Why Liverpool are struggling to control games without Wijnaldum

Jurgen Klopp Gini Wijnaldum Liverpool PSG GFXGetty/GOAL

Liverpool look a little on edge.

After a brilliant start to the 2021-22 season they have conceded 13 goals in their last nine games across the Premier League and Champions League and, should Arsenal beat them in Saturday’s headline fixture, they will drop out of the top four.

What on earth happened? The sudden downturn has left us pondering whether Mohamed Salah’s extraordinary form has been papering over the cracks all season, but that is not necessarily true. 

The real answer is the loss of one key player and a lack of match fitness for another; two small changes that lead to big outcomes, in keeping with the volatility of the tactical system that Jurgen Klopp deploys.

In Raphael Honigstein’s book Klopp: Bring the Noise, Neven Subotic refers to Borussia Dortmund clicking into gear as a ‘boom’ moment: after two years of stuttering and chaotic performances they became perfect virtually overnight, winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles.

The same thing happened at Liverpool, of course, proving that the complexity of the hard-pressing, razor-sharp lines, and bold defensive model makes Klopp’s tactics inherently vulnerable. Until things are perfect, they look disordered. Remove one card and the whole deck collapses.

We saw this last season when an injury crisis meant Fabinho was moved out of central midfield to fill in at the back. Liverpool’s ability to screen against counterattacks evaporated – before Fabinho’s return to the middle saw Klopp’s team win eight and draw two of their final 10 Premier League games.

This season, it’s all about Georginio Wijnaldum. 

Wijnaldum, who featured in 75 out of 76 Premier League games over the last two seasons (starting 69), was an under-rated metronomic presence in the Liverpool midfield and his departure for Paris Saint-Germain is now being felt.

Jurgen Klopp Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Liverpool Brighton Premier League 2021-22 GFX
Getty/GOAL

His ability to keep things ticking over, collecting the ball under pressure and playing smart, effective short passes out to a team-mate in space was rarely flashy – but it allowed Liverpool to control matches.

And control is one thing they lack without him. Wijnaldum was able to slow things down at the right moments, to understand the state of the game and help Liverpool take the sting out, hence all those grinding wins in their title-winning campaign (when 14 of their league matches were won by a single goal).

By contrast, this season Liverpool have already lost a two-goal lead against Brighton, lost a two-goal lead against Atletico Madrid only to win late on, and dropped points from winning positions against Brentford (twice), and Manchester City (twice).

Worse still, Liverpool are missing Wijnaldum’s positional awareness and defensive experience from the left side of central midfield. Again, in such an intricate system always on the verge of toppling, Wijnaldum’s dependability is sorely missed.

In recent games either Curtis Jones or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have made minor positional or tactical errors that have led directly to concessions, usually by pressing at the wrong moment or finding themselves ahead of the ball in the transition. Each of the following stills are seconds before Liverpool concede a goal, and each show Jones or Oxlade-Chamberlain (circled) out of position:

Aside from being caught in the transition more frequently and losing control of the game, no Wijnaldum creates a flaw in the wide areas.

Klopp’s narrow 4-3-3 is always potentially weak in the zones just in front of the Liverpool full-backs, but while Wijnaldum was adept at getting out to assist, his replacement(s) are less efficient.

Virgil van Dijk Liverpool West Ham Premier League 2021-22 GFX
Getty/GOAL

Man City and Brighton, in particular, played lots of long diagonals to take advantage of this, with Klopp admitting after the Brighton match that he had to switch to a 4-4-2 in the second half because his team were struggling to cope out wide.

Liverpool may be able to solve these problems when injuries clear up, because a midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita, and Fabinho really should be capable of understanding what’s required of them – and keep control of possession.

Another cause for optimism is the simple fact that Virgil van Dijk will get better. He returned quickly from an ACL injury and does not appear to be fully fit, often looking a yard off the pace when opponents counter quickly towards him. 

Smarterscout’s player ratings (0-100), created using in-depth data and analytics, are revealing: Van Dijk’s score for ‘recovering a moving ball’ has dropped from 97 to 77 while his ‘defensive quality’ (measuring his personal contribution to xGA conceded per defending opportunity) has declined from 85 to a staggering 8.

The Wijnaldum and Van Dijk issues taken together have clearly had a big impact on Liverpool’s defending, which is backed up by Opta stats.

Compared to last season – hardly a vintage year – Liverpool’s tackling has dropped from 16.0 per game to 13.5. They are facing 9.9 shots on goal per game, up from 8.1, and are being dribbled past on average 9.1 times per game, up from 7.9.

In time these figures should improve, as long as Liverpool get better luck with injuries, but in the short-term things are looking more worrying.

Keita and Henderson remain sidelined – and Arsenal, up next, are just the opponents to take advantage of Liverpool’s defensive concerns.

Mikel Arteta’s vision is finally coming together, and that means drawing the opposition forward by passing out from the back before hitting sharp, vertical balls through the lines into the ten space where Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka, and Alexandre Laczette alternately hover.

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Arsenal are a team built for the transitional moments, for suddenly changing the tempo and exploiting the chinks in Liverpool’s armour in the left-centre of midfield and at centre-back.

It should mean both formations become stretched and the game has a lot of messy, end-to-end moments; entertaining for neutrals but a nightmare for Arteta and Klopp.

It might just be another head-scratcher, another dizzying game that Liverpool fail to bring under their control, and another day missing Wijnaldum.