmund along with him. Having signed Mohamed Salah and successfully keeping Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona’s clutches heading into his second full season at Anfield, he was starting to come good on that.

Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino joined forces with the aforementioned duo to complete a fab four that had already scored goals for fun in the early stages of the campaign but had to constantly look over their shoulders at a leaky defence that let them down time and again.

Transforming Liverpool: The Klopp Way

The mauling at Wembley forced a rethink in the defensive structure that reaped instant rewards – just four goals conceded in the nine league games that followed but when the time came to revisit North London at Christmas, it was back to square one. The 3-3 draw at Arsenal, littered with individual errors and slapstick defending was the last straw.

The week following the thriller at the Emirates was one of the most pivotal in recent Liverpool history. The signing of Virgil van Dijk, sanctioned on the back of Coutinho finally securing the move to Barcelona were deals concluded for eye-watering sums that clearly signaled the club’s ambition moving forward. By reallocating the funds from the Brazilian’s sale and then some, on upgrading the spine of the side with the likes of van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Fabinho, Klopp rewired the team and adopted a steelier, less expansive style of football, focused on grinding out results above all else.

Over the course of the next two seasons, the side became the best in Europe at just that. Notoriously tough to break down, the Reds’ transformation into defensive titans allowed them to rack up 97 points in the 2018/19 season as they raced City to the wire for the Premier League title before going one better and winning it with a stunning 99 in 2019/20.

In a season where nothing is guaranteed, change needs to be the only constant for Liverpool

Heading into the first Premier League season in over 30 years as champions, it was going to take something special to replicate that defensive rigidity. If the 4-3 victory on the opening day against the newly promoted Leeds was a warning sign, the 7-2 humiliation at the hands of Aston Villa was the writing on the wall: time is ripe for change again for a side that has to adapt from being the hunter to becoming the hunted.

If there was any doubt about this after that night at Villa Park, there can be no room for speculation now. Joe Gomez, alongside van Dijk has formed the partnership upon which the league’s best defence was built over the past two years plus, but with both now likely out for the season, a new blueprint and new personnel are needed to go with it.

To the Premier League champions’ credit, the six games since van Dijk’s injury have yielded just three goals from the opposition and only at the end of that sequence, away to City no less, did they drop points. But now with Gomez also out and a hectic schedule awaiting the players that do make it back unscathed from the international break, the strain on an already stretched squad will be telling.

If it wasn’t already, signing a centre-back is now a necessity, even if Liverpool must shell out a premium to a selling club that will be all too aware of their desperation, as Southampton were almost three years ago. But even if that reinforcement is identified, signed, sealed and delivered by January 1st, there are still 11 games between now and then.

The injuries to Robertson and Henderson whose extents remain unknown are also injury scares that Klopp would be dreading, considering the fact that the Reds can hardly muster a starting XI at this point.

There is some good news, though. The Reds are firmly in the driving seat of their Champions League group, giving Klopp plenty of room for rotation. The likes of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, who have been steady if not spectacular deputies have shown they have could thrive in the low-stakes environment of those fixtures.

That leaves just two senior options: Joël Matip and Fabinho. The pair have enormous boots to fill in forming the centre-back pairing of choice, at least for the next couple of months that have guaranteed a rock-solid base since the side’s defensive rejig. Given how the former has completed 90 minutes just twice in 2020 and the latter is coming off a hamstring injury himself, this marriage of inconvenience will require Klopp to revert to the drawing board just has he did way back when.

The switch to 4-4-2 (without the ball), easily Klopp’s least used formation behind the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 in the last game was radical, but it was something that the German hinted could be here to stay. At the first glance, fielding all of Salah, Mané, Firmino and Jota, that too away to a Pep Guardiola side seemed suicidal. But with Mané and Jota operating more as orthodox wingers to lend a hand defending the wide areas, it became clear that this approach was more reserved than was made out to be.

The return of Thiago, the start of whose Liverpool career has spluttered first due to his positive COVID-19 diagnosis and then injury, will be vital in replacing some of Fabinho’s midfield presence. Whether he lines up in a two or a three-man midfield is a welcome selection headache for Klopp going into the busy festive period.

The firepower in attack hasn’t always been present for Liverpool with Salah, Mané and most prominently Firmino going through lean patches now and then. While the Brazilian’s poor form is becoming a growing concern, there is no such problem with the electric wing pairing. Both, alongside Jota have started the season on fire with 22 goals between them already to settle many games in the side’s favor already.

Jota’s managed to upgrade Liverpool’s attack from the jump and shows you the best is yet to come

Even with the changed calendar among the extraordinary circumstances the world of football is currently dealing with, few sides are feeling the strain quite like Liverpool. Jürgen Klopp has his work cut out to maintain the hunt for silverware that his team have always been in the conversation for over the last few years. How they navigate through this crisis holds the key.

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