Liverpool’s season is truly a highlight.
Able to win a battle of wits one week with Manchester City chasing the title, then lose to relegation turf Nottingham Forest the following week and Leeds the following week.
Looks like a group of players who are only just known to capitulate 4-1 at Napoli, but who beat the same opponent with a fair amount of comfort at Anfield.
Liverpool put in one of their best performances in a mixed season when they beat Napoli
Jurgen Klopp returned to the proven 4-3-3 formation and achieved a positive result
With 15 points from six games in their Champions League group to advance to the knockout rounds, but with just 16 points from their first dozen Premier League games to finish in a humble ninth.
Jurgen Klopp’s tinkering with formations has only made the intrigue even greater.
The Liverpool manager has spoken of the need for ‘reinvention’ but on Tuesday night the tried and trusted delivered one of their best results of the season.
We’ve been experimenting with a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2, a 4-2-4 and a diamond in midfield for the past few weeks – with decidedly mixed results – but it was the familiar 4-3- 3 did for Napoli at Anfield.
Of course it took late goals from Mohamed Salah and substitute Darwin Nunez, and it wasn’t the big win that Liverpool needed to usurp Napoli at the top of their group.
But they were easily the superior team and the system gave them a level of control that was lacking at other points in the season.
Mohamed Salah (right) opened the scoring before substitute Darwin Nunez sealed the win
Ibrahima Konate (left) and Virgil van Dijk (right) looked solid together in defence
So the big question, if thoughts turn to a visit to equally fickle Tottenham on Sunday, is whether Klopp’s tinkering is now over and returning to 4-3-3 is a permanent move as if nothing happened.
As they try to get points back at early pacers Arsenal and City, 4-3-3 provides the comfort blanket of familiarity for players who, in most cases, have been below their peak in 2022/23 so far.
With the Champions League now in bed until February, Klopp could take precedence in competition on either side of the World Cup.
On the other hand, exposure to different ways of playing can do no harm to Liverpool players.
Klopp, who extended his contract with Anfield in April until 2026, should be concerned that Liverpool are getting a little stale and a little too predictable.
It has been a season of inconsistency for Liverpool, who lost to Nottingham Forest late last month
That shocking result came a week after Mohamed Salah scored the winner against Man City
Liverpool match schedule
PRE WORLD CUP
Sunday Tottenham Hotspur (A)
Nov 9 Derby County (H)
Carabao Cup third round
Nov 12 Southampton (H)
AFTER WORLD CUP
Dec 26 Aston Villa (A)
Dec 30 Leicester City (H)
January 2nd Brentford (A)
Therefore, playing the different formations is a great way to keep opponents guessing. Unfortunately, it has not proved to be a guarantee of good results.
The diamond in midfield, for example, saw Liverpool play Ajax outside the park in Amsterdam, but also saw them lose 2-1 at home to struggling Leeds.
The 4-4-2 was intended to stem the flow of goals, in response to the frenzied 3-3 draw at home to Brighton in October.
But in Tuesday night’s 4-3-3, Liverpool had been looking hard to break off for a while.
Afterwards, Klopp contrasted it with the chaotic performance in Naples: ‘Being compact makes all the difference. Suddenly we have challenges in all the right places, suddenly we are hard to play against.’
A clean sheet against Napoli cannot be sniffed. They are still undefeated in Serie A and have a five-point lead at the top. In combination with the Champions League, they have already scored 50 times.
There was also encouragement in the central defensive partnership between Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate, which should be the first choice in the future.
Knee problems have limited the Frenchman’s playing time this season, but he should get his first league start since May against Spurs.
He skillfully kept Victor Osimhen quiet and can do the same against Harry Kane and Tottenham’s other attacking threats.
Darwin Nunez came off the bench on Tuesday evening to tap in Liverpool’s second goal
Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho performed solidly in midfield to negate Napoli threat
There is also something to be said about having three grafters in midfield, especially in games against Napoli, which can easily cut you open.
Klopp played James Milner, Fabinho and Thiago and achieved a great deal of control. Milner was forced out, but was replaced by the in-form Harvey Elliott, who had more chance to play on Sunday anyway.
It’s less about the numbers in the midfield battle, more that the Liverpool players know perfectly how to work in a three and it showed once again.
The return to 4-3-3 also won Salah’s approval, who performed at his usual high level despite Liverpool’s problems.
He scored his seventh goal of the group stage against Napoli, more than anyone else in the competition.
Mohamed Salah is having an excellent season despite Liverpool’s inconsistent form
“I’ve played that position for five or six years, so I have to say, yes, that’s the best thing for me,” Salah said of his right-sided attacking role, before quickly adding: “But I’m not the manager – the manager determines the tactics and as a player you have to follow the leader.’
One thing that failed to materialize was the decision to start Darwin Nunez after the Uruguayan played the entire match against Leeds.
Curtis Jones got the nod, but in the end it was Nunez’s introduction 17 minutes before the end that added a bit more chaos factor to the Napoli defence, leading to the two late goals, the second of which he scored himself.
Liverpool meet Tottenham next – Spurs progress in Champions League on Tuesday night
Nunez will certainly start against Tottenham, but we don’t really know yet if the 4-3-3 is optimal for the £85million frontman’s talents.
But Liverpool’s form has been so inconsistent this season that it would be wrong to conclude at this point that they must return permanently to 4-3-3.
The win over Napoli could very easily be followed by a disappointing result at Spurs, leaving the debate rumbling and perhaps tempting Klopp into more tinkering.
Either way, it certainly makes Liverpool harder to figure out.