Liverpool must beat 'bottom 10' teams if they're to challenge for title
Footballers are increasingly judged according to their performance in big games, with memorable performances in semifinals and finals seemingly the main criteria for end-of-year awards. But such focus upon football's biggest matches obscures the fact that performance in smaller games has never been so crucial. In an era in which league champions can achieve 100 points, contenders can barely afford more than a single slip-up in a small game all season.
Some clubs, strange as it might sound, suffer from a lack of small-game temperament.
The most obvious example is Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, who are unquestionably capable of performing excellently against the strongest opposition in domestic and European competition. But under Klopp, Liverpool have often struggled to break down minnows at Anfield, and this weekend they face one such test at home to Brighton and Hove Albion.
Although the Reds won the two meetings last season by an aggregate score of 9-1, Chris Hughton's side are arguably the Premier League's most resilient, stubborn side when not in possession. They're compact, they're disciplined and they're organised, and their victory over Manchester United last weekend demonstrated their ability to shock the Premier League's leading lights.
Liverpool were unbeaten at home last season, but their home record was not good enough. If that sounds like a contradiction, consider that Liverpool only actually won 12 of their 19 home matches, collecting seven fewer home points than Manchester City, four fewer than Manchester United and Arsenal and the same number as Tottenham, who weren't even playing home matches at home. Unbeaten records are overrated in terms of winning points; the Arsenal "Invincibles" side would have been 10 points off winning last season's title. Some of Liverpool's draws were against good opposition, but draws at home to Burnley, West Brom and Stoke were unacceptable.
It is those matches, at home to small sides, that have cost Liverpool dearly over the years. The last time they started a season with a genuine belief they could lift the Premier League title for the first time was in 2008-09, when they boasted an excellent record against the top sides but finished second because they drew at home to Stoke, Fulham and West Ham at Anfield.
Premier League title winners don't slip up at home to bottom-half sides. Four of the past five title-winners have won nine of their home matches against the Premier League's bottom 10. The exceptions: Leicester City in 2015-16 recorded eight victories and two draws; last season, Manchester City dropped points in those matches only when the league title had already been clinched.
Although Liverpool's sporadic inability to break down weaker sides has sometimes been attributed to the nature of Klopp's "gegenpressing" system -- pressing becomes difficult when the opposition don't want much possession and play long when they win the ball -- but in truth, it's a longer-standing issue.
"We've always done well against the bigger teams," said former captain Steven Gerrard after leaving the club in 2015. "But we've always struggled against Fulham at home or West Brom at home, when they park the bus and we haven't got that bit of magic to open them up."
It's arguable that Liverpool don't necessarily have much magic in their ranks despite such an impressive starting XI. Philippe Coutinho was their most likely player to provide an unexpected moment of brilliance out of nothing, a long-range strike or a mazy dribble, but the Brazil international was arguably too much of an individualist to fit into Klopp's system anyway, and Liverpool are a better side without him. But now, opening up the opposition must now come from Liverpool's system rather than their individuals.
So what can Liverpool do differently this season in home games against weaker sides to open them up?
The first idea is to be more adventurous in the deep midfield position, where Klopp now has a wealth of options. Jordan Henderson has played relatively well in that position over the past couple of years, particularly in terms of pressing. His passing range, too, is good. But Henderson doesn't quite offer the intelligence in possession to drag opponents out of position, teasing them up the pitch before slipping the ball past them, and Klopp now has superior options. Fabinho can play in a variety of positions, always offering quick and purposeful distribution.
The more intriguing option, though, is Naby Keita. Capable of playing almost anywhere in midfield, Keita demonstrated his all-round qualities in one move against Crystal Palace on Monday night, turning away from pressure on the edge of his own box, dribbling forward purposefully and then chipping the ball over the opposition defence for Mohamed Salah.
Keita has been fielded in a No. 8 position thus far, but Klopp knows he's capable of playing as a No. 6, too. This weekend's fixture against Brighton would be perfect for Keita in that role; up against the creative but largely immobile Pascal Gross, Keita can play deep, pull the strings and set the tempo.
A second option would be a change of system and a switch to more of a 4-2-4 formation, which Klopp occasionally used away from home last season (for example, in the 4-1 victory at West Ham). Opposing sides might become wiser to Salah's movements from the right flank this year, and therefore Klopp could field him more as a second striker, using his quick feet to escape opposition challenges in the box and occupying centre-backs to free Roberto Firmino to drop deep unattended.
Using two deep central midfielders -- a "double six," in Klopp's language -- may also prove more effective at tempting opposition central midfielders up the pitch to close down, leaving more space between the lines for attackers to work in.
Similarly, Liverpool must become much better at using their centre-backs to provoke such opponents out of position. In Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, Liverpool now have a technically impressive centre-back pairing that is comfortable in possession, a far cry from the combination of Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren that sometimes lined up this time last season.
With the intelligence of Fabinho or Keita in the deep-midfield role, and the aggressive starting position of new goalkeeper Alisson, Van Dijk and Lovren can afford to dribble forward more this season -- not to beat opponents, but to simply tempt them toward the ball and create space for others. The best way to beat a deep defensive block is to move the block out.
Klopp spent the summer considering his new tactical options and spent much of the preseason drilling his players in possession play, having long since perfected the side's pressing. He has had a whole week on the training ground ahead of the Brighton game, and it would be a surprise if Liverpool don't have a tactical surprise in store for this game.
In all probability, Liverpool will defeat Brighton, perhaps by a comfortable score line, but three points from three in itself is not the test. Liverpool probably need a minimum of 28 points from 30 at home to bottom-half clubs to stand a chance of winning their first Premier League title. A good performance tomorrow, perhaps with a slightly different approach, could set the tone for the rest of the campaign.