In the first of our new exclusive monthly interviews, we spoke to the Sunday Times’ Jonathan Northcroft to get his view on all things Liverpool.
Northcroft was a prominent figure on Liverpool blogs and fan sites throughout the summer transfer window and had some particularly interesting information on the Reds’ pursuit of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain early on in the window.
We quizzed him on transfers, Liverpool’s season so far and his opinion on a number of players that Liverpool have signed or could be considering trying to sign in the coming months.
What have you made of Liverpool’s start to the season? Did you expect them to be in a better position than this?
The start was a strange one – dreadful in both boxes with plenty good football in between. The first Liverpool match I saw live was the 3-3 with Watford, which kinda summed up how the next few weeks were going to go.
The oddest thing was the lack of intensity/coordination in the pressing, which I never thought I’d see from a Klopp side – Lallana’s absence was being felt, and the players were adjusting to the slightly more counterattacking style Klopp appears to be shifting towards.
However things have really settled down in the last few weeks and performances are coming together. In terms of league position, Liverpool are more or less where I expected them to be.
The Reds continue to leak needless goals, where do you think the problems stem from?
Personnel is one factor of course. Neither Mignolet or Karius are in the class of any of the keepers playing for ‘big six rivals.’ They make too many mistakes, not enough and don’t command their box – compared to the top guys.
Then there have been the individual errors of defenders, notably Lovren. And no proper defensive midfielder.
But it’s not all about personnel. I don’t think there is enough intensity about any of the defensive work. Jamie Carragher first pointed this out last season and since then I’ve been watching and he’s right. You don’t see players throwing themselves into blocks, chasing down situations, getting themselves hurt, getting furious when goals are conceded – the way Jamie used to.
Just ask yourself: do Liverpool defend with anything like the ferocity and decisiveness they attack? And imagine what a side they could be if they were as hell bent on keeping goals out as they are at scoring them.
Do you think Liverpool did enough in the summer transfer window to improve on last season?
No. It certainly didn’t address the defensive shortcomings. I’m still baffled why Van Dijk was both the Plan A and the Plan Z – ie the only plan – when it came to centre back targets.
However Salah is one of the best Premier League deals of recent years and Oxlade-Chamberlain will prove very useful asset. So there was an improvement in the attacking arsenal, much needed given the injury to Lallana and Mané’s absences.
What are your thoughts on Dejan Lovren? Has he ever been of the required standard to play for Liverpool?
I’ve spent time with Dejan. He’s a lovely bloke and you really want him to succeed. On his day he is top class. Unfortunately he is a bit of a confidence player, almost a little emotional in the way he goes about his work – jumping into challenges at the wrong moment when his blood is up.
You want the opposite from defenders: calmness, consistency. So that’s a problem. But I have to say, I hate the way he has been scapegoated and targeted in recent weeks. He is nowhere near as bad as people say he is and he’s certainly not Liverpool’s only problem.
In the past, Klopp obviously thought that he could improve the players he’s had at his disposal, do you think the penny has now finally dropped that he can’t?
No, he’ll never stop believing that. It is at the centre of his coaching DNA. And his record of improving players is tremendous – he has every right to stick to this belief. I hope he does, because the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Woodburn and Rhian Brewster will benefit.
What he may have realised is that development alone isn’t going to crack this Premier League. It’s too competitive and the likes of Man City are too far ahead. So I expect Liverpool to be more dynamic in the transfer market going forward.
How important is it that Liverpool do business in January and which areas do you think they need to strengthen?
I’m not sure they’ll be doing much business. You can see with the signing of Keita a year in advance that the style is still long term. The priorities for 2018 will be Keita, another go for Van Dijk and possibly another attempt at landing Lemar, and summer is the likeliest time for the latter two to happen.
That said, if Liverpool can pick up a centre back, DCM or goalkeeper of the requisite class in January, they should do it.
You recently did an article explaining a number of stats that showed that Liverpool’s pressing game is/was not as good as it was last season, how big of a problem do you think this is?
I addressed that earlier but I’d add that it’s a problem when any team stops doing one of the key things that made it stand out. And given Liverpool aren’t going to compete with Man City, for example, in terms of individual class of player (because of the money) then they have to do something different and initially it looked like pressing was going to continue to be Klopp’s specialty.
That said, now the season is unfolding and the side is getting more used to using Salah, then Liverpool are moving towards that more counterattacking style quite nicely. Salah, Mané, Firmino flying forward – wow. I’m far less worried about the overall gameplan, now, it’s more improving those defensive aspects.
There is still a difference in Liverpool’s pressing but it is a logical one – they’re closing less in forward/advanced midfield areas in order to invite opponents on, then counter.
Who do you think has been Liverpool’s standout player this season?
Salah. Fantastic at drifting from his starting position (whether that’s wide or second striker) into spaces then using his pace to arrive in scoring positions at the right times. Terrific goal return so far and there could be even more to come if he works on his finishing!
What did you make of the Philippe Coutinho fiasco in the summer and do you think there’s any chance of him leaving in January?
It was a fiasco only for Barcelona. They embarrassed themselves. Liverpool were consistent and strong with their line and the player behaved ok. No I don’t see him going in January.
We hope to see Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané back on the pitch soon, how important do you think those two players are for Liverpool?
For all that Salah has impressed, Mane remains Liverpool’s most dangerous attacker and his return against West Ham was extremely impressive, given he’d hardly trained.
Lallana is so key. I could see him developing into a Liverpool captain in Henderson’s absence. Having him back will be of enormous benefit, offensively and defensively.
Do you think the 4-3-3 system that Klopp persists with needs changing?
No, I like it. It’s my favourite system…probably because a lopsided version of it made Aberdeen kings of Europe once upon a time!
Do you think Jürgen Klopp needs to make serious changes to the back four between now and January?
I think he needs Clyne back and to settle on Clyne, Matip, Gomez, Moreno/Robertson as his combo (and persuade Milner to play left back against the very best attacks!)
What are your thoughts on fellow Scotsman Andy Robertson? Do you think he deserves to be given more game time and did you think he was a good signing for the club in the summer?
He should certainly be playing more. I’ve been a critic of Moreno but would recognise that, yes, he has improved this season. However he’ll always switch off and make positional mistakes from time to time.
I don’t think Robertson is amazing defensively either, but he’s as good at bombing forward and his crossing is sublime. They should be job-sharing and the long term plan should be to sign a top class left back.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seems to be every non-Liverpool fans favourite player to criticise at the moment. Harsh? Do you think he will turn out to be a good signing for Liverpool?
It’s harsh in the sense that he’s a young player, who has made a brave and big move (in terms of lifestyle and location and risk) and he is as honest as the day is long – he will always try and was trying during his first few weeks. His confidence was very low and he wasn’t settled off the field at that point.
Fans didn’t have patience for any of that – but I understand. The team was going through a bad spell and patience generally was in short supply. And he wasn’t playing at all well. However he is now more settled off the pitch (having found a place to live that he likes) and the confidence is returning, and you can see performances improving.
Klopp has been magnificent in terms of patience, backing and trying to boost his morale.