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Liverpool showing signs of age and mental fatigue but change of shape sparks improvement before Arsenal clash | Football News

This Saturday marks the seventh anniversary of Jurgen Klopp’s appointment as Liverpool manager.

It was at roughly this point that his spells in charge of Borussia Dortmund and Mainz came to an end, leading some to draw parallels with Liverpool amid the side’s stuttering start to the campaign.

Klopp’s men enjoyed some respite in the Champions League this week, securing a 2-0 win over Rangers, but in the Premier League they sit ninth, 11 points behind leaders Arsenal, their opponents on Super Sunday, having won only twice in seven games.

Liverpool head to the Emirates Stadium hoping to use Tuesday’s win over Rangers as a turning point. But what is behind their poor start? And should supporters be worried about what lies ahead?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool’s 3-3 draw against Brighton

Mental fatigue and an ageing team

Last season was Liverpool’s most taxing yet under Klopp; a season in which they contested every fixture they could have, cramming 63 games into a period of nine months and fighting on four fronts right until the final week of the campaign.

There was, of course, a domestic double at Wembley, but those cup triumphs could not prevent the feeling of deflation that came with missing out on the Premier League title on 92 points then losing to Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League.

In total, six Liverpool players – Jordan Henderson, Diogo Jota, Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane – played more than 50 games, while three more – Fabinho, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold – played more than 45.

Many of those individuals amassed similarly high numbers in previous campaigns too, with Salah, Alisson and Robertson among the top five Premier League players for minutes played in all competitions across the last five years. Alexander-Arnold is seventh.

Klopp promised Liverpool would come back stronger in the aftermath of the defeat to Real Madrid in Paris but it is little wonder the side’s exertions have taken a toll on his key players in particular.

Indeed, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Van Dijk have been among the biggest under-performers so far this season. Henderson, Robertson, Fabinho and Alisson have also struggled.

The issues can be seen in the way Liverpool are starting games, with Klopp’s side conceding the opening goal in nine of their last 11 Premier League fixtures either side of the summer break.

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How worried should Liverpool be about Darwin Nunez?

Interestingly, though, the numbers show no dramatic drop-off in terms of Liverpool’s physical output in recent months.

They rank third in the Premier League this season for high-intensity sprints, the same as they did last year, while they still rank top among all clubs for pressed sequences. Tracking data shows they are actually covering more ground than they were last season.

Liverpool's physical and pressing output remains at a similar level to last season
Liverpool’s physical and pressing output remains at a similar level to last season

Rather, it appears the issue of “mental fatigue” mentioned by Klopp during their difficult 2020/21 campaign, when their title defence ended in a third-placed finish on only 69 points, has resurfaced.

There is a general lack of focus, and a level of jadedness which raises questions around the current age profile of the squad.

A few years ago, Liverpool were a young group heading into their prime. The worry now is that they have gone too far the other way.

This season, their starting line-up has an average age of 27 years 342 days old, making them the third oldest side in the division behind only West Ham and Fulham.

Have they moved too slowly in renewing the squad?

Luis Diaz, Jota and Ibrahima Konate have all come in and contributed positively. There is confidence Darwin Nunez, 23, will do the same. But there have been few other arrivals of note and Mane is the only senior player to have been moved on.

The result is an ageing team.

Lack of cohesion exacerbates issues

The issues have manifested primarily in defence.

Liverpool are still scoring goals and creating opportunities at roughly the same rate as last season but they are conceding twice as many as they were and their numbers for shots faced and expected goals against have also increased.

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Sky Sports’ Gary Neville offers some tips as to what Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold can do to improve his game defensively

It is clear Klopp has become overly reliant on a core of ageing players and he has not been helped by injuries in the early weeks of the campaign, forcing him to use five different defensive line-ups and five different midfield combinations in seven games.

That instability has compounded the issues around mental fatigue and Liverpool are struggling to control games as a result, their openness apparent not just in the manner of the goals they have given away but in the advanced metrics which show how easily their opponents are cutting through them.

Liverpool's defensive performances have dipped from last season and they are less solid in their own half and their own penalty box
Liverpool are less solid in their own half and in their own box than last season

Opta measure the pace at which a team’s opponents progress upfield using a metric called direct speed against. Liverpool’s has gone from 1.38 metres per second last season, the eighth-lowest in the division, to 1.77 metres per second this season, the second-highest, behind only strugglers Wolves.

They are also allowing an average of one opposition fast break per game, an increase on any of the last seven seasons under Klopp and another statistic which indicates openness.

“It’s about being compact, being together,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher last month. “Right now, it’s too easy to get through Liverpool’s midfield, and that didn’t happen before.”

The statistical differences may appear relatively minor but, given the high defensive line Liverpool typically use and the amount of bodies they throw forward, Klopp himself admits it does not take much for things to start going wrong.

“We take risks defending, everybody knows that,” he said ahead of the Rangers game this week. “If the timing is not right, you open gaps.”

Liverpool, out of sync with each other and jaded from what Carragher describes as “five or six years of going full pelt” under Klopp, have found themselves leaving those gaps far too frequently lately.

Change of shape gives unpredictability

It was for that reason that Klopp decided to make a significant change against Rangers on Tuesday, switching from his favoured 4-3-3 formation to what he described as a 4-4-2.

“We wanted to defend differently to what we usually do,” he explained afterwards. “We have had to change things a little bit and that is what we have done.”

Liverpool switched from their usual 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 against Rangers
Liverpool switched from their usual 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 against Rangers

The change of system allowed Thiago Alcantara and Henderson to play as deep-lying midfielders against Rangers, with Diaz and Salah on the flanks and Jota and Nunez as a front two.

It looked at times more like a 4-2-3-1, or even a 4-2-4, with Rangers ultimately fortunate to lose by only two goals, but it also gave Liverpool more stability and control in midfield, while ensuring Alexander-Arnold, scorer of a superb free kick, could play a little more conservatively, his average position placing him inside his own half and reducing the space opponents have so often found behind him lately.

Sunday 9th October 4:00pm

Kick off 4:30pm

The result was a third clean sheet in 11 games in all competitions this season, and while it remains to be seen whether they deploy the same system against Arsenal on Sunday, it has at least given Mikel Arteta and his staff something different to think about, while at the same time giving Liverpool an air of unpredictability they were lacking.

“Teams, when they play against us, they know the way we play and they try to exploit that,” said Alisson after the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United in August. “They try to use that against us.”

Arsenal might now need to find different ways to hurt them but they will offer a far sterner test than Rangers. Indeed, while Liverpool have made their worst start to a season in eight years, the Gunners have made their best in 15, taking 21 points from a possible 24.

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Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk believes Trent Alexander-Arnold reacted to recent criticism in the right way with his goal against Rangers

The contest is even more intriguing given Arsenal’s recent tendency to start games in precisely the opposite way to Liverpool – quickly and clinically. Arteta’s side have conceded first in just two of their eight Premier League games this season. They have been trailing for only 57 minutes in total compared to Liverpool’s 216 minutes.

Liverpool therefore cannot afford to start sluggishly again.

If Klopp is to banish talk of a seven-year curse as he reaches that ill-fated milestone with Liverpool, he will need a performance which looks a lot more like the win over Rangers than the 3-3 draw with Brighton that preceded it.

Watch Arsenal vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm

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