Liverpool, according to Max Morland, have become over-reliant on their star players in recent weeks and will need to learn to share load more.
It would be fair to say that Liverpool haven’t exactly had the best of starts to 2017. The first leg defeat to Southampton has put the Reds’ cup hopes on edge, whilst a replay was needed to see off League Two side Plymouth in the FA Cup. However, surely the biggest disappointment of the month so far came in the humiliating defeat at home to Swansea compounded what has been a stuttering start to the calendar year in the Premier League.
Just two months prior to that loss, however, Liverpool were in fine form, having just thrashed Watford 6-1 to climb to the summit of the league table. The Reds were playing high intensity, attacking football, and looked capable of mounting a serious title challenge.
So why have the performance levels of the team plummeted so soon after the excellent start to the season? Well, I think that part of the issue may lie within the club’s reliability on their most influential players, some of whom are currently being played out of position or are absent from the team for various reasons. I have identified the four players who have been arguably the most crucial to the team’s successes this season, to answer the question: are Liverpool over-reliant on their key men?
Not much needs to be said about Phillipe Coutinho’s importance to the side. The young Brazilian is, without any doubt, the Reds’ best player, and the key to a successful campaign this year. In an injury lay-off that kept the 24 year old out of action for over a month, Liverpool lost their primary source of creativity, and thus also found it difficult to maintain the number of goals that were being scored prior to his absence.
During the time that Coutinho was out of the side, Jürgen Klopp experimented with various different methods of replacing him, from moving Adam Lallana to a more advanced role, to switching Roberto Firmino to a wide position to accommodate for either Divock Origi or Daniel Sturridge to play as the central striker. However, both of these methods seemed to hinder Liverpool’s performances, rather than improve them, with Firmino especially subdued out on the wing.
Liverpool need Coutinho to continue to perform consistently and produce more individual moments of brilliance if the Reds are to have any chance of overhauling Chelsea’s substantial 10 point lead at the top of the table.
It is no secret that Liverpool’s defence has been the leading cause for concern amongst fans for a number of years. Cameroonian centre-back Joel Matip was brought in by Jürgen Klopp, and to some extent, he has improved the Reds’ back-line. The fact that Liverpool’s three league defeats this campaign have all come when Matip was out of the team suggests that the alternative centre-back pairing – normally Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren – are not quite up to the required standard.
In fact, when Matip does play, he makes the entire defence look better too. Lovren, who, when partnered with Klavan looks indecisive and nervous, transforms into a seemingly completely different player when alongside Matip.
However, whilst Lovren is – just about – capable of partnering the Cameroonian this season, I think than an upgrade is needed in the summer, to lift the burden of off Matip’s shoulders and to provide sufficient cover when he is unavailable.
What a signing Mané has turned out to be. He provides the pace and directness that the Reds have been lacking for a number of years, and, when unavailable, his absence is clearly felt. Against teams who sit back and defend for the 90 minutes, Mané is vital for Liverpool in helping to break down the defence, which could explain why Liverpool have found it so difficult lately to get results against the ‘smaller teams’.
On his return from AFCON, we should again begin to see things fall into place for Jürgen Klopp, although in hindsight, I think that a short-term replacement should have been brought in over the January transfer window to cover for the Senegalese winger, in his absence.
Unlike the aforementioned players, Adam Lallana’s influence on the team this season has not been defined by his game time. Whilst the Englishman has missed only a handful of games so far this term, his position on the field has, at times, had a detrimental impact on the creativity and intensity of the Reds’ performances.
When in a central midfield role, the Englishman is able to dictate the play and make intelligent forward runs into the box. However, due to Sadio Mané’s recent absence from the side, Lallana has been forced to move to a wider position to cover for the Senegalese winger. As we saw in Brendan Rodgers’ reign, playing on the wing nullifies Lallana’s most prominent qualities: his fitness and his creativity from a deeper role.
A knock-on effect of this position switch has been the vacancy left in midfield. Recently, Emre Can has filled in, although his performances of late have drawn some criticism from fans. The German is a strong, powerful player, who in my opinion has a lot of potential for the future, but in comparison to Lallana, he does not provide the energy and drive in midfield that Klopp demands.
On one hand, you could argue that the talent on the pitch this year is more evenly distributed around the team than, for example, the 2013/14 season where Luis Suarez was the sole figure spearheading the title challenge. This year, the Reds have five different players already above the five-goal mark in the league, the most of any Premier League club, and the depth of the squad, whilst still not being fully sufficient, is also greater than it has been in previous seasons.
In spite of this, however, I still feel that there is something lacking within the team that could give Liverpool an extra dimension as they look to arrest their current slump in form. When you look at the current league leaders, Chelsea, you could pick any member to remove from the team, and they would still find a way to grind out a result. Twice in the past month has Diego Costa been missing from the line-up, and both times, Chelsea have found a way to win.
In Liverpool’s case, however, I wouldn’t be so confident of a good result. The Reds still seem to lack the ability to win under difficult circumstances, and despite the obvious improvement on last season, the Liverpool’s vulnerability when key players are missing could yet cost them the title, or even worse, the top four.