Jack Hallows gives his thoughts on Liverpool’s January and whether Jürgen Klopp proved that he has learned from last year’s costly mistakes.
The dreaded month of January is over.
After an incredible start to Jürgen Klopp’s first full season in charge of Liverpool Football Club, the wheels came off spectacularly in January of 2017. Sadio Mané left for AFCON, Philippe Coutinho returned from a long-term injury looking like a shell of his usual self and Roberto Firmino exhibited the deadliness of a common house fly.
The result? The club was dumped out of two cup competitions and won just one game in nine.
So, how did the Reds fare twelve months later?
On the pitch
When it comes to performances on the pitch, this month was typical of what we’ve seen under Klopp at Liverpool but in truth, the damage was minimal.
The Reds played six matches during a far less congested January, winning four – including a mammoth 4-3 home win over a Manchester City side dubbed ‘invincible’ – but still managing to slip up against Swansea in the league and West Brom in the FA Cup.
The month started away at Burnley – the scene of probably Liverpool’s least inspiring performance last season – with a Sadio Mané wonder strike and some last minute drama courtesy of Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren the bright spots in an otherwise dour contest.
More late drama would follow just four days later at Anfield with the Reds looking comfortable against city rivals Everton only to throw away a 1-0 lead to a counter-attack.
Sounds familiar, right?
However, the Reds once again rewrote the supposed narrative – y’know the one where we don’t score late winners ever? – as Virgil van Dijk rose above the crowd on his debut to nod home the winner in front of the Kop.
Incredibly, despite the next challenge facing the Reds being a Pep Guardiola side unbeaten in domestic football since April and favourites to win just about every trophy going, things only got better. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain endeared himself to the Anfield faithful by putting the Reds ahead before a manic 30 minute period in the second half showcased both the best and worst of Klopp’s Liverpool.
No matter your opinion on the defending exhibited late on during the match, Liverpool walked away with 3 points. The first – and so far only – team to do so against Manchester City in domestic football this season.
Of course, with confidence high, the fans expected a big win next up against relegation fodder Swansea. 3-0? 4-0? Heck, we beat them 5-0 at Anfield maybe it’ll happen again?
Don’t be so foolish.
The Reds slipped to an embarrassing 1-0 loss courtesy of an Alfie Mawson goal in the first half and while Roberto Firmino really should’ve rescued a point late on with a free header that hit the post, we never deserved to walk away from the game with anything resembling a positive. An unbeaten run of 18 games ended by a team who’d won just twice since August. Brilliant.
A similarly poor display followed at home to West Brom where Roberto Firmino’s early opener was canceled out by some absolutely horrendous defending and goalkeeping errors. 3-2 and out of the FA Cup in the fourth round. Again.
You’d have been forgiven at this point for feeling a little cautious ahead of the Reds final fixture of the month – a visit to Huddersfield Town – especially when the team news emerged and it was revealed Virgil van Dijk had been rested.
Klopp’s men made sure there were no repeats of the previous two performances though and as Roberto Firmino slotted home the second of three goals just before halftime, there was only ever going to be one result. 3 points and 50 up in total for the season from 25 games. Not quite the disaster that some have made it out to be on Twitter.
Overall, the Reds were far more effective on the pitch this January than they were twelve months ago. Klopp’s rotation policy, paired with the availability of key players such as Salah, Firmino, Mané and Emre Can were huge factors in Klopp’s men managing 12 out of 15 points in the league. Being dumped unceremoniously out of the FA Cup, at home, to West Brom, was hardly a positive but at least the top four is still very much on.
Off the pitch
This is where things get a little messy.
The window started in absolutely sublime fashion to be honest with you. Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool’s primary defensive target and a player also coveted by the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, signed for the club for £75m. Big money spent, a major target snapped up and most importantly, a key weakness on the pitch addressed.
Unfortunately, since then it’s all been a bit of a landslide.
Philippe Coutinho left the club just days later in a £142m move to Barcelona and while fans were less than impressed, Liverpool fans were buoyed by the staggering amount of money involved in the deal. Coutinho was gone but surely, surely, the club wouldn’t be so foolish as to just sit on their newly gained finances and would act swiftly to ensure a replacement was brought in?
I’m typing this after the 3-0 win against Huddersfield Town on January 30th and sadly, while all of our top six rivals have strengthened around us, our only signing remains Virgil van Dijk. Now, while the Dutchman is a huge signing for us, he’s not the only incoming that was needed.
Adam Lallana’s constant injury troubles, the frankly baffling exit of Daniel Sturridge on loan and of course, Coutinho’s move to Barcelona, have left the Reds lacking in attacking depth and the midfield in particular looks devoid of creativity and pace.
There were improvements against Huddersfield with all three of Henderson, Milner and Can putting in 8/10 performances but you cannot escape the fact that the club now does not possess a naturally creative influence in the middle third of the park.
Klopp tried and failed to accelerate Naby Keïta’s move to Merseyside while links to likes of Thomas Lemar and Riyad Mahrez just refuse to abate but the club have stood firm.
“Philippe Coutinho is not to replace this window,” Klopp stated in no uncertain terms during his pre-Huddersfield press-conference. A worrying statement.
The FA Cup and Carabao Cup may be gone but there is still a serious battle against Arsenal and Spurs for top four to contend with alongside a very winnable tie with Porto in the Champions League round of 16.
The fact that the club have decided not to strengthen and leave us one or two injuries away from a weak looking XI is baffling, especially when the very same choice almost cost us a top four spot last campaign.
With Coutinho and Sturridge having left the club, Emre Can’s contract situation looking no closer to being resolved and Naby Keïta stuck at Leipzig until July, this window can only really be described as frustrating at best.
There are still 24 hours of the window left to make a statement but sadly, I just cannot see any deadline day surprises popping up to boost the squad.
To sum it up
Once again I just have to come back to that one word: frustrating.
January has truthfully been full of positives – predominantly on the field. We beat Manchester City. Let me say that again… We beat Manchester City!
We’re still in the top four, eight points above Arsenal and five points ahead of Tottenham who play Manchester United in less than 24 hours. We have 50 points from 25 games and have only been defeated three times in the Premier League all season.
Then there are the individuals.
We’ve signed Virgil van Dijk who will undoubtedly help to shore up our defence in the long run, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have continued their brilliant form in front of goal, Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have looked solid in midfield and Andrew Robertson has looked far better than his £10m price tag and former club suggest.
However, I just can’t help but feel that the decision not to spend at least some of the money brought in from the sale of Coutinho on a new creative outlet and possibly a new goalkeeper could come back to bite us.
As ever though, only time will tell.