Cast your mind back to last summer (or many summers previous, for that matter) and you will recall the cries for a top quality midfielder to be signed. Mahmoud Dahoud was touted as an option, Piotr Zielinski seemed close, but in the end Georginio Wijnaldum was brought in. And while the Dutchman has had a good season, questions were raised at the time as to whether he was really the type of midfielder we needed.
Of course, there would have been no reason we couldn’t have signed a more playmaking sort of midfielder along with Wijnaldum, but right from the very start it did seem to be a huge hole in our squad. Who was going to be our brains on the field? Who would be our calming influence? Who, when the chips were down, would demand the ball and see us through some sticky periods, such as the one that arose in last night’s game against Bournemouth?
We led 2-1 in a game we seriously needed to take all three points from. Philippe Coutinho could carry on no longer, and so we turned to Joel Matip to see us through. This was with 25 minutes left, and saw us revert to three at the back. It wasn’t the most obvious move, but Klopp had claimed midweek that we need to ‘win ugly’ now that the injuries have piled up and each point is looking absolutely vital in our fight to finish in the top four. But maybe he was just a bit too keen to demonstrate that we were capable of grinding out a result.
Now, we know that Klopp likes energy in midfield. He likes box-to-box runners, players chasing the ball, and pressing in numbers. The ‘holding’ player we utilise is equally part of this, just maybe with a tad more discipline. But Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, and Emre Can… they are far from controlling midfielders. They don’t dictate our play, they don’t leave the opposition chasing shadows, and they don’t set the tempo of games.
Our lack of any player willing (or capable, more truthfully) of doing this is directly linked to our poor form against lower opposition. I hate to be critical of Klopp, but there are times that our play screams of a side who makes up for its technical deficiencies by focusing on running, pressing, positioning, passion, determination etc. But the truth is, we’ve actually got a lot of brilliantly technically gifted players. In games that we’re expected to win, would it not make more sense to employ our superiority over the opposition as footballers rather than runners? We’ve dispatched the top teams so frequently this season because those games are incredibly hard to control anyway – so swarming them in numbers is often the best way to go. Our focus just goes on stopping them playing their game, and then breaking on them like lightning when the cracks appear.
But at home to Bournemouth? Should we really be more worried about stopping them playing than imposing our own game on them? Because our tactics can’t just consist of overloading the attack, as we’ve seen how quickly that can backfire on us. We also saw yesterday how, even when we seem in a relatively safe situation in possession, we are capable of shooting ourselves in the foot and gifting the opposition a gift-wrapped opportunity. It would all be avoided just by having an outlet in that midfield who is always finding pockets of space to receive a pass, and then has the ability to play it quickly on, or hold the ball under pressure and allow the rest of the team to regroup.
The movement of our midfielders is so frustrating sometimes, as they all look to vacate space in the middle of the park in favour of running forwards when we have the ball in a deep position. Instead of coming to collect the ball off a defender themselves and having the confidence to pull the strings from deep, they all want to get forwards – which forces defenders to go back to the goalkeeper, or go long to search them out. It’s all part of Klopp’s idea of attacking quickly and in numbers, but when we already have the lead it’s often completely unnecessary, and retaining possession in the middle whilst patiently waiting for the next opportunity to carve out an opening would be a better bet.
Klopp’s decision to bring Matip on yesterday told Bournemouth that our way of seeing the game out wasn’t to bring on a player to stop them getting a sniff of the ball and disturb their game, but to shut up shop, invite them on, and hope they didn’t have the ability to break us down. Which, inevitably, they did.
Imagine having a Xabi Alonso to bring on during those circumstances. He would play the ball through the lines if he got pressed; he would slow things down and kill Bournemouth’s momentum if they didn’t. He would spray it from left to right to wear them out and frustrate the life out of them. And as they got desperate, he would spot a counter attack before anyone else, and initiate it with pinpoint precision.
If Jürgen Klopp prefers ‘heavy metal’ football to a controlled, disciplined style, then that is absolutely fine. It has provided us with some wonderful football matches in his 18 months here, and has us currently as the top scorers in the league. But he can’t ignore the need for a player who can come on and grind out results for us. We need a man who can take the sting out of games when our heavy metal is becoming muted. We know by now that we can’t trust our defence enough to sit back and invite pressure the way we did yesterday. There are other ways to see games out though, and when we come under the cosh a bit, maybe the answer is to seize the initiative back and starve the opposition of any hope, rather than dangle the points in front of them and dare them to come and take them.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)