If your team has struggled to break down sides that will sit deep with a well organised defence, you probably don’t want to be facing Tony Pulis’s West Brom – a side who frustrated Tottenham with that very tactic last weekend, in fact.
Liverpool faced a Manchester United team last Monday who had a similar aim – to simply soak up Liverpool’s attacking flow. Just as West Brom did to Tottenham and Pulis’s sides have done to countless opponents in the past, they packed the central midfield spaces and defended in numbers to prevent space between the lines and behind the defence.
This was Liverpool’s downfall in their only Premier League defeat to date, too. Burnley set up in a rigid block, scored first, and then set about finding every possible way to shackle Liverpool’s fast-moving attacking football by sitting deep and launching counter-attacks when possible. West Brom will play a similar way from the off at Anfield on Saturday evening. They will sit deep within their own third when Liverpool have the ball and hope that Salomon Rondon and Nacer Chadli can hold the ball up to provide an outlet on the rare occasions when the Baggies do have the ball.
The similarities between Burnley and West Brom are clear. They are two sides with the lowest average possession this season, the lowest pass completion, and two of the teams least likely to dribble the ball. If anything, the Baggies have greater experience and talent to allow them to carry out their effective game plan.
Jurgen Klopp must learn from Liverpool’s failings against Burnley. As organised and resolute as the Clarets were, it is far and away Liverpool’s worst performance of the season to date. Whether it involves a change in personnel or simply a different approach, there is a requirement for Klopp to find means for Liverpool to expose teams that will refuse to leave any space in central zones in their defensive third. The sale of Christian Benteke, despite being the best result for all parties, leaves Liverpool without the more physically threatening centre forward that would have enabled a more direct game in such circumstances.
West Brom’s central defenders might not be too spooked by direct balls to a target man, but it would have given Liverpool another option, at least. The alternative for Klopp may be to use the players he intends to start in a marginally different way. Rather than targeting the middle of the pitch, using one of their array of forwards to stick to the touchline would expand the field and give that vital bit of extra freedom to create a chance.
Should Liverpool fail to get a victory against West Brom, Klopp will not be the first, nor last, manager to succumb to Tony Pulis’ military-worthy defensive organisation. The greater challenge it will raise for Klopp’s side is it will prove that the Burnley result was no freak, it will show a framework of how to beat this often irresistible Liverpool team and force Klopp to change his approach.