For the past two seasons, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have been virtually flawless. Wrapping up last season’s title with a handful of games to spare, the Merseyside men had time to be beaten 5-0 by Manchester City and care not one bit.
This season, however, they have been well beaten with just four game of the season having taken place and have shipped an incredible 11 goals in those four games.
Are the wheels coming off the Liverpool bandwagon, or can Jurgen Klopp keep his all-conquering side on the straight and narrow, leading to their dominance of the division?
To find out, we spoke again to a professional football coach in English football, who will remain anonymous. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in the game, going through the coaching process, and is currently part of the team at an English league side… and that’s all we’re telling you. He’ll be honest each week about what he sees as he sees it. As ever, The Secret Coach pulls no punches!
Pre-match, Klopp named a strong team against Aston Villa at Villa Park, and on the back of a humiliating defeat for Liverpool’s bitter rivals, Manchester United, The Reds emerged from the tunnel in the Midlands confident and with a squad full of international players, only shorn of the services of Sadio Mane, Jordan Henderson and Alisson. It quickly went badly wrong, Aston Villa racing into an early lead after Adrian’s error let in Jack Grealish to square for Ollie Watkins for the first goal.
“Due to the rivalry [between Liverpool and United], I think some may have been thinking ‘Get in there, Spurs!’, however they are all professional and preparations would be good, and this would not have had an impact at the start. Given a chance against the champions, they had nothing to lose and started well.”
After another Liverpool error, this time by Trent Alexander-Arnold, a sloppy push and no tracking back meant Ollie Watkins had a second.
“Liverpool have made a few mistakes in the early weeks of the season leading to goals,” says The Secret Coach. “It gave Villa even more confidence and something to hold onto, but Villa didn’t hold on to the lead and say ‘break us down’ to try to keep a point, they sensed unease in Liverpool’s ranks.
While Mo Salah grabbed a goal back, it never seemed like the champions from 2019/20 were at the normal levels they aspire to and soon enough, Villa were 3-1, the 4-1 up.
“Liverpool uncharacteristically did not respond as normal with a swift, clinical ‘How dare you do that?’ attitude that we have seen so often most recently against Arsenal.” The Secret Coach says. “Instead something looked up. Passes went astray, their workrate wasn’t at the same level and too many players look uneasy. It looked like Andy Ruiz vs Anthony Joshua in the first fight. One had nothing to lose, the other could win while not at their best, but Anthony Joshua and Liverpool didn’t seem right. Too many questions that are normally answered emphatically by Klopp’s team weren’t in the first half.
Half-time, and a chance for Jurgen Klopp to change things. But this is a pattern of defending that goes right back to the first games of Project Restart, when Liverpool returned in June to complete a season they’d pretty much won, a title 99% in the bag.
“Look at the Leeds game, the Arsenal game and now the Villa game. The only game where Liverpool looked like they did pre-COVID was against Chelsea (in a 5-3 thrashing at the tail-end of last season).”
Liverpool’s attacking ability often means that defensively, it hasn’t mattered if they’re a little spla-dash, because, as The Secret Coach says, ‘Other teams haven’t punished the mistakes Liverpool have made. Aston Villa, however, have, and mercilessly so.
Instead of sweeping changes, Klopp’s team came out for the second half in exactly the same shape and structure, playing a high line and relying on their ability to close down the ball.
The Secret Coach thinks this is the right strategy and wouldn’t do any different.
“With the Klopp pressing game, every player has to be spot on for it to work. If the front man presses, he may not be the one who will win the ball back, but he then forces the defender or goalkeeper to play out from the back under pressure. It’s the next wave that wins the ball, so if that player is not at the races, then the ball is past them and most of the time that is a whole unit of players meaning the opposition are now ‘out’ of the press and attacking Liverpool’s defenders.”
So why not change? Where’s the Plan B from the German manager, or should he always stick to Plan A?
“Once, another coach posed a great thought to me, which was ‘When do you change? If your plan A is working – you’re dominating but then your goalie fumbles it and they score, do you change? You’re in control, so when do you change? From throwing the big centre back up front and going direct to leaving four or five players up for a corner, why does that happen in the last five minutes when the team is losing? Why not do that in the first five minutes and get the lead? Its all psychology. I don’t think Liverpool can or should change. They’ve strengthened with a better back-up left-back and added a midfield conductor in Thiago who has shown for Munich that he can control the tempo of a game on his own, something that Liverpool lacked.”
Aston Villa, rather than Liverpool, were in control of the game in the first 45 minutes, however, and that continued as they scored a fifth through Ross Barkley, the former Evertonian.
“Too many times in the first half, Liverpool’s attack was not set up to defend and regain possession should their high-tempo risky football not pay off. Often, it didn’t, and Villa were able to counter-attack and looked like scoring each time! It’s so important that everyone is focused and set as the philosophy is effective but relies on everyone, not nine or ten players but all 11.”
Individual mistakes happen in football, like Alexander-Arnold’s positional sense for the second goal and Liverpool’s frequent lack of good closing down on shots throughout the game, which contributed to deflected goals. While mistakes were made across the pitch, The Secret Coach is adamant that every goal is a mistake.
“If no-one made a mistake there’d be no goals! If a striker is one-on-one with the ‘keeper and doesn’t score that is as much a mistake as a goalkeeper dropping a cross and conceding a goal, but the goalie will get highlighted for it. The team who make the least mistakes have more of a chance of winning. England has a lot of young players who are so afraid of making a mistake due to the media spotlight they’re under. No wonder there are so many mental health issues, no wonder why players in an England shirt are scared to put it on because fans and media have an opinion.”
This season, of course, Liverpool have conceded 11 goals in four games. The Secret Coach thinks that it’s because teams have taken the same chances that they were getting earlier in 2020.
“Liverpool this season have been punished for their mistakes and because of this it has highlighted weaknesses that were already there last year at the height of their form,” he says. “Adrian is a good goalkeeper but has made a few mistakes leading to goals. Joe Gomez is a good young defender but had an off day and three goals were down to positioning and decision-making from him. But if Villa don’t score, then are we having the same conversation?”
Liverpool’s game is a ‘risk-based’ game, so when confidence is high, it works well. Chances are created, Mo Salah is knocking goals in left, right and centre. But against Villa, those mistakes were punished.
“Liverpool players saw mistakes being made and they then looked scared of making the mistakes due to most of them having been punished in the first half. The tempo dropped in possession and players did not take as many risks as they normally would do. Villa broke Liverpool’s mental toughness by punishing nearly every mistake.”
Liverpool play to the strengths of their players, and there’s no doubt that’s in attack, but are they good enough at defending, particularly in the full-back positions?
“Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are in my opinion OK defenders, but that’s not their strength; both are attacking full-backs. If you have to defend for any length of time and the opposition are engaging them it can impact their decision-making, which was poor at times. Jack Grealish sensed this and played wider in the left channel for Villa. Being their playmaker and high on confidence against someone who is not strong at defending and low on confidence, the game was only going one way.”
It’s a slight concern for England fans that Alexander-Arnold is so much better at attacking than defending. So should England, who will have less of the attacking play against teams ranked higher than them, go with another option to the Merseyside man or does Alexander-Arnold still deserve the right-back position for his country?
“In my opinion, what he gives going forward outweighs any defensive frailties he may have,” says the Secret Coach. “If the team he is in sets up and attacks well, putting the opposition on the back foot as Liverpool have done, the chances of him having to defend are reduced. Think about [Matt] Le Tissier – such an amazingly talented player who could do some amazing things with the ball. The problem was he was lazy and lacked a consistent work rate. Southampton managers must have had the ‘7’ board ready many a time but then he would drift past five and score or shoot from the car park into the top corner. Southampton set up that way to allow him to do that, but England did not, so he won few international caps. Trent can create chances; without him, less are created and in international football chances are limited.”
With Liverpool hoping to retain their Premier League title, will their defensive frailties hold them back or can they do it again? The Secret Coach isn’t decided on that one, but he has predicted this season’s top three in the English Premier League. It might surprise some people.
“It will be nip and tuck between six teams at the top until February, when three will break away, then go down to two by April. With lots of games being lost, I’m going to say Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal finish in the top three.”
Arsenal are currently 9/1 to win the English Premier League without Liverpool and Manchester City – mouthwatering odds for those interested in following The Secret Coach’s advice. Finally, before he’s off to coach another session, I press The Secret Coach to a prediction for the forthcoming game we’ll be covering next week here on Calvin Ayre – the England vs. Belgium Nations League game.
“I think England have been too safe and don’t play with the tempo which we saw before, so I’m going for a comfortable win for Belgium by two goals.”
If you want to back that one, it’s currently available at a best price of 9/2. The Secret Coach will return on International duty for us next week here on Calvin Ayre.