Jürgen Klopp has a problem. No, it’s not that Liverpool have just sold Philippe Coutinho for a club record £140million but are refusing to overpay this month to bring in replacements. Yes, the fact Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius don’t breed confidence between the sticks is an issue but that’s not what’s being discussed right now.
Klopp is a manager who looks to spread the goals throughout his attack. He’s a manager who doesn’t want his team to be overly dependent on just one outlet. Since moving to Anfield in the October of 2015, he’s gone about his business assembling an attacking unit to tick this box of his.
In terms of goals, they are’t just reliant on one player; the Reds have four players with five goals or more in the Premier League, though one of them is Coutinho. Even so, they’re well on course to have three players reach double digits this term and there’s a chance Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino both hit 20 in the league.
Job done in Klopp’s eyes. However, Liverpool might not be reliant on a single player when it comes to goals, but the system hinges on whether Firmino leads the line.
This is the problem.
It became apparent during the latest episode of Three Minute Myths. The team looked at whether the Merseyside club would have to tweak their tactics now that Coutinho has swapped Anfield for the Camp Nou.
The former Liverpool No.10 was having the season of his career, with 12 goals and eight assists in just under 1500 minutes of action. When the Reds struggled to break down teams with a low block, it was the Brazilian maestro they’d turn to. The assumption may have been that Coutinho was key to how Liverpool play, but the video proves otherwise.
For context, the video also explored at how Liverpool went about their business when Firmino was and wasn’t on the pitch over the past season-and-a-half. The Brazilian forward isn’t bulletproof, but he’s as close to it as you can get in the modern game.
Of the 5580 Premier League minutes in this period, he’s played 4766 – 85 per cent of the minutes on offer. Granted, the Reds had no European football last season and dropped out of the domestic cups early on, but to avoid the odd knock shows great robustness. Furthermore, he’s appeared in 23 of the 24 league games this season, 20 of which were starts, while performing in he FA Cup and the Champions League.
Liverpool haven’t been without their No.9 for a sustained period of time. Because of this, the team have never had to cope without him and fans haven’t witnessed what it would be like when he’s not there. He’s almost taken for granted.
The Three Minute Myths video makes it abundantly clear, too. Whenever Firmino isn’t in the team there’s a dramatic change in the style Klopp’s men use.
Using Football Whispers‘ new player and team persona radar, you can see just how different things are when the former Hoffenheim man isn’t in on the pitch for the Reds.
First off, the traits when the Liverpool No.9 starts: high possession, lots of shots and a low amount of crossing play. They will look to counter, but when you dominate possession it’s difficult to do on a regular basis. Long balls are played perhaps due to Firmino’s ability in the air (1.8 aerial duels won per 90). Liverpool aren’t busy defensively and rarely conceded chances.
When he’s not on the pitch, the graphs shows the team are busy defensively; they have fewer shots and they look to put in a lot more crosses. Without Firmino, it appears possession leads to crosses into the area, as opposed to shots on goal.
It’s understandable that Liverpool are busier defensively without the Brazilian because of how much work he does in the attacking third. He, along with others, keep the opposition pinned in their half if they ever do feel brave and look to attack.
What’s interesting, however, is the amount of crosses Liverpool look to play without Firmino. For such a difference it’s got to be tactical.
This sample size for the graphic is from 2016/17 and this season, meaning it’s when the Reds still had Divock Origi. The Belgian scored one header last season, in the 2-2 draw with Bournemouth, and isn’t a target man by any stretch of the imagination. Likewise, Daniel Sturridge isn’t the sort of forward who thrives on crosses into the area.
Dominic Solanke arrived in the summer and, though he’s more of a brute, he’s shown during his short stint on Merseyside that he’s better with the ball to feet. Do the team attempt more crosses because there is less space in central areas without Firmino’s movement?
Would the team be able to adapt without him?
It’s unlikely he’s done this on purpose, but Klopp’s built a system which is overly reliant on his No.9. There’s nobody in the squad quite like him and the club, at least not publicly, haven’t targeted any players with a similar profile. Klopp’s biggest problem is that Firmino is so unique.