It could simply be an anomaly in a chaotic, hysterical opening to the 2020/21 season – or it could prove to be a seismic moment for Jurgen Klopp and the beginning of a major tectonic shift.
Fear is a potent weapon of champions, and Villa’s win has emphatically – perhaps permanently – destroyed Liverpool’s.
Like Manchester City discovered in the collapse that followed last season’s 3-2 defeat to Norwich City, once flaws are uncovered and once the fear factor has diminished, it becomes a lot harder to suffocate opponents or force them into a meek territorial retreat. Klopp’s ultra-attacking approach – his high line and high full-backs – may be critically exposed.
Perhaps the Villa game was simply a freak result. After all, they scored from three huge deflections, and coupled with the fact Leeds scored from three of their six shots on goal it could be argued Liverpool have been unlucky; their xG against suggests they should have conceded 5.5, rather than the actual 11. As their fitness and cohesion naturally improve with game time, and once Jordan Henderson returns from injury, Liverpool will most likely get back to form.
But it is by no means guaranteed, and it’s worth noting that Borussia Dortmund collapsed with exhaustion quite suddenly under Jurgen Klopp. As with his Bundesliga team in 2013/14, Liverpool now look vulnerable and opponents will increasingly go for the kill.
What is causing Liverpool’s defensive errors?
The single biggest reason Liverpool have looked so shaky is a lack of intensity in their pressing. Their high defensive line is not in itself a problem, but it is vital that the team remain compact and compressed at all times – and at the moment that simply isn’t happening.
The midfield and attack are both failing to press hard throughout the game, which is allowing opposition midfielders to hold the ball, look up, and play a long ball over the top of the high line. In short, pushing up from the back only works if everyone is pressing simultaneously, and like Guardiola discovered with Man City last season, that sort of approach is vulnerable like a grain of sand to a microchip. The smallest error sees the entire system collapse.
Liverpool’s drop-off could simply be explained by a lack of fitness and match sharpness, although the forces at play are likely to be more subtle than that. Empty stadiums and the pressure-less environment of the beginning of a campaign has subconsciously altered their work-rate, leading to more hesitant pressing, in turn exposing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.
These two, plus Adrian, are making seemingly ‘unforced’ errors, but these are merely a symptom of the flaws higher up the pitch.
How did Villa and Leeds hurt them?
Once given more space in central midfield, Leeds United and Aston Villa had the time and space to pick out the runners. Marcelo Bielsa set a template that many others – starting with Dean Smith – will follow this season, by committing four or five bodies forward on the counter-attack, aiming to confused a centre-back partnership that isn’t used to being put under so much pressure.
More importantly, the focus has been down Liverpool’s right, where Jack Harrison dominated in brief moments for Leeds and Jack Grealish, Ross Barkley, and Ollie Watkins were constantly threatening on Sunday. Clubs have now identified that Trent Alexander-Arnold is prone to being caught out of position while Gomez is weaker than Van Dijk; that is a new problem that Klopp will have to contend with throughout the campaign.
Interestingly, while Leeds went for direct forward balls over the top, Villa’s main focus was to switch the play diagonally, before then playing a simpler through ball into the channel. In both tactical approaches, the crucial factor was the same: Liverpool did not apply pressure to the likes of Kalvin Phillips, Grealish, and Matty Cash, meaning they had time to outmanoeuvre Klopp’s men and release forwards in behind.
What will Everton do to deepen the misery?
Liverpool can be got at, and the defenders will feel it. They are vulnerable, confidence is low, and Klopp needs to find a solution to his pressing problem – either by dropping that high defensive line or dramatically altering the shape of his midfield and attack. Whatever he chooses, it will be the first sign of concession from the champions; the first sign that – having concede three or more goals in five of the last 15 league games – Liverpool’s defence simply isn’t what it was.
This is a bad time to be playing Everton, then. Carlo Ancelotti has enjoyed a 100% start to the Premier League season thanks to a hyper-fluid 4-3-3 formation that is considerably more compact in central midfield compared to 2019/20. His trio of Allan, Abdoulaye Doucoure, and Andre Gomes have formed a wall of players that is very tough to pass through, in turn giving Everton’s full-backs the confidence to pour forward in tandem and swing crosses into the box.
Everton will change tack for the Merseyside derby, however, in order to copy the Leeds/Villa model. In Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison (making diagonal runs off the left wing to join the England striker) Ancelotti has two intelligent forwards capable of making runs in behind Gomez. What’s more, both are more comfortable leaning to the left, which means attacking Liverpool’s weak side, while Lucas Digne will bust a gut looking to support them.
Then there’s James Rodriguez, in superb form drifting off the right into the number ten space. It seems highly likely the Colombian will worry this Liverpool team, dropping neatly between the lines to receive the ball should Klopp’s side once again fail to press adequately. But the biggest weapon is Allan, a ball-playing defensive midfielder with an even better passing range than Leeds’ Phillips. Sat at the base, and under little pressure, he can ping those balls over the top for Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison to expose Liverpool’s high line – just like Villa and Leeds did.
Defeats of the magnitude suffered by Liverpool last weekend always become watershed moments, whether symbolising the collapse of a football club, like Barcelona’s 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich, or symbolising a moment for rebirth, like Southampton’s 9-0 defeat to Leicester City.
Surely Liverpool are not finished, and will come roaring back at some point. But right now, considering Everton’s tactical and psychological strength this season, it looks like things might get worse before they get better.