GRAEME SOUNESS: Forget analysts and buzz words – the first rule of football is make sure you’re the first to the ball – and Liverpool are miles off where they should be right now
- Liverpool were thrashed 4-1 by Napoli in the Champions League on Wednesday
- Jurgen Klopp’s side have also endured a poor start to the Premier League season
- Their shambolic defending in Naples was heavily criticised by fans and pundits
You can talk to all the modern coaches and analysts you like, apply the latest buzz terminology and fill these sports pages with all the data you can lay your hands on — but the one non-negotiable part of winning football matches is being first to the ball.
At the moment, Liverpool are not doing that. And that’s why they are a mile off the team we have known them to be in Jurgen Klopp’s time at the club.
That intensity of being first to everything is the reason why they have become winners again. They and Manchester City are by far the best two teams in the country at doing this and no one else comes anywhere near their intensity. They can squeeze the life out of teams.
Liverpool made a shocking start to their Champions League campaign with a 4-1 loss to Napoli
But they have gone from a team that can hustle and exhaust an opponent, from the first minute to the last, to a team suddenly second to everything. In doing so they appear to be vulnerable to every attack.
There are all sorts of reasons for this being offered by the people with the data and the big theories. They will tell you about the Liverpool high line. About Mo Salah not looking the same player he was. About Trent Alexander-Arnold appearing to jog back when two of Napoli’s goals went in, during that 4-1 defeat on Wednesday night. But Liverpool just don’t seem to have the same energy.
I’ve certainly not been seeing the same Salah. He has signed the big contract he wanted and I really hope we are not seeing him getting semi into his armchair because of that.
The need for intensity is a collective thing. It has always been that way, going back to my time as a player at the club. They like to call it ‘pressing’ now but when I was playing we just called it ‘closing down’. If one person is not doing it, the whole system breaks down and you might as well drop off and be a team that plays counter-attacking football.
Jurgen Klopp’s side have only taken nine points from a possible 18 in Premier League so far
No one is above the team. No one is above a b******ing. I was talking recently about the afternoon at Coventry in 1983, when we were 3-0 down at half-time. It was just before half-time when I let my mate Kenny Dalglish have it. I asked him: ‘Is there any effing danger you’re going to get hold of the ball and get started?’ His reply came right back at me. ‘Is there any effing danger you’re going to win a tackle?’
We carried on that conversation in the dressing room at half-time and with every sentence, we got closer and closer, to the point that eventually we had to be kept apart. Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran calmly poured themselves a cup of tea and kept out of it. We were doing their team talk for them.
The point I’m trying to make is that you can’t put Wednesday night, or Liverpool’s average start to this season, on individuals. In the team I was a part of, we worked together, we hunted for the ball together and we won it back together.
Liverpool will look to recover from the thrashing in Naples when they host Ajax on Tuesday
It’s certainly my view Liverpool need another battle-hardened, experienced midfielder at the core of their team, to pick the pass and capitalise on the movement of the strikers.
Klopp said he didn’t need that big-name addition this summer. He listed the young players he says can step up and do a job for him. It’s good to hear that he has faith in lads such as Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones.
That’s great news for every young player at Liverpool. But this is a hard and unforgiving environment we are talking about. It’s a big jump from midfielders like Thiago, who’s 31, Jordan Henderson, 32, and James Milner, 36, to those young ones.
There’s no doubting the quality of Liverpool’s latest addition, Arthur Melo, but will he be able to deal with the intensity of the English game, given that Liverpool play games of cup final intensity every weekend and everyone always has to be at it?
Klopp has shown faith in 19-year-old midfielder Harvey Elliott since Thiago Alcantara’s injury
I do think there is room in that midfield for another high-intensity workaholic who can also deliver a cute pass. Go back to Liverpool’s best midfield of three or four years ago. You had Gini Wijnaldum. Workaholic. James Milner. Workaholic. Jordan Henderson. Workaholic. Not the most gifted in terms of cute passing but relentless workers, all of them. The creativity was coming through the full-backs and the forwards.
There’s no need for panic and knee-jerk reactions, of course. As I said in these pages two weeks ago, all players are different in how long it takes them to get totally up to speed at the start of the season.
But I’m not seeing the Liverpool I know because the team are not getting first to that ball. Why is this so? That’s a question for the players and I have no doubt that Klopp will be asking it, in no uncertain terms.