Sunday, April 18, 2021

Liverpool: A dark road ahead

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The contrast between the last season and this one could hardly have been more drastic than it has for Liverpool. It took them 30 years, but the Merseysiders finally managed to break the curse which saw them miss out on the Premier League title for such a long time after being named English champions for a record of 18 times, and eventually opened the door for Manchester United under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson to rush past and win their 20th in 2013.

And as Jurgen Klopp made clear upon his arrival to Anfield that it would, it took some time for him to construct a team worthy of the title, a team which would also win the Champions League in 2019, having already reached the final of UEFA’s elite competition the year before. The 2019-20 revealed a ruthless group of players under the German’s command, a team capable of not only outplaying anyone in the league, but also winning games when they weren’t performing as well as they would have liked – a mark of true champions.

The problems

But it all fell apart since then, and there’s hardly cause to be talking about defending the title anymore. Liverpool now look completely bereft of of creativity upfront and stability at the back, but most of all, that mentality which saw them overcome practically every obstacle which stood between them and the much-desired trophy through the previous campaign.

The biggest factor in their sudden decline seems completely obvious. Liverpool lost Virgil van Dijk for the season on October 17th, when a tackle, inexplicable in any way other than calling it malicious, by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford caused an ACL tear in the big Dutchman’s left knee. Not long after, the same fate took Joe Gomez as well, leaving Klopp with only one senior designated centre-back in his ranks. But Joel Matip’s own injury issues have been well documented over the last couple of years, and it looked very unlikely that the tall Cameroonian would be able to play every week. Now he’s out for the season as well, after tearing his ankle ligaments.

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It can rightly be argued that Liverpool made a glaring mistake by not signing another centre-back after they sold Dejan Lovren last summer. That much is now obvious, but to be fair, nobody could have predicted this chain of events. It can also be said that other teams have more depth, but in all honesty, not one of them would likely be coping any better in this situation, not even Manchester City.

The current table toppers and strong title favourites have often been praised for having so many attacking options that missing players like Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne for a while never really posed a problem, but many contributed the gap between Liverpool and them last season to Aymeric Laporte being injured for a large chunk of the season. They are now being praised for sorting the issue out through the signing of Ruben Dias last summer, and the quality the Portuguese has shown certainly merits it, but a different perspective is needed here.

Even now, with a 10-point gap between them and Manchester United in second place, a hypothetical loss of Laporte, Dias and John Stones for the rest of the season would represent a shock which would make the task of staying where they are incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Add hypothetical frequent injuries to Rodri and Fernandinho into the equation, two midfielders capable of slotting in at centre-back in uttermost need, and it becomes completely impossible. That’s what has happened to Liverpool.

The knock-on effect

The loss of the central defence and the moving of Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson to the back line have caused a big upset further up the pitch. The back four now lack proper protection, and the usually effective high press which always provided chances for quick attacks has vanished, and that was something the trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah thrived on upfront. And to make matters even worse, Fabinho has recently struggled with injuries as well, while Henderson suffered a serious problem and was forced to leave the pitch after only 30 minutes of the Merseyside Derby on Saturday, and there are concerns that the captain could be the fourth player to be ruled out for the rest of the campaign.

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One of the questions that probably need to be asked here is why Liverpool didn’t act more decisively to try and rectify the situation in January. The only explanation plain logic offers is that potential selling clubs knew of their predicament and consequently placed huge price tags on their centre-backs. In the end, Ben Davies arrived from Preston North End and Ozan Kabak followed from Schalke 04, both on the final day of the winter window, but neither of them is perceived as a player of sufficient quality and experience to come in and make a difference straight away – and that is what Liverpool desperately needed. The form dropped, the results turned to disaster, and the reality of their season goals has now changed from fighting for the title to a fierce struggle to make top four. Even that doesn’t look too likely at the moment, with the Reds sitting in sixth place, nine points behind Manchester United and Leicester City in second and third, respectively, five behind West Ham in fourth, and three behind Chelsea in fifth.

What now?

The mistake of not securing fresh names through the transfer market cannot be corrected until the summer, so the big question Klopp and his staff will have to figure out the answer to is what course they should take between now and the end of the season. Fabinho will be back soon, and a look at Klopp’s recent thinking says he will put the Brazilian into the heart of defence again.

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But perhaps it would be more natural if Fabinho went back to his old role as a shield in front of the defence, despite the question marks around Kabak, Davies, or the two youngsters, Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams. After all, these four players are centre-backs, and Fabinho playing ahead of, for example, Kabak and Phillips, could provide them with some stability. It would also allow the much-debated Thiago Alcantara some freedom in his play, which should lead to improved creativity upfront.

It does seem like a risky theory, but no more so than any other option at Klopp’s disposal. Whatever road he chooses to take, it will seem like feeling around in the dark and there are no easy answers.

A glimmer of hope

One player Liverpool did sign last summer and who made immediate impact is Diogo Jota. The former Wolves forward slotted in seamlessly and scored nine goals in 17 appearances across the Premier League and the Champions League, until he picked up a knee problem too. It happened in the final minutes of the 1-1 draw against Midtjylland at Anfield on December 9th, and it seems the usual front three lost a lot of their edge after that through a lack of proper competition. Divock Origi, one of the heroes of the 2019 Champions League success, has done practically nothing to help the team this term, scoring only once, and that against League One side Lincoln City in the Carabao Cup back in September.

But the good news for Liverpool is, Jota is now back in team training and could be available for the game against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Sunday. Providing he rediscovers his form quickly, an extra attacking threat that his presence brings will be a significant addition to the team for the rest of the season.

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Liverpool beat RB Leipzig 0-2 in their Champions League round-of-16 clash in Budapest, with the Bundesliga side officially registered as the hosts. It is a good result ahead of the second leg, the venue of which is yet to be determined, and passage to the quarterfinals would be a boost for the morale of Klopp’s team, quite apart from the fact that the Champions League is now the only avenue still open to them when it comes to winning a trophy this term.

But whatever happens on either front, the summer should be very interesting in terms of potential transfers, both in and out. Georginio Wijnaldum will be out of contract if he doesn’t sign a new one before the end of June, and there could be a sale or two as well. Liverpool will certainly be looking to replace whoever leaves, and possibly add an out-and-out striker regardless of whether Origi stays or goes.

But bolstering the defence should be the absolute priority.

Another thing that will be offering hope to Liverpool and their supporters is the fact that they haven’t exactly been playing as bad as their recent run of form suggests. Mistakes at the back and bluntness upfront have been a part of their game, but they still dominate matches and there’s a constant feeling that just a little bit of focus is missing for things to pick up again. They will pick up at some point, that much seems certain, but the biggest question is – when?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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