The final score made it look as though Liverpool had comfortably beaten Watford last weekend at Vicarage Road, but in fact the game could easily have swung the other way on another strangely stilted, nervy day for Jurgen Klopp’s side. The transition from blood-and-thunder counter-pressing football to a more cautious possession approach has not been an easy one, and indeed Watford were comfortable for long periods on Saturday.
Mohamed Salah eventually made the breakthrough in the 67th minute courtesy of a bit of luck and, crucially, an excellent piece of play from Roberto Firmino. For the first time in the game, the Brazilian dropped deep into his own half to collect the ball, before turning and spraying it out wide to Andrew Robertson. Firmino then ran forward, collected it back off Robertson in the Watford half, before slipping it through for Sadio Mane. The Senegal international squared for Salah to bundle it home.
Firmino rarely goes this deep, and certainly rarely involves himself twice in a move – once at the start and once at the end. It was a David Silva-esque contribution that may contain the answer to Liverpool’s tempo problems in 2018/19.
Throughout the campaign Liverpool have been oddly flat, a shadow of their former selves and – on first glance – appear to have never really recovered from the emotional journey to last season’s Champions League final. The slow possession football and misfiring forwards are the footballing equivalent of Salah in a sling, bleary-eyed and in pain.
But it isn’t just psychological. Klopp has transformed Liverpool’s tactics this season, deliberately swapping their rock-and-roll gegenpressing for a more conservative possession approach. This might be in order to prevent burnout in May – which is partly what let them down against Real Madrid – and it might be a reaction to opposition defences sitting deeper than before, but either way it has left Klopp with a serious problem.
When playing with ferocity and counter-pressing from the front, Liverpool didn’t need a playmaker and could instead rely on a powerful trio of midfield destroyers – whose only job was to tackle hard and find the front three as quickly as possible. But if the idea is now to build slowly from the back, then Liverpool need a David Silva type.
They need a player who ghosts into the half-spaces, linking the midfield and front lines by seeking the ball on the half-turn, wriggling away from trouble and slipping a clever pass into Salah, Mane, or Firmino. Either that, or they need to sign a new striker… and put Firmino in the Silva role.
His one meaningful contribution at Watford suggests the Brazilian has the skill set to be re-trained in this role, although to do so would be to lose their centre-forward and arguably the most important member of their attack.
Klopp has been playing Xherdan Shaqiri from the right wing in recent matches in an attempt to add creativity, with the Switzerland international freed to drift infield, but this hasn’t done the trick; Liverpool need someone playing directly through the middle, whereas Shaqiri tends to come short and link tamely with Salah on the right.
There is little doubt Klopp will have to enter the transfer market again if he is to play in a possession system. They certainly miss Philippe Coutinho, and are paying the price for missing out on Nabil Fekir. The Lyon playmaker may still be available, but if he isn’t then Klopp could a lot worse than moving Firmino into a deeper role.
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