Liverpool have been blighted by injury, bad on the pitch and behind the scenes – but they’re not broken
Liverpool are in a bad run of form
Apologies in advance if you are here for a pull quote. My condolences if you are expecting this to be a bending to social-media populism.
And sorry if you are part of the crowd that do not believe multiple things can be true at the same time in football; that one erroneous, over-the-top reaction is a much better fit.
Now we’ve got that out of the way: Liverpool Football Club. Top of the league six short matchweeks ago, they are under serious threat of falling out of the Champions League spots, which would be catastrophic to their model.
The Merseysiders now hold the status of suffering the biggest points drop by any reigning champion at this stage of a campaign in English top-flight history. They have fallen to three consecutive league defeats at Anfield for the first time since 1963.
There are more stats, none of them any less brutal than Roy Keane’s acerbic analysis. Liverpool have been – let’s be honest – rubbish.
But there is no need to sift through previous eras, study records at former clubs, go searching under the sofa, scratch at the back of the fridge or attempt any other stretch to ascertain why the defending champions are a shadow of themselves.
Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip suffered season-ending injuries.
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The Dutchman, the mainstay of the team, has been limited to five appearances in the division and Liverpool do not simply lose his aura, a psychological edge, command of the area and ability on the ball, but their greatest weapon against low-block opposition that look to profit off set-pieces.
Van Dijk’s absence was a gigantic enough dagger for the club without Gomez and Matip following suit, as the backline also functioned sans Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson for spells.
The names of the latter two being mentioned in that department is a problem in itself.
As these pages have already detailed, Liverpool gambled not adding another centre-back last summer after Dejan Lovren’s exit. It was a risk they were happy to take because, while the fitness of the other centre-backs could not be relied upon, Van Dijk’s availability was a banker and Fabinho was a solid fourth-choice option.
On 17 October, when the world’s most expensive defender suffered ACL damage in the Merseyside derby, that plan was shredded.
Virgil van Dijk’s season was ended by injury
And so, again as explained here, Liverpool were dicing with disaster by not remedying their crisis in the rearguard at the first opportunity. Especially since less than a month after Van Dijk’s serious setback, Gomez required surgery on the tendon in his knee and Fabinho was nursing a hamstring problem.
Matip had been in and out of the team by this point and, by the second week of November, it was crystalline that Liverpool had to act as soon as the January window opened. But they only came alive in the market when the former Schalke man damaged his ankle ligaments during a period in which Fabinho – the fourth now first-choice centre-back – was also missing.
While sporting director Michael Edwards managed to get Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies in for a combined £1.5m despite their late dithering, Liverpool never really got what they wanted, nor this decent enough solution with the speed necessary.
Neither new recruit have, understandably, yet played at centre-back for the club given they’ve had too few sessions to grasp the manager’s demands or form chemistry with the group.
And so Liverpool’s midfield continues to miss two of its crucial players as they fill in at the back, with Thiago operating in a patched-up side and somehow being at fault for the fact that Liverpool aren’t, well, Liverpool.
READ MORE: Premier League fixtures and table – all matches by date and kick-off time
To summarise, the defending champions have been unfortunate with injuries, but also acted as their own enemies with the transfer dithering over a centre-back.
If they had pursued Marseille’s Duje Caleta-Car earlier, for example, the Ligue 1 club would have sanctioned a £20m deal as the only barrier was a lack of time to source a replacement.
For all their missteps in that regard, Liverpool cannot be accused of allowing the team to get stale or not foreseeing the need to evolve, given they brought in Thiago, Diogo Jota and Konstantinos Tsimikas for circa £84m – even under the financial restraints imposed by Covid-19.
All three players have faced prolonged stints on the sidelines. Jota was shaping up as an early shout for signing of the season before his injury, while Thiago was to be the next phase of Liverpool switching emphasis from their creativity out wide to centrally, but he has never started among their strongest XI.
The core of Jurgen Klopp’s squad, their spine, are physically and mentally fatigued. Andrew Robertson and Alexander-Arnold do not get rested because there is already so much upheaval in the backline.
Gini Wijnaldum is the rock in the centre of the park, while Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are expected to still be the icing on a cake that’s collapsed in the middle.
The relentlessness of this team over the past three seasons – back-to-back Champions League finals, 97 then 99 points – was sure to hit at some stage, but this wear has been exacerbated by the scale and consistency of the injuries.
It has flagged the issue of depth and some members of the squad have unfortunately not contributed enough to Liverpool due to persistent time on the sidelines, like Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
A ruthless streak, however difficult, may need to be shown there.
Others, like Divock Origi, can and should be improved upon, but the pandemic hasn’t made it easy to shift those on the fringes at any club.
At the other end of the spectrum, the guarantee of Real Madrid or Barcelona arriving with huge sums to recruit one of Liverpool’s stars and fund a rejuvenation has been stripped away by the pair’s financial mess.
The Merseysiders have operated within their means and been applauded for it, widely recognised as leaders in analytics and recruitment by the experts in the field.
What has been highlighted as part of the foundation for their success cannot suddenly be shredded on account of a horrendous run after unprecedented injuries.
The investment from Fenway Sports Group may not always come in the form of a sparkly new £60m centre-back on the regular – but it can be seen in the wage bill, the new training complex, the Main Stand and such.
It must also be remembered that Klopp himself has denounced working with a big squad and hates the idea of using the market as the main solution to problems.
Jurgen Klopp has problems to solve
On this note, it has been staggering to see Xherdan Shaqiri – a two-time Champions League winner that has been one of the creative plus points for Liverpool through this slump – rendered not pedigreed enough for this team.
It begs the question, what is expected of a squad player? Are they meant to be just a shade off world class, yet be happy with odd starts?
Is it a case of wanting everything? The shrewd recruiters to drop that and follow Manchester City’s contrasting, but successful, template? The manager that has created part of his unique selling point on harnessing the potential of unheralded players to suddenly plump for galacticos? Liverpool to evolve, but slam Thiago for being different to what they have? A clearing-out of one of the finest sides the league has seen on account of two very testing months?
Liverpool – the players, the manager – have not become poor in this time frame. It’s an awful patch in awful circumstances with some awful decisions all held up against City’s excellent shape-shifting to deal with pandemic football.
Amongst all this, Klopp’s prickly nature, unwarranted and distasteful, has not been a good look.
The antagonism towards journalists, opposition managers and even the inaccurate comment about City’s schedule undercuts the very significant problems Liverpool have had to navigate, instead allowing the ‘excuses’, ‘bad champions’ and ‘loss of control’ kind of narratives to solidly form.
Klopp is allowed to be human, to be frustrated, but also to be criticised.
A lot has gone wrong for Liverpool, Liverpool have got a lot wrong and the overblown assessments on Liverpool are wrong. Multiple things really can be true at the same time in football.
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