ESPN FC’s Steve Nicol discusses Liverpool’s shambles in Sevilla.
As the Champions League teams completed their penultimate group games, it emerged Paris Saint-Germain now hold the record for most goals scored in any group. An impressive feat given they still have one more game to play.
No coverage has been given to the identity of the second most prolific Champions League team this season — Liverpool.
Barring a mathematical miracle involving Manchester United losing heavily to CSKA Moscow, Liverpool are also the only table toppers who might not get through to the knockout stage.
To score so freely and still not accomplish your mission sees the finger of blame pointing at one section of the team: the defence that’s been a weakness for at least five years.
Jurgen Klopp has a better defensive record than Brendan Rodgers, which is damning with faint praise. The numbers do not make great reading. After 119 games as manager his team have conceded 134 goals, too many for any team that wants success. You’d ideally want fewer than one goal conceded per game, not more.
Tuesday’s 3-3 draw with Sevilla is the latest example of acute failure at the back. It now seems to happen once a month. In August, another 3-3 with Watford unnerved many right at the season’s start.
September saw a 5-0 reverse at Manchester City. In October, Liverpool collapsed at Wembley during a 4-1 defeat against Tottenham and now they’ve squandered a three goal lead when they had Champions League progress virtually sown up.
After a recent shutting down of inferior teams some were claiming a certain degree of professionalism had been achieved, only for such boasts to be shattered with yet another let-down during one calamitous half.
The shock isn’t that it happened, it’s that fans keep being taken in by one or two performances which suggested lessons were being learned.
The statistics speak for themselves. Liverpool have conceded 30 equalisers during Klopp’s reign, quite a few in the final few minutes of games when you’d want your team to be doubly alert.
Jurgen Klopp has failed in his duty to sort Liverpool’s defence out — a problem over two years in the making.
They’ve conceded two or more goals in 36 matches. That’s well over a quarter of them, heaping huge pressure upon the forwards to keep coming up with the goods.
Klopp has used plenty of conciliatory words on the issue but in terms of decisive action the numbers speak volumes.
It’s sloppiness at key moments which is driving Liverpool fans crazy. The extremely late equaliser at Watford; a goal right on half time against Tottenham that restored a two-goal deficit; late equalisers in both Sevilla games.
Other lapses made less of an impact because they turned out not to be damaging, like at Leicester when a poor Jamie Vardy penalty left Liverpool 3-2 in front, or the nervousness at times away to West Ham despite the home team’s general wretchedness.
The basic plan, to keep on attacking, is admirable albeit naive. Weaker opponents may be cowed into staying deeper in case the speed of Liverpool’s forwards exploit any gaps but it’s all a bit one dimensional.
Teams need balance. Devotion to caution can be equally damaging. Managers like Gerard Houllier let safety get the better of them, especially against opponents that probably should’ve been put to the sword. Klopp’s flexibility, or perceived lack of it, is the key issue here.
It was incredibly adventurous to select three forwards with Philippe Coutinho just behind them against a team with one of the best home records in Europe. It can be claimed to have paid off with a 3-0 scoreline yet Sevilla could easily have scored goals themselves in that first half.
The following 45 minutes was the latest in a lengthening list of events which dishearten the supporters and encourage the opposition to keep going no matter how hopeless their situation may seem.
Liverpool remain in a good place, close to the Premier League’s top four and first in their Champions League group. Part of the reason setbacks such as Sevilla cause discontent is that fans can see there is a lot of good in this team. Is it really going to take that much tinkering to make them a genuine force?
Problems that need to be fixed have been there for a while now. Each recurring setback suggests, after two years under the same manager, that he doesn’t have any answers.
Liverpool fans don’t talk about breathing space in a game any more. Two-goal leads are no longer a cushion. There is instead a clamour for more goals in case two isn’t enough. That sort of pressure simply isn’t sustainable.
With lots of games coming up in a short space of time, a show of tactical variety would go some way to encourage fans that Klopp will at least address Liverpool’s soft underbelly. Otherwise debacles like the second half on Tuesday will keep on happening, undermining confidence in the German’s masterplan. That would be a shame, when so much of Liverpool’s play is genuinely exciting.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.