Not only have two defeats on the bounce for Liverpool wiped away any momentum gained from the dogged displays at the start of the season, losses to West Ham United and Manchester United have highlighted a multitude of problems. Individual mistakes have resulted in Liverpool conceding thrice for two games running, midfield cohesion has been severely affected by the foot injury to Jordan Henderson, while Christian Benteke is either isolated up front or not getting the service that a striker like him would thrive on. Liverpool did sorely miss Henderson and Coutinho due to injury and suspension respectively, but Liverpool’s performance was the product of poor squad management on the part of Brendan Rodgers, the Transfer Committee, and let’s put it politely, the powers that be that run the club.
Ill fitting tactics for an imbalanced squad
Walking into Old Trafford in a 4-3-3 without an actual winger on the pitch was a poor choice for the Reds, but this is not the kind of thing that would surprises Liverpool supporters anymore. Brendan Rodgers talked about his preference at educating players rather than training them like dogs when he first joined Liverpool, but players being purchased from other clubs and then being played out of position has been a prominent feature of his tenure as manager. At Old Trafford it was no different. Rodgers would know that a 4-3-3 requires width, having used that at Swansea 4 seasons ago. Why then, for instance, was Danny Ings positioned closer to Joe Gomez, and why would you spend A?29m on a goal scoring attacking midfielder if you are going to ask him to spend 90 minutes chasing Luke Shaw?
What are the alternatives, one might ask? Not many, and that’s the bigger problem.
Liverpool’s senseless transfer strategy and squad management has put the club in an awkward position for this season – so what supporters saw at Old Trafford will not be a one-off. Any club spending A?32m on a striker who thrives on crosses should be smart enough to not sell or loan out players who are supposed to put in those crosses in the first place. Loaning out Lazar Markovic for instance, is a puzzling decision as it is – Liverpool bought him at a time when the club was stocked with wingers both in the first team and in the academy, yet loaned him out when they were short in the same department. Also, what does Brendan Rodgers plan to do is something happens to Nathaniel Clyne?
Problems in defence persist
In an age when it takes minutes for the watching public to form and change opinions at an instant, three clean sheets on the bounce was enough to give Liverpool supporters reason to believe that their defensive troubles were behind them. Turns out it was nothing but a smokescreen for one horror show following another.
The causes of Liverpool’s troubles at the back have been debated ad nauseum for two years now, but the continued attempts at carrying out zonal marking has been overlooked as a cause of the Reds being so vulnerable at set pieces. Man marking may not make a significant difference from a statistical standpoint over the course of a season, but the problem with zonal marking took advantage of is that your opponent knows exactly how you plan to defend. There was no need for 5 Liverpool players to be marking 1 man at the edge of the 6 yard box; and Louis van Gaal had two weeks to plan on how to make the most of it. All the players were doing is following the instructions of the manager, but the fact that Liverpool’s longest serving defender barely speaks a word on the field meant that there was no one in defence to provide direction based on the setup that Manchester United had come up with. The goal scored by Daley Blind was no accident.
On the other hand, Joe Gomez was at fault for the penalty that made it 2-0, bringing down Ander Herrara when he was going nowhere. But there are plenty of experienced players who themselves make the same mistake that Gomez made, so the danger for him is that his age and lack of experience will be used as an excuse to punish him for his mistakes.
The bigger issue facing Liverpool is that spending upwards of A?12m on a left back one season ago still does not help in solving a problem they have faced for a decade. Alberto Moreno is barely productive going forward; however, given that Rodgers and the management were daft enough to sell/loan out the wingers on the club’s books this summer, it makes sense to reinstate Alberto Moreno at left back in order to provide the width that Liverpool need. The only time Moreno actually performed well in a Liverpool shirt was during Liverpool’s 11 game unbeaten streak in the winter of 2014-15, where he combined well with Mamadou Sakho moving forward, while Sakho offered enough protection on the left for him to be more adventurous going forward. Dejan Lovren on the other hand is often more interested in trying to do other defenders’ jobs than his own – he was even found trying to cover for Nathaniel Clyne on the right at Old Trafford – meaning any opposing right winger will always have a field day when faced with Lovren and Moreno on Liverpool’s left side. Seriously, how bad is Mamadou Sakho in training?
The fact that Nathaniel Clyne is the only defender coming out with any credit at a time when Liverpool sorely need to improve their defensive record is a scary situation. Martin Skrtel is Liverpool’s longest serving defender and the best of a bad bunch for two seasons running, but a flawed one. Liverpool pride themselves on maintaining high standards, so with regards to Skrtel, there either needs to be intent on finding a better defender in the transfer market, or grooming a young defender who can take his place and yet, there has been no intent to either find a defender out there who is better than him or groom a youngster who could be a mainstay for years to come.
One would imagine Tiago Ilori being bought 2 years ago being handpicked as someone who could protect the present and future of the club, given that he was part of the Sporting Lisbon side that tore Liverpool apart in the NextGen series on more than one occasion. All the club have done with him over the last two seasons; however, is waste his time loaning him out to clubs that will not prepare him for the challenges of playing in the Premier League. Ilori might as well have not joined Liverpool in the first place, he would have been better off staying at Sporting Lisbon and getting the game time that he needed in the Primeira Liga, while Liverpool would not have wasted two years in finding a defender who would actually play for Liverpool’s first team. Skrtel is not a bad defender by any means, but he is nowhere near the best defenders in the league, and is at a stage in his career where he cannot improve. He will need replacing at some point, and it is better to do so before he pulls off a Jose Enrique and decides to stay at Liverpool only because there is no other club that can fulfill his wage demands.
The future isn’t so bright
Liverpool now begin a Europa League campaign hoping to not need to play that tournament next year. The difficulty associated with finishing in the Top 4, the chance of winning meaningful silverware in Europe and the opportunity at a back door entry into the Champions League means that the Reds need to take this tournament seriously. Theoretically, the fact that Liverpool are one of the richest clubs taking part in the Europa League mean that they should be better equipped at handling the demands of the tournament, but the fact that Liverpool had to give up 4 squad places in submitting the squad list to UEFA due to not having club trained players in the senior team is another indicator of Liverpool’s flawed transfer and squad management strategy. This means that Liverpool will only have 21 players to choose from, with no backup at full back and on both wings, in Europe.
Requirements at having a certain number of club trained players could soon be extended to the Premier League, so Liverpool will need to be careful over the next 12 months, so that they do not have to give up squad players again the future. The Reds should not be in a situation where missing one or two players results in them putting on dire performances like the one they put up at Old Trafford against Manchester United.