Neil Humphreys: Klopp still can’t fix weak spot
Liverpool manager missing creative spark in midfield
As the season trudges on, Liverpool's weary midfielders appear to be auditioning for a bad Star Wars movie. It's Attack of the Clones.The only difference is they're heavy on the clones and light on the attack.
Like the red-bricked terraced houses around Anfield, they all look the same. Three identical square pegs are trying to squeeze into a round hole, a gaping hole once occupied by Philippe Coutinho.
James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum are on the Champions League's biggest stages playing the same part, reading one another's lines and essentially tripping over the other man's feet.
In essence, they are the same midfielder, three times over. On a football field, only their mothers could tell them apart. The trio are industrious workhorses in search of a wizard.
But labour alone doesn't close the gap between artisan and artist. Liverpool's weak spot remains and was ruthlessly exposed for the third time in Europe.
Napoli, Red Star Belgrade and now Paris Saint-Germain have inadvertently presented Everton with a template ahead of Sunday's Merseyside Derby.
Retro is the way forward against Liverpool, an old-fashioned 4-4-2 and a couple of nifty wingers are enough to get around the gegenpressing.
PSG coach Thomas Tuchel's approach was so basic in its simplicity, it's a wonder he didn't use jumpers for goalposts and hand out orange slices at half-time.
He followed the approach of Napoli and Red Star. He dragged Neymar and Angel Di Maria back to the 1990s, leaving them hugging the touchline in midfield and facing Liverpool's defence like throwbacks to the Andrei Kanchelskis era.
Neymar teamed up with Juan Bernat on the left and terrorised Joe Gomez, finding two goals along that route and denying him a chance to get forward.
Klopp's counter-pressing depends upon his fullbacks supporting the front three, but they seldom ventured across the halfway line. PSG, Red Star and Napoli doubled up on Liverpool's fullbacks and prevailed.
But the old-school tactics worked only because the Reds had grafters rather than a natural creator in midfield.
ACE IN THE HOLE
Tuchel knew the obvious risk involved. A pair of conventional wingers left PSG a man short against Liverpool's trio, but the coach literally had an ace in the hole. He had Marco Verratti.
In pre-season, Klopp tried to sign a playmaker in the mould of Verratti. He spent enough money to buy half a Neymar - Fabinho, Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri cost around £105 million (S$183m) combined - but none of them command a midfield like Verratti.
Klopp harangued the officials after the game and Neymar's insufferable playacting gave the Liverpool faithful something to shout about, but they were convenient distractions to avoid addressing the reality.
Despite being outnumbered, Verratti dominated his opponents. His instincts were impeccable, always knowing when to press, pass, dribble or withdraw. He delivered an impressive masterclass in showing how to dominate three midfielders who all play the same way.
When Liverpool pulled off that memorable 3-2 win against PSG in September, Verratti was a conspicuous absentee. The Parisians missed him that night.
The Reds miss a playmaker of his calibre every week. Their front three don't see much of the ball without one.
Klopp could've been forgiven for recalling warm and fuzzy memories of Coutinho causing carnage. He was a force of creativity designed for such contests.
Maybe Keita will eventually assume the role, once he overcomes niggling injuries. But until then, Klopp seems to lack alternative options, in terms of both personnel and tactical approach.
Three Champions League games on the road have exposed Liverpool's midfield shortcomings, with opponents employing old-school systems to push back the press and neutralise the Reds' attacking game.
Everton have something to work with and Klopp may have to return to the drawing board.
He'll ring the changes against the Toffees, maybe giving Fabinho, Keita or Shaqiri another chance to impress.
But none started against PSG.
Perhaps Klopp perceives them as unreliable luxury items, not quite as industrious as his other no-frills midfielders and not as inspirational as Coutinho once was.
It's a problem without an obvious solution, but the Reds' survival depends upon Klopp finding one. The Reds' midfield can get away with their attack of the clones in the EPL, but they need a new hope in Europe.