Jack Hallows examines why Liverpool have gone from title contenders to looking hard-pressed for a finish in the top four in just a matter of weeks.
Sunday November 6th. Liverpool go top of the table with a resounding 6-1 victory over Watford at home just before the international break. This game was also the last time in which Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino started a league match in the same lineup.
Fast forward to January 23rd and Liverpool sit fourth, 10 points behind leaders Chelsea and only two points above fifth-placed Manchester City having won just one game from five in all competitions in 2017. So what’s caused this startling change?
Fitness & Continuity
This is the biggest issue. There were questions raised earlier in the season over whether the Reds could maintain their impressive pressing game and fitness levels over the course of an entire season. Worryingly, despite Klopp having dismissed such talk earlier this season, the Reds have looked increasingly leggy since mid-December and a large percentage of the side have struggled to look even close to 100% at times over the recent fixtures.
Pair this with injuries to key players Philippe Coutinho (6 weeks), Jordan Henderson (2 weeks), Joel Matip (5 weeks) and the absence of Sadio Mane to AFCON and you can see why the Reds’ form has been faltering. As mentioned previously, the last time the Reds featured all four of their first choice attackers was back in November and it’s no secret that our form has slowly tailed off since being unable to do so.
The absence of key players to injury has caused a real lack of cohesion over recent weeks, with continuity fairly sparse. Players went into the season with clearly defined roles. Coutinho was our left sided advanced playmaker, Firmino the false nine, Henderson the holding midfielder, Lallana/Wijnaldum/Can the rotation of floating 8s and Mane the pacy outlet.
However, due to a range of circumstances, most of these have been asked to do a job they’re not comfortable with. Firmino had looked woeful and miserable out on the left-hand side in Coutinho’s absence, Can has looked confused as to whether he’s a holding midfielder or a box to box goalscorer while Lallana has been used all over the place.
While I don’t believe Liverpool have the attitude problems that Alan Shearer has accused them of having, there is certainly an air of complacency around this squad at times. It’s no secret that the Reds are brilliant at rousing themselves for big games against their top four rivals only to falter against lower league sides. In fact, the Reds have dropped points against five of the bottom 10 sides in the league this season and have only played Sunderland and Swansea more than once from that 10. This record is not good enough. You don’t win trophies being beaten by Bournemouth, Burnley, Swansea and drawing to Sunderland. It just doesn’t happen.
While I applaud Jürgen Klopp’s ability to get his side going against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City and Man United, it would be nice to see the same fight and guile against lower league sides. There’s being confident in winning, then there’s expecting to win and the Reds cannot afford to do that. If there is any complacency in the squad. It must be ironed out ASAP.
Lastly, our defence is just not good enough. With Lovren and Klavan as a centre back pairing, you will get the odd quality showing from the two – Everton away for example – but inconsistency plagues both of them regularly.
Their performance against Swansea was collectively one of the worst I’ve ever seen as a Liverpool fan while the shambles at Bournemouth was genuinely mostly brought about by entirely avoidable errors from Lovren. If Klopp is going to get his Liverpool side to compete truly and consistently for the title over the coming seasons, our defence must be rectified. It’s no good trying to just go out and outscore opponents every week, some days you have to dig deep and knick a goal. We’ve shown we can do it against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea so why should it be any different against lower league teams when circumstance calls for it?
Truthfully this blip wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t coming at a time when our top four rivals were all finding their feet. Guardiola’s City side being the outlier, the rest of the Reds top four rivals are consistently grinding out impressive results and if Klopp and Liverpool are going to finish in fourth or higher, these issues need to be addressed immediately and rectified just as quickly.