‘Something,” Jürgen Klopp said in February 2019 after Liverpool had drawn 0-0 at home against Bayern, “changed in the world of football – everyone adapted to it and we have to make sure we adapt.”
He was talking about a new-found willingness from top teams to defend. In as far as it has been possible to trace anything in the vastly changed environment of Covid-19, he was probably right – and yet watching Liverpool beat Atlético Madrid 3-2 on Tuesday, nobody could have believed football has entered a new age of attrition. And in that, perhaps, lies one of the two doubts that lurk behind Liverpool’s broadly excellent start to the season.
Liverpool approach Sunday’s trip to Manchester United as the Premier League’s only unbeaten side. They have won three out of three in what was supposedly a testing Champions League group, scoring 11 goals. Mohamed Salah has found an even higher level and the front three look to be clicking again, with the bonus of Diogo Jota.
As Liverpool faltered last season it was reasonable to ask whether it was just down to the injuries (and the loss of the Anfield factor without fans, and perhaps a slight loss of intensity after ending the 30-year wait for the league) or whether something more fundamental had gone awry. The answer now seems pretty clear: it was the injuries.
Concerns remain about the depth of the squad, particularly given Salah, Sadio Mané and Naby Keïta are all likely to be involved in the Africa Cup of Nations in January and February (after six years, Joël Matip’s international retirement will presumably hold despite the lure of playing a tournament in his home country), but there are also issues at the back.
When they went 2-0 up inside 13 minutes on Tuesday, the expectation might have been of a stroll but instead they ended up in a dogfight. Game management was a problem. “We misunderstood that situation completely,” Klopp acknowledged. “We wanted to control the game in the wrong way, we played in the wrong spaces and obviously gave two cheap goals away.”
Keïta was at fault for both those goals, while Antoine Griezmann slipped by Virgil van Dijk far too easily for the second. The Dutchman, so commanding the season before last, has not quite been at his best since returning from ruptured knee ligaments and was unconvincing also against Ivan Toney in the 3-3 draw at Brentford. That it should take Van Dijk a little time to get back up to top form is understandable, but that exacerbates wider issues.
Klopp was clearly disappointed in Madrid with the structure of his side. It is relatively early in the season and patterns of pressing are perhaps still settling. Liverpool have frequently overwhelmed opponents. But what must cause a tinge of concern is that against the three best sides they have faced – Chelsea, Manchester City and Atlético – and a notably aggressive high-pressing team in Brentford, they have looked uncertain.
This comes back to the point Klopp made in 2019: that football is changing. A decade ago, football was all about possession. Spain won three successive tournaments by holding the ball and so suffocating opponents, a method derived from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, whose game was far less sterile, but still fundamentally about order and control.
Klopp changed that, shifted the game from the Apollonian to the Dionysian: the German school he led made football less about retaining the ball than about regaining it. He seemed to accept that football is essentially uncontrollable but to try to guide the chaos – and the result, when Liverpool were at their best, was high-octane, thrill-a-minute football. (There is a paradox of terminology here: that the more obviously exciting, “attacking” style is the one based on winning the ball back; even though you need the ball to attack, holding the ball is less viscerally stirring, which goes some way to explaining the mutual confusion that surrounded Louis van Gaal’s insistence at United that his football was attacking.)
The frustration Klopp expressed at his side’s failure to “control” the game at 2-0 against Atlético seemed telling, because he has previously been a manager who has appeared to accept that football is not controllable. Take, for instance, his objection last season to Roy Keane’s comment that Liverpool had been “sloppy at times” in beating Arsenal 3-1, a game in which Liverpool were clearly much better while giving up three shots on target.
“This was absolutely exceptional,” Klopp said then. “Nothing was sloppy, absolutely nothing. From the first second we were dominant against a team in form, 100% in form, and you have to be careful for the counterattacks.” But which offers the greater chance of victory: a game in which you have 20 shots and the opponent five, or a game in which you have five shots and the opponent none? Guided chaos or control?
Until very recently, the super-club era had been characterised in the latter stages of the Champions League by chaos. Teams formulated to attack weaker opponents at home, unpractised in defending, found themselves unable to control games against high-class sides. Three-goal swings became almost normal. It was logical, then, as Klopp pointed out in 2019, that there was a competitive advantage to be gained for the super-club who learned how to defend.
The picture has been complicated by the clubs who insist on signing celebrities with no concern for structure, who prioritise brand awareness over successful football, but that trend can be seen in last season’s Champions League finalists, Chelsea and Manchester City. Guardiola is increasingly concerned by countering the counter, while Thomas Tuchel looks to manage games through midfield. Liverpool’s acquisition of Thiago Alcântara seemed an indication that even Klopp wanted at times to end the constant clatter and keep the ball.
But there has been little sign of that control yet this campaign. It may not matter against United – although Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team have in previous seasons been dangerous on the break – but there are perhaps the first signs that the evolutionary wheel Klopp turned towards chaos may be beginning to turn back again.