Jurgen Klopp hit back at suggestions his side lacked ambition at Everton but they could certainly do with something extra in the middle of the park
It was Jurgen Klopp at his most spiky.
Having seen his side surrender control of the Premier League title race, having listened to the taunts of the Evertonians – including one rather cheeky Goodison Park ballboy – the Liverpool boss sat down for his post-match press conference, ready to discuss a third goalless draw in four games.
It started harmlessly enough. Plenty of time left, said Klopp, hopefully a few more twists and turns to come. His team, he insisted, were more than ready for the battle which awaits them.
Then, a change in mood.
Asked if, perhaps, he was tempted to “go for the jugular more” in the closing stages, Klopp’s demeanour shifted. He bit back.
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“We don’t play PlayStation,” came the reply. “Do you think we didn’t take enough risks today – is that what you want to ask?
“That’s a really disappointing question, I have to say, because that means it’s like it’s so easy. I tell the boys to take more risks, ‘Come on boys, we go for it!’ Is there any draw we didn’t try to win? What is that? An extra attacker just to go wild, nine matchdays [from the end of the season]?
“You think it’s PlayStation, bring an extra attacker and football changes. It’s not like that!”
It was a passionate response, one which perhaps spoke of Klopp’s own frustrations after a game his side could and should have won. Managers are allowed to be defensive and emotional, especially after a Merseyside derby when the stakes are so high.
The question, though, was a fair one. Liverpool have had a superb season to this point, and remain in a wonderful position, but if in May they come up short, they will wonder if they could have ensure that opportunities such as Sunday’s, or the previous week’s at Old Trafford, did not pass them by.
And Klopp’s midfield, in particular, will be under scrutiny.
At Everton, just as at Manchester United, the Reds started with a trio of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum. No great surprise there; Klopp, despite his ‘heavy metal’ image, often prefers structure and solidity in big away games.
By and large, that policy has worked too. Liverpool’s defensive record – 15 goals conceded in 29 league games – is remarkable, and while much of the credit goes to Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, the importance of a compact, grafting midfield must not be understated.
Fabinho, Henderson, Wijnaldum and James Milner all play key, if largely unspectacular, roles in that regard. They also, it should be noted, provide the platform for the Reds’ full-backs to push forward into advanced areas.
This season, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have been two of Liverpool’s most creative players, with 15 assists between them so far. They wouldn’t enjoy that status without the protection they receive from their midfield players.
The issue comes in games such as at Everton and United, when ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work, when the opposition are determined, compact and well-organised and the Reds’ vaunted forward players endure an off-day.
Can Klopp’s side find another way? Can his midfield provide the moment of magic, the pass nobody saw or the long-range rocket to break open the stalemate? Can they bail out Mo Salah and the rest?
With five draws in their last seven games in all competitions (three of them goalless), the answer looks clear.
Between them, Liverpool’s orthodox central midfield players have scored six league goals this season – Milner three, Wijnaldum two, Fabinho one – and have racked up a combined seven assists, with Milner again leading the way with four.
In terms of chances created, the Reds’ most dangerous player, by some distance, is Salah. Milner is next on the list, albeit aided by the fact he takes set-pieces and has played some games at full-back, but the trio of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho have between them mustered just 39 chances in a combined 70 appearances.
Attacking midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri, used mostly on the right-side in a 4-2-3-1 system, comes out better with 18 in 21 outings but Naby Keita, an unused substitute against both United and Everton, has managed six in 20. Adam Lallana, meanwhile, barely makes the list.
To compare, the Manchester City trio of David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne have been responsible for 56, 51 and 21 respectively. Even the much-derided Jorginho, of Chelsea, has created 20.
Keita’s situation is particularly perplexing. The £50 million ($65m) man looked to be finding his feet after a run of encouraging displays prior to the Old Trafford trip, but has managed just six minutes across the last three games.
Away from home, Klopp’s worries over the Guinean’s concentration and positional play outweigh the benefits his darting runs and changes of pace bring, for now at least.
Shaqiri, too, has found opportunities hard to come by since the turn of the year, starting just two league games in that time.
The Swiss international has six league goals and four assists, including two big strikes at home to United off the bench, but has not yet had the nod to start a big game away from Anfield. Again, the concerns are over his work without the ball. We are unlikely to see him in a central role for now.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s imminent return – he should play for Liverpool’s under-23 side at Derby this Friday – could add something different to Klopp’s midfield options, although expecting the England international to light the place up after almost a year out with a serious knee injury would be unfair.
He is likely to be eased back into senior action carefully, though his presence will be a welcome one off the bench during the run-in. Last season, Oxlade-Chamberlain created a chance per game on average.
Liverpool’s fixture list – they play six of the Premier League’s bottom seven clubs in their last nine games – may well ensure that concerns over their creative abilities can be parked for the time being.
The likes of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino should enjoy going at Burnley, Fulham, Cardiff and Huddersfield. There is still confidence within the walls of Melwood, and rightly so. They are still right in the hunt.
Beyond this season, though, Klopp still lacks that one player of ingenuity, of imagination, the man to pick the lock when nobody else can. The Philippe Coutinho replacement, if you like. Liverpool have progressed without the Brazilian, but there are still times when they miss him.
Klopp wanted Nabil Fekir to take over that role last summer, of course, only for a potential £55m ($72m) move collapse at the 11th hour. Who will be on the agenda this time around? Surely someone will be? It could be the final piece of the Liverpool jigsaw.