Feature

Why new-look Liverpool can be City's biggest title rivals again

By Alex Keble 28 Sep 2023
Szoboszlai, Klopp

Alex Keble analyses how new signings have allowed Klopp to build his "Liverpool 2.0" side

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Unbeaten in 17 Premier League matches. An entirely reconfigured central midfield built for £150million this summer. The implementation of a "3-box-3" formation that inverts the positioning of those famous flying full-backs. To use Jurgen Klopp’s phrase, this is definitely “Liverpool 2.0”.

It was in the build-up to last weekend’s 3-1 win over West Ham United that Klopp defined his team in that way, choosing to break from the idea of evolution and introduce us to his Liverpool side of 2023/24 as something new – albeit a work in progress.

“From the first day since we got back, I have enjoyed it a lot. I was really excited about the rebuild, the new way, the new energy. We decided last year we had to change a lot,” Klopp said.

“But we wanted to change it for good, not because we have to. I am still excited. We are not stable yet, there are so many things not [quite right], but we are really good already.”

That perception of instability is backed up by the fact Liverpool have gone 1-0 down in half of their Premier League matches this season, while also going behind in their UEFA Europa League match against LASK.

Maybe it is that factor, or Manchester City’s apparent invincibility, that has prevented more widespread excitement about Liverpool’s chances of a title challenge this season.

But perhaps it is time to change that.

Should Liverpool win their next two Premier League matches they would have collected 47 points from their last 19 contests, a points-per-match average that gives 94 over a full campaign – enough to win the title in each of the last three campaigns, and in all but four of the 30 full Premier League seasons.

What’s more, Liverpool have tended to yo-yo under Klopp. Over the last four years, beginning with 2019/20, their points totals read: 99, 69, 92, 67. They are due an upswing.

Klopp’s 3-box-3 has changed the full-backs

The in-vogue "3-box-3" formation implemented by Klopp towards the end of last season is improving all the time.

The basic idea is relatively simple, and arguably only a minor tweak to how Liverpool play: Trent Alexander-Arnold moves into central midfield when Liverpool have possession while Andrew Robertson forms part of a back three, with licence to occasionally roam forward.

By adding a fourth player into central midfield Liverpool, in theory, can counter-press more effectively, while also adding a third player to central defence in order to cover the width of the pitch when opponents look to counter-attack with long passes over the top.

It has curtailed Robertson, who is yet to record an open-play assist since the formation change, and fundamentally shifted the areas in which Liverpool attack.

We are seeing them use greater verticality through the centre of the pitch, rather than slowly and surely working the ball into the final third, hence why their number of crosses has gone down from 21.0 per match to 15.8 this season.

New midfield a clear upgrade

That was all in place during the 11-match unbeaten run at the end of the 2022/23 season, but Liverpool did look a little vulnerable at times, often being got at easily on the counter-attack and appearing too open in the spaces behind Alexander-Arnold.

To an extent, this has been corrected by the new signings.

Dominik Szoboszlai has settled brilliantly as an all-action No 8 whose composed possession in tight areas resembles the way in which Georginio Wijnaldum gave Liverpool territorial control, therefore minimising counter-attacks fired off in the opposite direction.

Szoboszlai is producing his career-best numbers for progressive passes, averaging 7.3 per 90, and recovering possession 7.0 times per match, also a career-best, reflecting his urgency and energy both on and off the ball.

Alexis Mac Allister has occasionally looked a little overawed as a lone No 6, but his capacity to slip an intelligent vertical pass through the lines is a major upgrade on what Liverpool possessed before.

He too is producing career-high numbers of 6.7 progressive passes, 4.3 tackles and interceptions, and 7.1 recoveries per 90.

Mac Allister's assist v West Ham

At the moment, Liverpool aren’t deploying a midfielder capable of breaking up the play like Fabinho did at his peak, with Wataru Endo handed only 92 league minutes so far.

But below you can see how Liverpool's most-used three-man midfield last season of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Harvey Elliott compares to the 2023/24 unit of Szoboszlai, Mac Allister and Curtis Jones. And it is clear that the current trio are better on the ball.

Liverpool midfield comparison*
  2022/23 2023/24
Pass completion 83.8% 89.5%
Tackles & interceptions/90 8.1 9.7
Recoveries/90 20.0 18.4

*Most-used three-man midfields

Still defensively vulnerable despite improvements

Although that extra possession has helped improve the dynamism of the team – Liverpool’s total presses are up from 26.1 per match last season to 34.3 – on the whole it is yet to translate into calmer and more organised defensive performances.

Compared to 2022/23, Liverpool’s progressive passes against are up significantly from 13.3 per 90 minutes to 18.8, moving from the second-fewest in the division to the eighth-most, while their progressive carries against are up from 29.0 per 90 to 36.2 per 90, taking them from 17th to 10th.

The total number of opposition touches has also risen, by 63.4 per match – 90 per cent of which are accounted for in the middle third of the pitch.

Put together, those three stats highlight the ongoing problem as a new-look midfield get to know each other. Meanwhile, the defence continue to look occasionally error-prone, and the blunt force of a wild attacking line makes matches feel a little erratic.

Then again, a host of other numbers are changing in Liverpool’s favour, from Expected Goals (xG) per 90 up from 1.9 to 2.2 to shot-creating actions per 90 rising from 27.5 to 30.5 to number of times dispossessed per 90 falling from 10.9 to 8.17.

Why? Partly because it is a small sample size, but also because Liverpool’s opening six matches have been very different from one another.

Unique reactions to erratic matches

Aside from the 3-0 victory over Aston Villa, Liverpool haven’t managed a simple, dominant performance, and although that might worry supporters hoping for a 90+ points season, Liverpool’s capacity to adapt, recover and overwhelm is a good sign.

“The things we went through already this season is enough for a whole season,” Klopp said before facing West Ham in Matchweek 6. “Usually you have done these things after 38 games and we have done it after five.”

He’s not wrong.

Against West Ham, who got behind the Liverpool midfield far too often, Liverpool won out because David Moyes retreated into a defensive shell too early, allowing the hosts to push them back and create under little pressure.

See here how much space Mac Allister had before lofting the ball over the top to set up Darwin Nunez's goal.

Darwin Nunez goal v West Ham

At Wolverhampton Wanderers, Liverpool reverted back to the old system in Alexander-Arnold’s absence, but were too sluggish and trailed 1-0 at the break.

That led Klopp to improvise a gung-ho 4-2-4 formation that broke the visitors down through sheer force of will.

In the first half, before Klopp's attacking changes, Wolves felt able to commit players forward and try to win the ball high up the pitch.

Liverpool first half

But after half-time, as Klopp brought attacking players off the bench and moved to the more aggressive 4-2-4 system, it pinned back Wolves' wingers.

Liverpool second half v Wolves

Against Newcastle United, having been hit on the counter in the spaces behind Alexander-Arnold far too often, Klopp noticed the giant hole at the base of Newcastle’s midfield and instructed his wingers to cut infield to exploit it, leading to both of Nunez's goals, as pictured below.

Newcastle v Liverpool
Newcastle v Liverpool second image

AFC Bournemouth and Villa, two high-pressing teams, were both broken down with long passing into the channels uncharacteristic of a Klopp team, while on the opening weekend at Chelsea, Liverpool were pushed deep, holding 35 per cent possession, and unable to play their usual game.

That’s six matches, multiple approaches, and – in at least half of them – Liverpool relying on Klopp making intelligent tactical changes mid-match.

In other words, Liverpool have not settled. But to keep winning even as they experiment with different midfield combinations is an encouraging sign, while the battering-ram performances of Nunez and the returning Luis Diaz provide hope of a surge to the top.

Test v Spurs and the journey back to 2019/20

Of course, a settled Liverpool side aren't suddenly going to emerge at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. Ange Postecoglou’s commitment to bold attacking football has produced open matches against Arsenal and Manchester United already, and it is virtually guaranteed that Liverpool will embrace the chaos.

Liverpool then travel to Brighton & Hove Albion. But after the international break, Klopp will hope to build back towards the calm domination of the 2019/20 peak with home matches against Everton, Nottingham Forest and Brentford, along with a trip to Luton Town.

Liverpool's Premier League fixtures
Date Opponent
30 Sep Spurs (A)
8 Oct Brighton (A)
21 Oct Everton (H)
29 Oct Nott'm Forest (H)
5 Nov Luton (A)
12 Nov Brentford (H)

So much of Liverpool’s success in their 90+ point seasons can be attributed to them winning the psychological battle, as opponents – expecting defeat – failed to push back and exploit the spaces behind Liverpool’s defence. A few more wins and perceptions might shift in Klopp’s favour.

But it was also the result of a dominating, bullish and counter-pressing central midfield that suffocated the opposition. There are signs that Szoboszlai and Mac Allister can help recreate that energy from within a fresh "3-box-3" formation – but there is also enough vulnerability to tell us Liverpool need to improve.

The 3-0 win over Villa, as Klopp has said, is the benchmark. “That was top, it was the new Liverpool… but that is only one glimpse of what we can be - because we don’t know where we’ll end up.

“It was a really good sign that in the moment we are going in the right direction.”

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