Jürgen Klopp can save Liverpool’s season by reversing Darwin Núñez tweak to regain control
Liverpool are struggling to control games this season and are conceding counter attacks at an alarming rate. Jürgen Klopp may need to change the Reds’ passing style to tighten up the team
With Liverpool scratching around for any semblance of form in the early weeks of 2022/23, a search for the source of their problems has begun. It will be down to a confluence of factors, but some will inevitably be more relevant than others.
Is the departure of Sadio Mané, combined with the arrival of a different style of centre-forward in Darwin Núñez, at the root of the problem? Jürgen Klopp being deprived of at least seven first team players thanks to injury for every match this season has obviously not helped either.
The overriding issue has been a lack of control though. Let’s put their struggles into context with a little statistic. In 2020/21, Liverpool conceded 15 shots defined by Opta as counter attacks, in 53 matches. They allowed Napoli to have four in midweek, and their collective opponents have mustered nine in their last six matches. A tally which might have once taken about six months to compile is now being racked up in four weeks.
But being susceptible to suffering on the break is an outcome, not an explanation. One factor will be the much-repeated fact that the Reds have been outrun by the opposition in every single match this season. This is very strange, as one of the hallmarks of Liverpool’s success under Klopp was that they almost always worked harder, ran further and sprinted faster than the team they were facing.
Only the manager and his coaches will know if this shift has been deliberate. The 63-match quadruple bid of 2021/22 was incredibly testing, both physically and mentally, and it’s entirely natural there will have been a hangover as a result. If ever a team needed an extended summer and a full pre-season, rather than a condensed preparation period thanks to a mid-campaign World Cup, it was Liverpool.
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Klopp may have told his players to run less due to their current condition, not aided by many not being able to be rotated due to the injury situation at the club. Equally, the Liverpool manager may be accepting slightly under-par physical efforts from his side thanks to this situation, even if he hasn’t instructed them explicitly to save their legs a little.
Whatever the truth on that front, Klopp will have given his players specific tactical instructions, same as always. It’s possible that one element of this is leading his side to have a looser grip on their matches, even though they’re averaging more possession than ever before.
The thing with the possession metric is that it is merely a measure of the proportion of the total passes that each team attempts. It does not account for the difficulty of them, and that is where the Reds have seen a shift.
Statsbomb break down passes into three distance categories: short (five to 15 yards), medium (15 to 30 yards) and long (anything travelling further than that). Around 21 per cent of passes across Europe’s big five leagues fall into the latter category (per FBRef). For Liverpool, who like to keep their opponents penned in to their defensive third, their average rate of long passes has been 19.2 per cent across the last five Premier League campaigns.
In the last two seasons it was no more than 18.8 per cent, yet the figure currently stands at 21.8 for 2022/23. While he missed three games, it’s worth pondering if the presence of Núñez explains this change, as a more direct style of play suits his strengths. Although it doesn’t sound like a huge shift in percentage terms, the Reds are now attempting 142 long passes per match when 123 was their previous average.
In fairness to Liverpool, their completion rate for such passes is better than it has been in past years too. But even with a slight improvement, they are still only successful with 69.1 per cent of their long passes, when they can expect to complete almost 90 per cent of their short and medium efforts. Playing more long passes inevitably means completing a lower proportion of the total.
Klopp has spoken of his side needing to reinvent their style, or at the very least looking to “play similar stuff to how we used to play” (via the Echo). Lessening their reliance upon longer passes might be a good first step in this process.