New season, same old Premier League, same old Liverpool.
Arsenal kicked off the new campaign on Friday night displaying exactly the traits that were expected to lead to a summer of significant changes. It seems that Liverpool have also spent the entire break preserved in precisely the state they ended the 2016/17 campaign.
Sumptuous in attack, shambolic at the back; Liverpool’s trip to Vicarage Road provided yet more questions than answers. The drama around Philippe Coutinho has dominated the agenda over recent days and that is unlikely to change in the coming weeks. Yet Jurgen Klopp cannot effect that outcome. As he said on Friday, he cannot tell a player to be happy.
What Klopp can influence is the make-up and performance of the players who do want to be at Liverpool. His team looked as bright and inventive as we came to expect from them last season, with Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino ensuring that Coutinho was not missed. But in defence, the same old failings were on display, highlighted by the three goals they conceded.
Watford’s opener came from yet another set-piece, with Stefano Okaka allowed to jog onto an in-swinging corner and head through Simon Mignolet from three yards out. Liverpool’s method of zonal marking provoked plenty of criticism, and Daniel Storey has had his say, but the players are only partly responsible in that approach. Why has Firmino been appointed to defend the central area, towards where man beasts like Okaka will charge on a bi-weekly basis?
Watford’s second was simply a slapstick display of defending. The Hornets passed their way around a rearguard seemingly involved in mere shadow-play. Jordan Henderson, upon being passed by, thought immediately towards the counter-attack rather than recovering his ground, while Alberto Moreno, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip all surrendered their personal battles before Abdoulaye Doucoure was allowed to tap into an empty net.
The injury-time equaliser came after Georginio Wijnaldum ducked out of a simple header. Their entire performance hinted at a continuation in Liverpool’s liberal approach to defending their goal. Regardless of Coutinho’s future, the Reds will always carry a threat; there are few more potent and thrilling forward lines in the country. Why, though, have the weaknesses from last season, and even before then, still not been addressed?
Klopp places great emphasis on coaching, more so than recruitment, and the manager has had six weeks of pre-season with almost his entire squad to prepare for the start of the season. The German will get no similar opportunity during the busy campaign but time on the training ground, whether it’s at Melwood or in Hong Kong, appears to have made no difference. Jordan Henderson said after the game that the squad had “worked a lot” in pre-season on defending set-pieces. Either the coaching is sub-standard or the players aren’t carrying out the instructions. Regardless, it is Klopp’s responsibility to identify the problem and rectify it.
Saturday’s game was Klopp’s 100th in charge of Liverpool. The manager has had well over a season and a half to prepare to this point. Yet only four of the 11 starting at Vicarage Road were his recruits, and many of the rest, especially those with a defensive responsibility, appear to have made little progress. If they are not able to defend. and they are incapable of being taught, why are they still there?
The presence of Moreno highlights that. The left-back area has been a concern since Klopp’s arrival and though it seemed the club had finally taken steps – small steps, admittedly – to address their shortcomings in that area by signing Andrew Robertson from Hull. But the new signing was neither in the 18-man squad nor injured.
They wanted Virgil van Dijk and may still get him. The Reds are presumably very confident of Southampton softening their stance because there appears to be no alternative. However, given their approach to recruitment, specifically around Van Dijk, you would not bet against Klopp being left with what he had at Watford come September 1.
As Arsenal showed, Liverpool may be fortunate that most of their rivals – Manchester City being the obvious exception – have seemingly also failed to seize their opportunity to make considerable progress. The Reds’ best last season was enough to claim a Champions League place, but the evidence today suggests a place in the group stage is no foregone conclusion.
This same, under-cooked Liverpool squad must face Hoffenheim twice in eight days over the next three matches. An aggregate defeat is unthinkable but, given their consistent weaknesses, hardly inconceivable. Every opponent knows the plan of how Liverpool can be breached, and almost as many are capable of carrying it out, such is its lack of sophistication.
Klopp cannot now claim that this is not his team. The former Borussia Dortmund coach is one of the Premier League’s purists, and he receives regular praise for his refusal to alter his positively one-eyed approach. But the failure to address Liverpool’s startlingly obvious, uncomplicated flaws will be held against him, especially if their place in the Champions League group stages disappears in a similar manner to the two points they lost against Watford.