1) Regression to the Mean
2) Defensive Changes Partly to Blame
With up to nine first-team players missing due to injuries, ailments, or magic curses, boss Jurgen Klopp has had to be very cautious in team selection for recent matches, especially in terms of his defense. The long-term absence of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, coupled with the short-term absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, has understandably raised questions about their ability to maintain their usual high standards. Yet the Reds registered a commanding 3-0 win over Leicester City over the weekend. That, combined with the fact that Liverpool sat on top of the group, three wins from three with no goals conceded, allowed Klopp the luxury of tinkering with his starting XI for this match, especially important at the beginning of the most congested part of the season’s schedule approaches – TEN games in the next five weeks!
With that in mind, he Reds made five changes to the side that beat Leicester at the weekend. Three of those changes came at the back as Neco Williams, Rhys Williams, and Kostas Tsimikas were drafted in for James Milner, Fabinho, and Robertson. The versatile Milner took up a place in midfield for this fixture, emphasizing his value in Liverpool’s squad, and Fabinho and Robertson were given a rest, likely saving their legs for the increasingly-important slew of upcoming Premier League fixtures.
Even with the changes, the Reds were expected to replicate their resounding away win over the Italian club in the reverse fixture only three weeks ago, but Atalanta had other ideas.
Constant pressure from the Italian side forced Liverpool’s young and inexperienced back-line into all sorts of mistakes as the visitors carved out a number of promising chances. The boys in Red managed to deal with threats in the first half, but Atalanta made the pressure count in the second, with two quick-fire goals in five minutes, just after the hour mark that exposed gaps in the Liverpool defense. Although both of Atalanta’s goals featured excellent crosses into the box, Klopp should be worried about the ease with which the goals were scored. The second goal, in particular, saw Gosens arrive into the box unseen and steer his finish into the net unchallenged.
Perhaps next time we will see Klopp play a more straightforward back line who has played together in order to secure a result before giving the second-string a run out.
3) Missing Trent/Robbo in Attack, as well
When a team has defenders absent through illness/injury, a team usually feels the pain at the back, conceding chances and goals at a higher rate. Sometimes that feeling is amplified when a particular substitute may not be as refined positionally or in passing. With the way Liverpool play, the importance of our fullbacks going forward cannot be overblown.
We all know Trent is Creator-in-chief, but his recent absences have been covered by understudy Neco Williams and the magnificent James Milner. However, during his absence, Robbo has been there to allow free-flowing attack down our left flank, registering his third assist in the league for this campaign against the Foxes last weekend.
At times we have seen either one of the starting fullbacks be held to an average performance, but the difference has been that their counterpart is usually available on the other side. When a manager has tried to clamp down on Trent tactically, it usually left Robbo with more space, and vice-versa.
Moving forward, Klopp will likely realize that Neco and Kostas, while decent deputies, are still a significant drop off from our starters. Maybe that will change with more coaching and experience, but for now, their performances will likely be a mixed bag. See: Neco’s sublime first touch in the 74th minute, only to massively overhit a cross.
4) Praise be to Alisson
Although he let in two goals, Liverpool would have likely been beaten by a lot more by an impressive Atalanta attack if it were not for this man’s positioning and reflexes. His ability to go large periods of time untested and spring into action is unparalleled, in my humble opinion. The sheer confidence that he oozes gives the back line much-needed propping up, especially in games like this where we have never seen this combination of players at the back.
5) The Origi Experiment Must End
I will admit that I have never been a huge fan of the Belgian Striker. It is not that he is not skilled or not a team player – Klopp would have gotten rid of him long ago if either of those were the case. But he just does not look comfortable in Klopp’s system. Origi is more of a traditional striker. However, in our system he usually gets shunted to the side or asked to play in a more withdrawn false 9 role. Credit where credit is due – he has put in some massive clutch performances, notably the Champions League match against Barcelona and the 90+6″ derby winner are two that stick in my mind. These displays have rightly allowed him to bank some goodwill and leniency for his career with the Reds.
However, whenever Origi is in the attack – even when he has individually good performances – the system does not seem to flow as well. Attacking moves are not as fluid and the versatility of the front line is not as pronounced. Perhaps if he played as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1, or if he had a dedicated strike partner up top, we could see Origi flourish. But I just do not see that happening with our current players and manager.
Does this mean I think we should sell him this season? No, but that is more because I think we will need the depth to make up for the inevitable injuries that will occur playing two games a week.
Minamino (and Jota, obviously) have seemed to be more at home filling in for the regular starters than Origi. We just seem to lack that cutting, incisive edge that the other runners bring. Not to disparage his abilities in general, but when leading the line against the Italians on Wednesday night, he was wholly ineffective. Understandably his chances have been limited this year, but in these big games when key starters need a rest we need a player who will step up – especially when he has fresh legs and no current injury concerns. Color me not impressed.
He is good enough for Michael Edwards to offload for a decent fee and reinvest into a youth player who has the potential make a bigger impact in the long run. Thank you and goodbye.
6) Keep Calm and Carry On
As I mentioned above, Liverpool were widely expected to rack up yet another win and secure passage through to the knockout stages of the Champions League, after having swept aside all previous challenges set before them in the tournament thus far. However, expectations do not always come to fruition. Despite the 5-0 thumping at the hands of Liverpool in the reverse fixture, Atalanta flipped the script on the Reds at Anfield by registering an unexpected, if thoroughly deserved, win.
With the Ajax victory over Midtjylland in the other fixture in Group D, the Dutch champions sit on seven points with four games played, level with Atalanta and two behind Liverpool.
Not to worry… the Reds should still qualify from their group in top spot, with a game at home against Ajax and then away to Midtjylland possibly in Dortmund? Ajax and Atalanta should battle for the second spot, with the Danish side now out of the running completely
Some supporters may need a quick reminder that Liverpool are allowed to lose a game here and there. The bottom line is that the lads who rested tonight… needed that rest. Klopp chose not to go after this game with all guns blazing, instead opting to be ready for the early Saturday kickoff. If the boys can register a win against Brighton and still qualify from the group, this performance will have been worth it.