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Champions League becoming Liverpool's last salvation as they go 'back to the basics'

Jurgen Klopp’s misfiring side host Rangers tonight.

Jurgen Klopp.
Jurgen Klopp.
Image: PA

THIS IS THE first meeting of Liverpool and Glasgow Rangers in Uefa competition, two sides linked by some of the greatest names in the either club’s lore: Graeme Souness, Steven Gerrard, Jon Flanagan. 

The name of most relevance to Liverpool now, though, is that of Ben Davies, whose Liverpool career remains less a success or even failure than it does an allegation. 

Davies was signed by Liverpool in the midst of their greatest crisis under Jurgen Klopp until this one. With all of Liverpool’s centre-halves sidelined by injury, Davies arrived with Ozan Kabak midway through the 20/21 season to plug the gaps. While Kabak was dumped at the end of the season, he can at least say he played a few games. Davies didn’t make a single appearance, spent last season on loan at Sheffield United, and then made a permanent move to Rangers during the summer. Tonight is set to be his first appearance at Anfield. 

Davies’ appearance will stir memories of that grim Liverpool season. It started with Roy Keane’s “bad champions” jibe, got worse when Virgil Van Dijk was injured at Goodison Park, descended to farce when Joel Matip and Joe Gomez were crocked too, and then resembled a fall of empire when they lost six-straight league games at Anfield. 

It was a stunning collapse, a word that might also be applied to the subsequent recovery. They rallied to finish third and return to the Champions League before then setting off on one of the most remarkable seasons in English football history, playing in every one of 63 possible games across the season, winning two domestic cups and missing out on the league and Champions League by a point and a goal respectively. 

And now they are back at the foot of the mountain, gasping for air. Their title hopes look dead already, with two wins in seven games leaving them 10 points off an even more ominous-looking Manchester City than ever before.

“It’s only two years ago since we had a similar situation, when we lost our full centre-halves. We had to find solutions and we lost our game completely, nobody could recognise us anymore, we just wore the same shirts. We couldn’t react as quick as people would wish. But we found a way out, and that is what we will do this time.” 

The terror for Liverpool fans is that they won’t be able to look to the recovery from two seasons ago for much succour. That crisis was easily explicable, but this time most of the centre-halves are fit. The early-season injuries have cleared up: Andy Robertson was the only first-choice player absent from the porcelain team that drew wildly with Brighton on Saturday. 

But maybe that is the issue. All of Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Fabinho, Henderson, Thiago, Salah, and Firmino have racked up a huge amount of mileage, and few groups of players have ever completed them at such furious pace with such little deserved yield at the end of it.

Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota, Harvey Elliot, and Ibrahima Konate have added various degrees of freshness, but largely at the attacking end of pitch. The issue now is how they defend: the games against Napoli and Brighton were ugly, but they might have been uglier. 

Liverpool now simply look an aged and jaded team, no longer able to lunge into pressing situations to rob possession and protect the yawning gaps in their defence. What’s worse is the fact like they currently look like they know it. What was once one of the most co-ordinated pressing sides in the world are now riffling like a collection of individuals. Take a look at Brighton’s third goal at the weekend. Salah presses but Elliot doesn’t follow up behind him, and the ball is easily worked into midfield. Beating that press allows players flood either side of Fabinho and find space, and from there Brighton can easily expose one of the most fragile parts of any top-level side: the space behind Alexander-Arnold.

napoli-v-liverpool-uefa-champions-league-group-a-diego-armando-maradona-stadium Alexander-Arnold and team-mates after the hammering away to Napoli. Source: PA

 

Alexander-Arnold is not the world’s best defender but nor is he the clownish character some make him out to be: he is often the fall-guy for a system that wants him to push madly forward while no longer snuffing out passes in behind him. 

The trademark ‘high line’ has been seen less and less: Liverpool caught opponents offside an average of 3.79 times per game in the Premier League last season, but only 1.86 times per game this season. 

The entire system, in other words, needs a rethink. 

Gavin Cooney
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“We concede now similar goals, let me say it like this, where they go through the same gaps”, said Klopp. “The special problem we have is that we have a really brave way of defending usually, and when the timing in our defending is not perfect, then we leave a gap open. That was always the case, by the way, but because of the pressure we put on the boy on the ball, nobody really recognised it, because we closed it with intensity, if you want.

“So if you don’t do that, then this gap is open for a short moment and Brighton used it quite often – pass the ball through our gap, in between the lines, where they could turn and these kinds of things, and that makes it tricky.We have to be more compact. Defending is kind of an art. It worked for us for really long, really well. But when it’s not working out anymore, you realise step by step how much you have to go back to the basics, so you defend solid again.”

Buried with that is an admission that Liverpool are not closing with intensity, which is a particular problem at a club whose assistant manager recently published a book titled Intensity. 

“Intensity is our identity”, repeats Pep Lijnders throughout his book, meaning Liverpool are currently amid an identity crisis. Klopp is too good a coach not to solve the problem, but the unforgiving schedule and City’s daunting pace means that, whenever Liverpool do staunch the bleeding, Erling Haaland will probably have disappeared over the horizon with the Premier League tucked under his arm. 

Thus the Champions League is Liverpool’s best shot at yet making a success of this season, and the last time they lost the final, they came back to win the competition. Rangers’ European record was outstanding before this season, and a switch to a back three has done little to remain competitive: they come into this game off the back of a 4-0 loss to Ajax and a 3-0 defeat to Napoli. 

Liverpool’s last-gasp win at home to Ajax  means they remain in a good position to qualify for the knockout stages, and back-to-back wins against Rangers would put them in a very strong position to do so. 

That they get out of the group is looking like a necessity to avoid a disappointing second half of the season. 

KO: 8pm; Live RTE Two, BT Sport 

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