Are Liverpool Going Backwards Under Jürgen Klopp?

Another international break, another chance to assess how things are going so far under the management of Jürgen Klopp. It’s been interesting in recent times, seeing something of a chasm emerging between those that feel the German can do no wrong and should never be criticised and other supporters who believe he’s been getting something of an easy ride. I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago looking at exactly that point and asking whether he was deserving of more criticism than he’s been on the receiving end of so far. This piece isn’t about that. Instead it’s a look at where we are under Klopp and, perhaps more importantly, where we seem to be going.

The problem that some football fans have is in believing that the game is narratively sequential, that a fourth-placed finish should be followed by a third-placed finish should be followed by a second-placed finish, all the way through to a title win. The game doesn’t work like that, with countless factors affecting what happens from one season to the next. If you’re unsure of that then have a look at Chelsea. The Blues won the title in 2014-2015, then seemed to down tools in 2015-2016 and ultimately finished 10th. The year after Antonio Conte came in and they won another title, but this year they seem to be struggling again. Rarely do things happen as we imagine they should, so bearing that in mind let’s have a look at the manager’s report card.

We’re Worse Than Last Season, We’re Better Than Last Season

One of the most simplistic ways to look at how the team is performing is to compare to the same point last season. If you do that then, in the first instance, you’d think we were doing much worse than at the same point twelve months ago. This time last year Liverpool went to the top of the Premier League table following a 6-1 win over Watford at Anfield. We had racked up 26 points, one point more than eventual winners Chelsea and two clear of Manchester City who are leading the way this time around. Given that we’ve got nineteen points from the eleven games we’ve played so far this season, it’s obvious to point out that we’re seven points worse off than we were.

Liverpool Crest On Main Stand

They say that the table never lies, but that’s simply not true. The biggest question that a look at the Premier League table right now doesn’t answer is who all of the teams have had to face. The fact that we’re seven points down on the exact same moment a year ago might be a cause for concern if we’d played exactly the same teams, but we haven’t. We’ve played some of the same teams, though not in the same order. Rathe than looking at the two tables and declaring this season to be a disaster already, it’s far more interesting to compare the results we had last season in the fixtures we’ve played so far. Or, to put it another way, have we improved when it comes to the specific matches rather than merely the number of them?

Team Played 2016-2017 Result 2017-2018 Result This Season +/-
Watford (a) Win Draw -2
Crystal Palace (h) Loss Win +3
Arsenal (h) Win Win 0
Manchester City (a) Draw Loss -1
Burnley (h) Win Drew -2
Leicester City (a) Loss Win +3
Newcastle United (a) Loss (Hull City) Draw +1
Manchester United (h) Draw Draw 0
Tottenham Hotspur (a) Draw Loss -1
Huddersfield Town (h) Win (Sunderland) Win 0
West Ham United (a) Win Win 0

Obviously things are complicated slightly by the fact that two of the teams we faced in our opening eleven games last season were relegated, but in order to make the maths simple enough I’ve replaced them with the sides that essentially replace them from the Championship. As Hull City finished eighteenth in 2016-2017 I’ve replaced them with the side that won the Championship, Newcastle United. Similarly, because Sunderland finished bottom of the Premier League I’ve replaced them with the side that were promoted via the play-offs, which was Huddersfield Town.

You can see from the above table that the results from four of the games haven’t changed, with wins against Arsenal, West Ham and Sunderland essentially being replicated this time around, as was the draw with Manchester United, meaning that our points from those games are no different. You can also see that the draws we managed against Spurs and Manchester City have turned into losses this time around, resulting in a negative of two points. Meanwhile wins against Burnley and Watford have become draws, seeing us lose a further four points.

On the other hand, we lost to Leicester City and Crystal Palace last season but beat them both this time around, seeing a six point swing in our favour. Equally we lost away to Hull City in 2016-2017 but managed a draw against Newcastle, meaning a further point coming to us that we didn’t have in the corresponding fixture during the last campaign. All told, then, we’ve seen a loss of six points when we compare the fixtures we’ve played this time around to last season, but a gain of seven, resulting in a net gain of one point.

Obviously one solitary point over eleven games isn’t exactly enough to get the party poppers out over, but it undeniably an improvement on our last campaign. It’s also worth noting that the only games we’ve lost thus far have been against Manchester City and Spurs, whereas at the same point last year we’d already lost to Hull, Leicester City and Crystal Palace. That resulted in pundits and supporters alike suggesting that we didn’t know how to cope with teams that would set up to frustrate us and needed to learn how to beat those sorts of sides – something that we’ve evidently managed so far in the 2017-2018 campaign. Matches against fellow top six teams will always be something of a toss of the coin.

There are any number of reasons why this isn’t an entirely fair comparison, not least of which is the fact that Crystal Palace set a record for having the worst start to a Premier League campaign by any team ever. Yet if you’re going to look at nothing other than the number of games played across each season and the amount of points racked up and declare that to be a fair comparison then there’s no question that this one is significantly fairer. With 27 games left to play, that’s the best part of two and a half sets of eleven matches. Carry on in the same manner and we’ll end the season roughly 3.5 points better off than last season. Even if we round down, that would put us on 79 points, which shouldn’t be sniffed at.

As I mentioned before, of course, football seasons aren’t linear. Just because we achieved 76 points last year doesn’t mean we’ve got them in the bag this time around. We’ll drop points in matches we won’t last season and win points in matches we lost last time around, so the overall picture might look decidedly different in May. The point, though, is that anyone who says Liverpool are worse off at this point in the campaign when compared to last season is factually incorrect. If anything, despite the lack of goals and the decidedly shaky defence, we’re actually better off this time around and are only likely to get better in the coming weeks as players return from injury.

What’s Klopp Getting Wrong?

In spite of our improvement in many areas, the manager is still getting plenty of stuff wrong this campaign. One of the biggest mistakes he’s been making is his seemingly never-ending desire to show loyalty to players that have done little or nothing to deserve it. The fact that he handed Simon Mignolet the captain’s armband for our last game against West Ham, for example, was mind-boggling. Most right-thinking Liverpool supporters are hoping that the German is lining up a replacement goalkeeper who will come in in January and offer us some certainty at the back. The manager, meanwhile, seems content to let the Belgian continue to be mediocre for the rest of the season at least.

mooinblack / shutterstock.com

Klopp’s substitutions have also been found wanting on too many occasions. Was his decision to swap Trent Alexander-Arnold for Joe Gomez in the 91st minute of our season opener against Watford part of the reason we conceded a late equaliser? Managers rarely mess with their defence if they don’t have to and the fact that the Hornets scored from a corner probably tells its own story. Our backline didn’t seem to be entirely sure what who was doing what from the last minute set-piece, which is something that falls squarely on the manager’s shoulders.

Then, of course, there’s the defence. As infuriating now as it was under Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp hasn’t done anywhere near enough to shore it up. We’ve seemingly improved in recent matches, but a quick re-watching of the West Ham game will reveal that we gave away a number of big chances to the Hammers that they simply failed to take. Conceding nine goals away to Manchester City and Tottenham is simply not good enough. We have only conceded one goal at home, which is great, but our defensive displays away from home are similar to a side fighting relegation rather than one that wants to challenge for the title. There’s little question that the toughest job facing the manager is the ability to give us some genuine defensive solidity. Will January provide a solution?

Conclusion

It is obviously far too simplistic to say that we’re either better or worse this season compared to last when looking at fixtures played or teams faced. However it’s equally silly to declare that we’re having a terrible season because we find ourselves twelve points shy of the league leaders, if for no other reason than Manchester United and Spurs are apparently having brilliant seasons but are each eight points behind Man City themselves.

Too often as football fans we try to carry out autopsies on seasons that aren’t yet dead, and that’s what our supporters appear to be keen to do this time around. We’re less than a third of the way through the campaign, meaning that it’s impossible to judge how well or poorly it’s truly going at this stage. The sheer amount of games coming our way in December and January will surely prove to be a genuine leveller for all sides in the race for the top four and possibly even the title. I think another look at where we’re at on the first of February will give us a far clearer picture of how the season may well pan out.

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