After Monday nights loss to Southampton the defending Champions are in a situation that we have not seen for two seasons. A return of 2 points out of a possible 9 means they are now top of the league but teams have clawed back the gap. Both Manchester Clubs can overtake them if they win their games in hand. Liverpool have now dropped points against lowly West Brom and Newcastle but more tellingly they have failed to score in their last 2 games. Something is wrong at Liverpool but what exactly has happened to last seasons runaway leaders?
The Centre Back Issue
Losing one of the worlds best defenders was always going to cause issues with the team. More so when you consider Virgil Van Dijk is also a leader in the dressing room. Followed shortly by the long-term injury of Joe Gomez this has proved catastrophic as Liverpool went into this season with only 3 proven Centre Backs in the first place. Fabinho has been excellent in his new role but the lack of a fit and stable partner to go with him has caused concern. When both he and Matip have played together the team looks stable but when you lose the injury prone Cameroonian it is not the case. Williams and Phillips have both done well in some games but have been badly exposed for lack of pace with Liverpool playing a high line.
Klopp has not helped here with his introduction of Jordan Henderson as a make shift Centre Back. Not only does it remove your most influential midfielder it also takes confidence away from Williams/Phillips as well. This will become more of an issue in coming games as it cannot be a long-term option. Now Klopp must decide to stick of twist as he meets two in form sides in Villa and United in their next two games. Both will play on the counter attack and both will surely target the right side of Liverpool’s defence through Grealish and Rashford. If he was unsure of their talents against Southampton then how will he deal with this?
Losing the Aura of Invincible
After two incredible seasons where Liverpool simply swept away the opponents it creates an aura about the team. Not many teams have gained this type of respect over the years. Wenger’s Arsenal. Mourinho’s Chelsea. Fergusons United. Peps City. Teams that had a side beaten before they left the dressing room. Liverpool were a side that you never pressed high. Defended with 11 men behind the ball and tried to keep the score line down to a minimum. But this has changed in recent weeks. West Brom defended deep away at Anfield and barely left their own half at times. Newcastle on the other hand took the game to Liverpool and boxed them into their own half for a good portion of the game. Deciding to not allow Liverpool play out from the back.
Once a team thinks they are in with a chance they will hang in there. Once you give them a goal to hold onto they will dig in and go until the bitter end. Liverpool have found this to their peril this season by giving up early goals in many games with Jota bailing them out early on with late goals. now those goals have dried up teams realise they are in with a realistic chance of taking points off them. Liverpool also have the problem that every team are now desperate to beat them. Look at Ralph Hasenhuttl’s reaction to winning last night. He was overcome with emotion.
The STAT attack
Sky Sports lauded to the effect that Liverpool had their first shot in the 75th minute on target. An accurate stat to the effect but one that doesn’t really tell the full story. 17 attempts in total brought out a number of superb last ditch blocks from the Southampton men. Some were of course on target before being blocked. In fact when you look at the season in total this was a huge stat as Liverpool usually have Avg 12 shots blocked per game but in this game it was 23 blocks. Impressive defending to be fair. Looking at more of Liverpool’s games they had 24 shots against Leicester (Won 3-0), 8 against West Ham (Won 2-0) and a mere 6 versus Brighton (Drew 1-1). Also for the record Liverpool only concede an Avg 8 shots per game. Similar to last season.
Perhaps one interesting stat from last nights game was the number of times they were forced to cross the ball – 28 times – versus an average of 12 per game before this. Only the West Brom game came close with 25. But this shows that Liverpool were struggling to penetrate through the center of the pitch and were forced wide.
As for Liverpool’s pressing this is something Klopp will surely look to put right as the 1st 3 games of the season they pressed 150 times! The last 3 games they have pressed only 70 times. The 2019-20 season Liverpool averaged 170 presses per game. This shows the up and down nature of this team. Lacking consistency.
Aston Villa and Leeds have managed to out press Liverpool this season with ~230 presses per game! This is however not the normal with most teams playing a low block and usually only pressing Liverpool ~90 presses per game. Of course this has a varied success rate with Villa reaping the heavy reward but Leeds missing by a goal.
When Liverpool have produced their best it is usually with a midfield trio of Henderson/Fabinho/Wijnaldum. Solid and compact. Liverpool would suffocate the opposition with an impressive work rate. When things were going well Klopp could also rotate in Kieta, Milner and Ox when needed to keep players fresh. We have not seen that this season. Henderson when out with injury was seen to be a massive loss more so for his leadership qualities. Liverpool have not had that dominance in the last 10 games. Fabinho will not be returning to that role this season most likely.
Curtis Jones has had some good performances but is still very raw. Naby Kieta is made of glass and Oxlade-Chamberlain is only retuning from injury. It was curious more so that Klopp decided to opt away from allowing Henderson to steady the ship alongside Wijnaldum then adding one of Ox/Tiago last night. This is one of the reasons we are not seeing the stability of the team look quite right. The balance is not there. Liverpool need to go back to basics here and i am sure they will over the next two games in particular. If we go back over the last couple of games they have had “periods” where they are good. Pressing the opposition onto their own half and being relentless. But it has been patchy. This is causing more problems further up the field.
Mane Salah Firmino
When in full pomp these 3 were the most feared in Europe. Terrifying defences with razorlike attacks and just overwhelming teams with their attacking prowess. It feels like months since this has been the case. Diogo Jota came in over the summer and was immediately putting pressure on each of these for their place. Klopp even started all 4 against City.
Firminio has been out of sorts for some time now. He can be majestic of course but this season in particular he has drawn criticism from his own supporters mainly due to missing some easy chances. Over the course of a season no striker should be failing to score at home and Firmino waited until the last game. When the team plays well he is the fulcrum of all attacks. He brings the others into play. All good when you are full of attacking venom and free flowing football. This is course is a symptom of Liverpool’s struggles. When Liverpool are not at 100% he looks lost at times. Dropping into the middle too much and when in attack not being an option in the box. Andy Robertson could have crossed 100 balls last night and Firmino would have been in midfield for all of them.
Mane and Salah are polar opposites right now. Mane is a worker. He doesn’t care how the team performs he just digs in and goes for broke! Everything that is good from Liverpool comes from Mane and Robertson’s side of the pitch. They interact brilliantly and the right side of the field seems to function well even during the poor performances. Salah and his partner Trent are in a serious low of their careers right now. Not to exaggerate it being a low of depression but these 2 have set such expectations in previous years it is incredible to see them so off the pace.
A huge stat from the Southampton game was Trent giving away possession away 38 times! A record! This is not his title alone though. Salah is offering nothing in both directions. Multiple heavy touches after a pass he looks like he’s lost his spark. I cannot remember the last time he actually went past a player 1v1. It is as if he has forgotten what made him brilliant. Are they missing Henderson playing wide left? I think so. He was a huge part in giving them the time and space they desired. Overloading one side of the field and allowing the duo to play the right ball. Chamberlain played there last night and offered nothing. It is the balance once more that is off.
Is form temporary and Class permanent?
What a difference a few weeks makes. After the Spurs game everyone tipped Liverpool to push on and retain their title. 3 bad results on the bounce and they are finished! Is this a wake up call for them? For Klopp? We will find out in the next 2 games. These have become such massive games now as they will define how Liverpool will finish up this season. Win both and they will be in with a shout for silverware. Lose both and they will win nothing. We will see if class can rise again.
I would expect Klopp to revert to form. I do not think he can change the way they play in this timeframe. Liverpool will attack. He will need all his players to shake off the last few weeks and produce some big performances. Expect to see Henderson to be restored to the middle. Wijnaldum to accompany him and then its a case of style over substance with Milner or Thiago to partner them. He will have to take a gamble with the youngsters with Williams a probable starter. It is sink or swim time.
After 2 years of full incredible performances we have seen Liverpool fall short of the standards they have set. It is strange to see them lose and even stranger to see them scoreless. I can’t say it is one thing specifically but more so an accumulation of smaller things contributing to their current form. Defence effects the midfield and they effect the attackers. It is a team game. When one part of the machine is not functional then everything seems off. I would expect to see them come up with some good performances in the next few games as they are are so important. But, i can see this sort of on/off form continuing until the season ends.
Liverpool have come off the high of winning last seasons League and this takes it’s toll on players. It also takes a toll on the mindset. This is why it is so hard to create a winning mentality back to back in the Premier League and why so few teams have managed to achieve it. Perhaps the silver lining could be the return of Jota towards February? A new center back signing? something to galvanise this squad. Without that though i cannot see them finishing on top of the Premier League despite this unusual season. That said they have been top of the League despite everything i have just mentioned. If they found a way to retain this title it would truly be a huge accomplishment.