IIt’s never one thing. Football, whatever the cliched phrase may say, is not a simple game. The team is a very complex organism: a malfunction in one area can have dire consequences in another. Everything is connected and expelled; Nothing is independent. Jürgen Klopp must feel right now as if he’s in for a Whac-A-Mole, lashing out at trouble here and there, yet also knowing that these moles are tied together, and that a mole in one corner keeps moles in another.
But let’s start with the most obvious issue, the great culture war of our time: Trent Alexander Arnold Kondrum. It has already become one of those issues where it is almost impossible to properly discuss, arguments subject to meta-arguments as everyone rushes into deeply entrenched positions.
Alexander Arnold is a generational genius and Gareth Southgate must be sent to the Tower for rejecting his choice of England. Alexander Arnold is a fraud.
Somewhere in between the two extremes is the reality, and that is certainly what Klopp explained, with a sense of exasperation, last week. Alexander-Arnold is a brilliant attacking full-back, one of the best strikers at the ball in the Premier League, but defensively, when the attacker rushes towards him, for example, or in the protection of the back post, he lacks capabilities. From, for example, Reece James or Kyle Walker.
Liverpool did their best by playing on those offensive qualities, encouraging him to spend most of his time in the opponent’s half, something they can do because of the intensity and precision of their pressing. When that press goes awry, as in 2020-21, and as it has this season, Alexander-Arnold becomes vulnerable to balls being played into the space behind him. Klopp could protect against that by making Alexander-Arnold defend deeper, but doing so means making him focus on the weaker aspects of his game at the expense of the stronger. It is also why Southgate, who has the luxury of an abundance of talented right-backs and knowledge of limited time means the English press can never come close to Liverpool, favors other options.
With the press failing and Alexander-Arnold coming under more scrutiny, and with opponents beginning to target what was now an obvious weakness, his confidence seemed to waned and that was like nothing. Sunday problem.
Arsenal’s second goal was, in Liverpool’s view, a ruin. A lot of modern tactical ideas have been directed at preparing a team to handle attacking defensive transitions, so that they have the structure to defend against the counter in the event of a loss of possession. When Arsenal regained possession, a three-on-three break appeared. This really isn’t ideal, especially given the speed at which Gabriel Martinelli was running at the not-quick Jordan Henderson.
Alexander-Arnold, who was presumably seeking to protect his captain, left the position he had in the middle of the three covered Liverpool players to close Martinelli as well, but that meant giving up Gabriel Jesus and so Konstantinos Tsimikas had to leave Bukayo Saka to capture the position. -straight ahead. It might not have mattered had Thiago Alcantara come back to add cover, but he slowed down to such an extent that by the time Martinelli got back up and crossed to Saka’s back post to score, both Martin Odegaard and Darwin Nunez had both passed. Thiago in the penalty area. When Klopp then said he blamed the defeat not on ‘the system’ but on ‘deeper concerns’, perhaps this apparent lack of urgency was what he was talking about.
But Alexander-Arnold’s troubles aren’t just about journalism, his waning confidence, or his faltering decision-making. This whole right side isn’t shooting like it did in the first half of last season. Henderson, perhaps in part due to injury, is not at his peak. But there should also be big questions about Mohamed Salah, who has scored just six league goals from open play since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations in February.
As with Alexander Arnold, the figure dwindled amid structural issues. Signing with Luis Diaz meant that Sadio Mane moved to the middle and did not fall in depth to create space as Roberto Firmino or Diogo Jota did, which in turn means Salah has to stay wider. The arrival of Nunez did not change that.
Before he went to the Nations Cup last season, Salah was averaging 3.9 shots per game. This season he averaged 2.9. He simply doesn’t get into the box as much as he did before. A year ago, Salah’s swing from the wing while Alexander-Arnold pounced from outside was a signature move for Liverpool. This is neither feasible nor practical with Mane or Nunez on the way. He only picked up one shot amid just 27 touches against Arsenal before withdrawing after 69 minutes – Klopp said because he was concerned about his workload given the defensive shift he brought in (not that it led to an interference or an interception).
But what can Klopp do? Not necessarily a reflection of the qualities of Diaz, who is now also injured, or Nunez to suggest that the changes in the front line have reduced the attacking effectiveness of the entire right side and turned a player who scored 118 league goals in five. Seasons in an astonishing number who managed to achieve only two matches in eight matches so far.
Anterior line, right side, back of the midline, a gap of 14 points to the top – everywhere, moles gather.