After the highly anticipated, but ultimately flat North-West derby ended in a stalemate, Liverpool now sit fourth in the Premier League table, six points behind league leaders Manchester United with a game in hand. Back in December, following a 7-0 drubbing of Crystal Palace, it appeared Klopp had successfully managed to juggle their relentless injury crisis and an intimidating COVID schedule, sitting four points clear at the top of the Premier League with a ticket to the Champions League knockout stages already booked. However, the Reds have not tasted victory in the league since that goalscoring frenzy at Selhurst Park just under a month ago, without a goal in nearly four matches.
Liverpool are now unbeaten at home for sixty-eight consecutive league games after their 0-0 draw on Sunday. Source: theanfieldwrap.com
This bad run mirrors a struggle Klopp encountered in the early stages of 2017, which was largely down to Sadio Mané’s AFCON commitments with Senegal. A mere three points throughout January shattered their momentum and extinguished a pretty promising title push. Liverpool now find themselves in a similar predicament without their injured star player, Virgil van Dijk, as well as others on the treatment table.
Where does responsibility for such a poor run of form lie? Is it the front three, whose goalscoring prowess has certainly dried up recently; Klopp for selecting a team that arguably sacrifices attacking potency for defensive assurance; or maybe the transfer committee for not yet plugging evident gaps within the squad?
Liverpool of course overcame their 2017 anguishes to become one of Europe’s most consistent and feared sides, adding Champions League and Premier League titles to their trophy cabinet. So, will the current lull prove detrimental to the Reds’ hunt for trophies or will they respond in a determined manner, consistent with Klopp’s tenure thus far?
The Reds are clearly going through a rough spell in the final third – 348 minutes without a league goal represents the club’s worst attacking streak for sixteen years. Their main offensive outlets of Salah, Mané and Firmino have been heavily relied upon to grab important goals at key moments. However, other than summer signing Diogo Jota, out of action until February with a knee injury, there have always been limited alternatives to the trusty front three, with the exception of a Fairclough-inspired Divock Origi during the early months of 2019.
Only Brighton (8) have recorded more league draws than Liverpool’s seven so far this season. Source: hindustantimes.com
Therefore, deprived of any real competition for places, Klopp has played that same frontline in all but two league games this season, which may explain the stale and sluggish attacking performances of late. Whether the packed Christmas schedule has caught up on them or other teams have worked out how to nullify their usually lethal onslaughts, freshening things up may be the best option.
Squad depth is not only an issue up front; the fluctuating fitness of Joel Matip has provided little aplomb at the back, following long term injuries to defensive duo Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez. As a result of this dilemma, Liverpool have already started ten different centre back partnerships so far this season – chopping and changing between academy players and makeshift defenders. Not only does this disrupt harmony and cohesion within the backline but it also impinges on other areas of the pitch.
Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have started in defence for the past two games. Unsurprisingly, the Reds have not looked their usual selves on both occasions. As midfielders, both are highly effective at retrieving and recycling cleared balls, covering Alexander-Arnold and Robertson’s ceaseless excursions up the flanks, which facilitates relentless and suffocating attacks for opposition teams to deal with.
On top of that, Liverpool can usually rely on Gomez and van Dijk’s pace to dilute opposition counter attacks, which allows the full backs to play further up the pitch. Unfortunately, Henderson and Fabinho do not provide the same assurance, meaning the Reds play a more cautious game and prioritise defensive durability over attacking vigour, in the hope that chances will be taken up top – but importantly, they have not. Reducing full back involvement, one of Klopp’s most devastating and reliant offensive sources, has limited their options going forward and consequently goals have dried up.
Henderson’s presence and attacking impetus have been missed in midfield. Source: goal.com
The Reds have only eleven days to complete any transfers, before the window shuts in England at 11pm on 1st February. Disappointingly to many fans, the club has hinted at little action this January following a stymied year of balancing the financial and footballing aspects of the club. On the other hand, this creates an opportunity for fringe players to establish themselves in the first team. The likes of Curtis Jones, Takumi Minamino and Xerdan Shaqiri could use a string of games to revitalize a season that has offered glimpses of their individual brilliance.
Regardless of an evident decline from their impressive standards, Liverpool are victims of their own success. By setting the bar so high in past seasons, the gravity of an occasional rough patch is now massively blown out of proportion, instantly viewed as a complete catastrophe. But how damaging will this poor run of form prove to be, come the end of the season? Liverpool are through to the Champions League knockout stages potentially only three points off the league leaders, have a revenge-fuelled FA Cup rematch against Manchester United to look forward to, and an extended league record of sixty-eight consecutive home games undefeated. Additionally, playing players out of position heightens squad versatility and equips the Reds for similar injury crises in the future.
Attacking rotation could pave a way into the first team for Minamino. Source: mirror.co.uk
As far as the remainder of this season is concerned, the priority will be to prevent this poor run from picking up any more momentum. If they manage to grind out a victory against a well drilled and deep-lying Burnley side on Thursday, confidence will rebound throughout the squad and winless streaks will be a thing of the past. Jota’s return date from injury is also critical ahead of Liverpool’s crunch clash with Manchester City on 6th February – a tantalising duel that could prove pivotal in the title race.
After videos emerged of van Dijk participating in light training at the AXA Training Centre last week, an unexpectantly prompt return would send shockwaves around the Premier League. Although times may seem inauspicious, if Liverpool can remain in the title race and either of the two knockout competitions by the time of the Dutchman’s restoration, this season could still be one of the greatest in the club’s illustrious history.