If every team went toe to toe with Liverpool in the way Manchester City did recently, the Reds would probably win the title. Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp’s men, far more teams will take the approach that Swansea City did on Monday night.
Klopp made no excuses for the poor performance that led to Liverpool’s shock 1-0 defeat at the Liberty Stadium, but he attributed it to his players not doing the things that they have been coached to do in order to break down Swansea’s blanket defence.
It was surprising to see how disjointed Liverpool looked, as Swansea’s approach was nothing that they haven’t come up against on countless occasions before. Given the amount of practice they’ve had in these kind of games you would think Klopp’s instructions would be almost second nature to Liverpool’s players by now.
Of course it isn’t easy to break down an 11 man defence but this is what you need to overcome in order to be a successful side. It is not just Liverpool who have to contend with this approach; it happens to Manchester City almost on a weekly basis. Opponents pack the defence against them too, but City are far better at dealing with it than Liverpool are.
You could argue that is because they have better players and that is certainly a part of it. Liverpool’s midfield does not have a Kevin De Bruyne or a David Silva creating openings for the forwards. It no longer has Philippe Coutinho either, but enough has been said and written about that already.
City are better equipped to deal with the so called parked bus approach but it’s not just because of their talent, it’s partly tactical too.
Liverpool legend John Barnes once famously rapped: “There’s only one way to beat them; get round the back.”
City do this as well as anybody. Whether it’s their flying wingers or their marauding full-backs, for several years City have been the masters at getting players in behind to cut the ball back across the six yard box.
Liverpool managed this on only a few occasions against Swansea through left-back Andrew Robertson. The Scot had a couple of low crosses fizzed across the six yard box but unfortunately no-one was able to get on the end of them. He also had a shooting opportunity from a similar situation but Swans full-back Kyle Naughton was able to get back and make an important challenge to take the ball off his toe.
That should have shown Liverpool the way forward. Keep getting round the back and eventually the goal will come, but too often they ignored the space out wide and instead continued to bang their heads against a brick wall in the centre. It played into Swansea’s hands.
Robertson did not do enough in the final third but that is partly because Liverpool did not work enough situations to get him in behind. On the other side Joe Gomez offered absolutely nothing in the final third, but that’s more understandable as it is not his strength, and — based on comments made by his manager afterwards — it wasn’t really his job either.
Klopp suggested that Mohamed Salah was supposed to be on the wing which would leave space on the inside for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to exploit. Presumably then, Gomez was not expected to be charging forward on the overlap in the way that Robertson was.
Perhaps he should be though? When it became clear that the tactics were not working that is when a manager needs to earn his corn. Swansea were happy to defend the width of their own 18 yard box and the only space for the Reds to exploit was out wide. With due respect to Gomez, he is not the man to do that. His strength is defending, so it’s puzzling that he was left out there when Swansea were showing no interest in attacking and were simply trying to hold on to their 1-0 lead.
Oxlade-Chamberlain could have been used there, or alternatively Trent Alexander-Arnold could have been brought on to exploit the space out wide. The teenager has scored three goals from right-back this season so it’s baffling that he wasn’t called upon when Liverpool were chasing the game.
Klopp clearly believes the problem on Monday night was the players not sticking tot he tactical plan. Liverpool’s only previous losses this season had come away at Spurs and City, so clearly they are doing more right than wrong. There is definite room for improvement in these kind of games though.
It isn’t just about losing at Swansea. Liverpool drew 1-1 with Everton, Newcastle and Burnley, while they were held to goalless draws by West Brom and Manchester United too. All of those teams set out with the sole intention of frustrating Liverpool and avoiding defeat, and all got exactly what they wanted.
For all the giant strides Liverpool have made under Klopp, this remains their most glaring flaw and the biggest obstacle to be overcome if they are to truly became contenders.
Klopp is right to expect more from his players than he saw from them at Swansea, but perhaps he also needs to tweak his own tactical approach to these games because when they are denied space to run into, Liverpool can be relatively easy to stifle.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN’s Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.