With one of the League's most popular managers, a wealth of talented players and a much lauded style of play, Liverpool had been one of the revelations of the season up until the new year. December ended with 4 straight wins, including impressive results against Everton and Manchester City; Since January began they have just one win from ten matches in all competitions, including defeats to Swansea, Hull and Wolverhampton Wanderers. They are now out of both domestic cup competitions and out of the title race - meaning one of the most optimistic seasons in their recent memory will end trophy-less and possibly without any fanfare of any note.
Has gegenpressing worn them out?
A popular excuse being thrown around is that the popular and dynamic style of play that Jurgen Klopp has brought to Anfield, labelled 'Gengenpressing', has begun to take its toll on the Liverpool squad. The key to Gengenpressing is an extremely high-intense recovery style after possession has been lost- often seeing two or three different players surrounding the opposition player very high up the pitch. At the start of the season this was a major advantage for the team, catching the rest of the league out with their frenetic pace and teamwork that other teams didn't have the composure to deal with. The theory now is that they have expended too much energy during the first half of the season, and the sudden rush of games during January has led to a burnout amongst key players.
So far this season, in the league, Liverpool have used 21 outfield players, albeit with 4 of those players yet to start a league match and 4 more starting 5 or less, including high profile forward Daniel Sturridge. In total only 12 players have started 10 or more league matches this season, which on the surface would lend to some credibility to the idea that they are being 'overworked'. When you start to compare it to their counterparts though, you soon realise that actually it's complete rubbish. The best place to look is at league leaders Chelsea, who have opened up a gaping 9 point lead at the top of the table with a style of play not dissimilar (though not a complete prototype) of how Liverpool have set out this season. They've used only 20 outfield players, 5 of whom haven't started a league game including high profile forward Michy Batshuayi. Indeed, their team has barely if at all changed at any point over the past few weeks, and they have had European football to contend with as well. For them to dominate the league as they have been with even less squad rotation and a similar level of intensity in their play surely puts away any idea that Liverpool are losing steam because they are tired - unless the fitness and conditioning coaches are particularly bad at their jobs.
Teams have 'worked out' gengenpressing
I think it's more likely that any apparent flaws with Liverpool's style is perhaps an overemphasis on it that has been sussed out by opposition teams. To once again make a comparison with leaders Chelsea, their success has stemmed from their system and this is largely to do with how flexible it is. Defensively the implementation of 3 central defenders, two 'wing-backs' and two defensively minded central midfield players gives them a compact and robust spine to build from, and they transition this into attack highly effectively, with the wing-backs deploying further up the pitch into positions regularly occupied by traditional wingers and one defender - David Luiz - taking on responsibilities of a deep-lying playmaker to effectively convert to a sort of 2-5-3 mould. By adding fluidity on the pitch, Antonio Conte has developed a formula that is difficult for opposition scouts and coaches to put an effective mark on, and this is a psychological and tactical advantage before the game has even begun.
Liverpool, whilst being tactically innovative, are easier to get a handle on. It's well known that they will go into a match playing 4-3-3 and most often they will lead this with a 'false 9'- usually Roberto Firmino. The merits of Klopp's system go beyond how they press - the false 9 complements the use of inside forwards, advanced playmakers and attacking full-backs so that off the ball rotation makes up for the lack of focal point in the box, as the opposition defence is being moved around from traditional marking duties. Hence you'd often see James Milner at the byline, Georginio Wijnaldum in the box and Phillipe Coutinho lurking outside, against the logic of the formation.
Effective as this can be, it is susceptible against a stubborn and disciplined side - particularly one for whom a point is as good as a win against Liverpool. Harassing an opposition defence and taking the game to their final third is more likely to work when this naturally takes the life out of how a team is comfortable playing - but Hull's second goal in their recent 2-0 win showed what it can't combat, and that is the traditional 'route one'. As Liverpool push forward more, a team like Hull will drop deeper and attempt to maintain a rigid and consistent shape to try and stop Liverpool from playing through them. The next step for Liverpool to take is to encourage more overlaps and transitional off the ball movement, to try and draw defenders out of position and exploit new spaces between the lines. For the opposition it remains a case of keeping their shape and limiting the space available for the opposition to play in. The more Liverpool rotate their positions to create space, the deeper the rotation will come into play- i.e. their central defenders will have to take up slightly wider or slightly forward positions as a means of providing an outlet to pass to once the shape of the opposition forces them to look backwards. In doing this it obviously creates larger gaps between the defenders, so that all it takes when the opposition gets possession is to launch a longer pass into that space and hope a forward can capitalise - see Oumar Niasse of Hull as he ran on to a pass from defender Andrea Ranocchia to score Hull's second and decisive goal.
Shane Long and Andy Weimann have scored similar counter-attacking goals against the Reds in recent weeks and it's telling that in their last 10 matches they've averaged 68.7% possession and only 5 shots on target - teams are setting up deeper against Liverpool and it's working.
Not good enough?
Question marks are going to remain about whether or not Liverpool are the 'real deal' they were cut out to be in the early stages of the season or the flops of recent weeks. Truth be told I'd say they're somewhere in between - a capable team with some very good individuals, but lacking in depth to compete at the top for too long.
So far this season they're first for passes completed, second for goals scored and joint second for tackles completed- there's definitely a solid, all round unit in them. They're unbeaten against the rest of the 'big six' teams this season and have only lost once in fifteen matches against those teams since Klopp arrived on Merseyside. Speculatively, it would be widely considered that a number of their players would get into other great teams around the world - Mane, Coutinho, Firmino, Henderson, Milner, and probably on current form Lallana are consistent and talented professionals. The acquisition of serious talent in goal, defence, and as a recognised central striker would surely boost the current situation.
Largely, these are the three areas where Liverpool need reinforcing. Telling again is how neither Loris Karius nor Simon Mignolet have been able to consistently hold down the number one spot - both have again been riddled with key errors. Worse still has been the central defence, with Klopp unable to settle on a reliable and consistent partnership, and every player used making key errors at some point. At first it seemed like they had something of a gem in Joel Matip, but against counter attacking sides his lack of agility and pace has also been caught out and this has led to him being at fault, or in the 'could have done better' category for a number of recent goals.
Finally, Klopp will surely want to add a more prolific and 'on the shoulder' style of forward over the summer. Of his two most recognised central strikers, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi only have 11 starts between them in the league, and have contributed just 6 goals all season. Whilst Liverpool's total of 52 in the league so far is highly impressive - as mentioned earlier, the second highest total in the league - there's no one making a claim for the golden boot any time soon and as such their high numbers can be attributed to the volume of goalscoring threats in the side as opposed to possessing any one superbly clinical attacking player - although Sadio Mane may develop into this over time.
And last but not least, let's not forget one important detail - every club goes through this. Liverpool's run now is not so different from Manchester City at the moment, or Chelsea/Manchester United earlier in the season, or Arsenal every season. The smart money would be on them bouncing back at some point soon.
Where will Liverpool finish this season? Let us know in the comments below!