Liverpool’s electric attack has suffered a short circuit - but Jurgen Klopp knows how to make it spark again

Lacking goals and needing three, the Reds have a Europa League mountain to climb at Atalanta

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Thursday 18 April 2024 07:51 BST
Mohamed Salah has been off-form for the Reds
Mohamed Salah has been off-form for the Reds (REUTERS)

Ahead of European games like this, Jurgen Klopp doesn't prepare a speech. Most of the words come naturally. He is already in the mood, knowing he has to inspire a similar feeling of insurgency in his players. There is more than enough experience to draw on, from either Klopp’s first season or his most famous.

Ahead of their Europa League semi-final second leg at Atalanta, the Liverpool manager can point to the comeback against Borussia Dortmund at this very stage of the same competition eight years ago or the legacy game that was Barcelona. Both were invigorated by the same kind of spirit that is now required to overcome the Serie A side’s 3-0 lead.

The main message, of course, will be that if anyone can then Liverpool can.

A potentially crucial difference from all those epics, however, is not just that this quarter-final second leg is away from Anfield. It is what Liverpool are doing right now.

They’re not scoring, and they’re going through a real slump. The last week has been one of the worst of Klopp’s time at the club, if only because of how much glory may have slipped from their grasp so quickly.

Liverpool are obviously a better team than they were in 2015-16 but that season’s big games had the sense of something really exciting happening. That feeling was realised in the sensational 2018-19 season, where the 3-0 first-leg Champions League defeat to Barcelona now looks an aberration amid so much attacking abandon.

There's none of that at the moment. Liverpool are on a low, from a very low strike-rate.

They have just stopped scoring. What is even more strange about it, though, is that it’s not like they’ve stopped creating chances. There have been an abundance of those. They have stopped scoring in the most jaw-dropping sense, improbably and almost spectacularly missing, when it seems easier to just finish. It must have happened at least 20 times over the last three games, at least. That is certainly what it felt like. That's why it also feels much greater an issue than just two and half games.

Curtis Jones spurned a one-on-one at Anfield
Curtis Jones spurned a one-on-one at Anfield (Getty Images)

It is as if the attack has just short-circuited, with the spark coming from Bruno Fernandes’ contrasting long shot in the 2-2 draw at Manchester United.

As to the actual reasons for this, and whether they can be rectified to set this farewell tour back on course, much of it is a mystery. Staff at Liverpool’s training ground have shaken their heads, especially when Darwin Nunez thunders in another shot at Kirkby. The very fact they’re getting into brilliants positions indicates much of this is obviously psychological. There are so many moments when they just shouldn’t be missing. Nunez’s skewed second-half shot at Old Trafford seemed the worst example of this.

That can just happen to teams, especially when a season goes from just doing it to having to do it. There’s a different pressure, and one that has been amplified by so much emotion around Klopp’s departure.

That is a huge responsibility for a team to carry, especially one so young. That callowness is undeniably part of this.

While Klopp has put in place the core of a fine new side - and one that isn’t far off complete in terms of personnel - they have obviously played above themselves this season. A team in its first proper campaign together shouldn’t yet be ready for a title challenge, and it has almost been a welcome bonus for Liverpool that they have been involved in the race. Or, at least, it was, until Klopp announced he was leaving. Then it became something else.

The team couldn’t yet become something else, though. The emotion propelled them to higher levels, but it was always asking a lot for that to be sustained. Some kind of crash was likely, and it stands to reason that it has come when the demands have increased.

There’s a sudden realisation of what's at stake, as everyone starts thinking about everything more. Even that description is admittedly a stretch for some misses where they literally had to just kick it in.

Jota missed great chances against Palace
Jota missed great chances against Palace (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

That’s where it defies belief, and almost defies explanation. Except, such misses are exactly what starts to happen when a team is physically or emotionally fatigued. Some of it may also be about the readiness of individuals as much as the team.

This is where the great Nunez debate arises. The relaying of hugely encouraging stats about goal contributions will always contrast with the many moments when it beggars belief what he has actually done. This points to a core issue, that brings much of this together.

As is in-keeping the Liverpool model, a lot of their players - and especially the attackers - were signed because of their potential to grow. Not even Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino hit it off straight away. This Liverpool attack is arguably at the point they were around 2017. That can maybe best be seen in Luis Diaz. There is such a distinctive attacking threat to the Colombian, and he even looks like the forward best primed to go to the heights of his predecessors. For now, however, there are still so many rough edges. Those edges produced that bouncing one-on-one against Manchester City. There isn't that seamless focus.

The big question is whether this attack can go onto that next level, but the answers may come much too late for this season.

Of course, this isn’t just about Liverpool. Atalanta put in one of the performances of the European season with their first-leg display, and Gian Piero Gasperini’s tactical approach seems especially primed to cause that extra anxiety in Klopp’s side. The Italian side pose such a direct threat from those man-to-man breaks that the breakdown of any Liverpool attack is instantly a danger.

This is what happened in that second half at Anfield.

"They man mark all over the pitch," Alisson Becker says. "When you come up against a team man marking you have to be willing to put the work in all over the field. If you don't, there is no point going out in the field.”

It adds a greater risk to this game. Liverpool simply have to go for it, but that is going to leave all kinds of space in behind.

That can have the effect of further scrambling that short circuit.

There is one way to snap a team out of all this, though. That is the feel of a game like this. There’s the motivation from the manager. This is what the job ultimately comes down to. Liverpool have someone who is much better at that part than almost every coach in history.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (Action Images via Reuters)

They still need a comeback to match almost any in history.

There was of course a question about the past, and that speech before Barcelona. “I usually don't prepare things like that. I remember I said 'if we fail, let's fail in the most beautiful way',” Klopp revealed.

They could do with any ugly goal to just set them off. That's why Klopp spoke of just needing to win the game first. Liverpool then need to go through the steps. If they manage 1-0, 2-0 suddenly feels more achievable... and on and on. But all building up to this ending. The Liverpool squad feel Klopp deserves that last match in Dublin. The man himself was already talking about what might be possible, just like in 2019.

“I am long enough in this business to know it's two legs and it is not over when it is over. As far as I know we are still allowed to play tomorrow so that's what we will try. We are 100,000% focused. If Bergamo [Atalanta] goes through, congratulations, they deserve it. If not then something special will have happened.”

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