The Champions were back on the top by December but have dropped off spectacularly since then. We take a look at what has gone wrong.
ALWAYS THE BRIDESMAID…
Liverpool have waited quite a while and in quite a way for their first Premier League title. After winning their last league title in 1990, they came painfully close on three different occasions in recent times, only to miss out in the end.
Under Jürgen Klopp, the Reds have continued to improve season after season. After securing Champions League qualification in his first full season (2016-17), Liverpool managed to reach the final of that competition next season, only to be beaten by Real Madrid. The 2018-19 season saw the trophies start coming in, with Liverpool going all the way in Europe and winning their sixth Champions League trophy. In the Premier League, they missed out on the title by one point, despite accruing 97 points and losing just one match (to eventual champions Man City) and having the best defence.
VICTORY, AT LONG LAST
97 points should ideally have been more than good enough for any team to secure the league (and then some) in any other year, but thanks to Man City’s machine-like vigour that was not to be the case. This was, however, one slip-up too many for Liverpool, which triggered them into demolition mode for the next season.
In the 2019-20, Liverpool came out all guns blazing. They knew they couldn’t afford to drop even a single point. What followed was an unprecedented run of grinding out results one after the other, which coupled by Man City’s inevitable slight drop in form after two intense title-winning campaigns saw the Reds lead the second-placed Cityzens by 22 points by the start of February. Even then, as everyone went about declaring the season at the top well over, Liverpool players and fans were so apprehensive and scarred by their many collapses that they did not dare to call themselves victors until the moment Chelsea beat City on Matchday 31 to hand them the title. The long, emotionally draining years had finally precipitated into the elusive trophy. The Reds ended the season with 99 points, 18 points ahead of second-placed Man City. Under Klopp, Liverpool were back on their perch.
HOW PREPARED WERE LIVERPOOL FOR THIS SEASON?
Despite the success, it’s not that the powers that be at Liverpool did not ascertain few shortcomings that needed addressing. After securing the league title, there was an understandable drop in the intensity of Liverpool’s performances for the remaining matches, which suggested getting ahead of the situation while they could.
The midfield trio of Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, while pivotal to the side’s relentless pressing, was also quite rigid and formulaic at times, hinting towards a need for some freshening up to bring about more creativity. Liverpool addressed this by buying Thiago Alcântara, who arrived from a Bayern Munich side that rammed through everyone they faced during their Treble-winning season.
Another challenge for Liverpool was their front three – Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah. While forming the most formidable attacking trio on their day, they were getting on and worse, getting on at same time, going into the season being 28 years old each. Liverpool understood that while they couldn’t replace them at the same time, they needed to introduce new faces one-by-one who would in time, gradually, take over from them. Keeping that in mind, they snapped up a then 23-year-old Diogo Jota from Wolves, who could play any of the front three positions, making him an ideal choice for gradual integration into the side.
Apart from these two, Liverpool brought in Konstantinos Tsimikas from Olympiacos as a backup left-back for Andy Robertson. Youngsters Curtis Jones and Neco Williams were also guaranteed increased minutes in the senior side.
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THERE WAS ALWAYS GOING TO BE A DROP
Despite the players Liverpool brought in and a need to tweak their playing style, there was very little chance of Liverpool maintaining the same intensity that had become commonplace with them over the past two years. After all, when you have had two seasons with your point tallies being 97 and 99 – a result of four years of continuous squad development leading to finally reaching an elusive summit after thirty years, there’s going to be a collective, sub-conscious, small, subtle but not insubstantial, decline. This was hinted at towards the very end of last season, when Liverpool suffered surprise defeats to Arsenal and Man City after winning the league. Add to that the fact that this was a COVID-hit season that would see an even more saturated calendar with little to no pre-season.
Man City, on their part, suffered from the same problem last season, and after two scintillating title-winning campaigns experienced a drop-off not too disastrous, but substantial enough to allow Liverpool to run away with the league.
Liverpool were apprehensive of their ominous prospects and tried to prepare as well as they could. Unfortunately for them, few could prepare for what followed. After a formidable start to the season, Liverpool suffered a shock 7-2 defeat away at Aston Villa, one of those one-off shock defeats every big club was suffering at the time. It was after this match that their injury woes began.
The biggest shock to Liverpool’s system came in October during the Merseyside derby away at Everton when their star defender Virgil van Dijk clattered with Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, sustaining cruciate ligament damage in the process and effectively getting ruled out for the rest of the season. Given how crucial his presence had been in Liverpool’s resurgence this was bad enough, but a month later his partner Joe Gomez picked up his own knee injury while on international duty with England, ending his season. Little more than two months later, Joel Matip bowed out of the season with an ankle ligament injury he sustained in Liverpool’s 3-1 win away at Spurs. Just like that, Liverpool’s entire central defence was decimated. Both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have had niggling injuries as well. At one point in November, Liverpool’s entire first-choice defence was unavailable due to injury.
In midfield, new arrival Thiago showed promise during his debut against Chelsea, but soon after that he tested positive for COVID-19. After that, he suffered his own knee injury during that Merseyside derby in October that kept him out until the start of 2021. James Milner made a lot more starts than expected, sincerely deputising wherever necessary, but the 35-year-old sustained a hamstring injury earlier this month. Captain Jordan Henderson, who had been playing in defence, suffered an adductor injury in the Merseyside derby last week and will be out until at least April.
The other new arrival, Diogo Jota, exceeded everyone’s expectations, exploding onto the scene with 9 goals in all competitions from his first 17 appearances. At one point, he became so crucial to Liverpool’s attack, Klopp was starting him alongside the Mané-Firmino-Salah trio. He, though, has been out with a knee injury he suffered in a Champions League match against FC Midtjylland in December.
Between the posts, Alisson has had an on-and-off hamstring issue, though young academy graduate Caoimhín Kelleher has been a worthy deputy whenever called upon.
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Expected tardiness aside, the injuries have played a major part in Liverpool’s form falling off a cliff.
With no first-choice centre-backs available, Klopp has been deploying Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in defence. To their credit, they are diligent, positionally astute players who on most occasions come through, but these kinds of make-dos work only to a certain extent, that too when both of your centre-backs are midfielders. Academy youngsters Nat Phillips (23) and Rhys Williams (20) have stepped up and shown promise but haven’t earned Klopp’s complete trust yet.
Understandably, Liverpool hoped to be able to survive this injury crisis without having to make any major signings at the back, because that would create discrepancies when the injured players returned. But things had gotten so unreliable that Liverpool had to cave in and bring in two centre-backs – Ozan Kabak from Schalke and Ben Davies from Preston North End – on the January transfer window’s deadline day. Davies duly picked up an injury after arriving and hasn’t featured yet, while Kabak has made a few appearances but clearly needs more game time to get used to Klopp’s system.
It’s not just having to play midfielders in defence, it’s the lack of said midfielders in the midfield – the very midfield that is the core of this Liverpool side while maintaining a high line and pressing high up the pitch. The likes of Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner and Xherdan Shaqiri are being asked to make up for their absence, but the result is nowhere near the desired output. Thiago, who was brought in to play alongside Fabinho and Henderson, is now caught vulnerable in the middle, having to work in a dysfunctional midfield.
This is creating a domino effect that’s affecting the attackers’ ability to perform the way they’re used to. While Salah is the leading goal-scorer in the league, Mané and Firmino have not been able to make much direct contribution. Even Alisson Becker – one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the world – has had a few shockers in recent matches.
More importantly, the belief has disappeared from the side. Last month, Burnley managed to end Liverpool’s 68-game unbeaten run at Anfield that stretched back to April 2017. Liverpool haven’t won at home since then and face a composed, continuously improving Chelsea at Anfield next week. What was an impregnable fortress has now become a punctured tent. There have been sporadic victories, but Liverpool need to gain pace quickly in order to maintain a top 4 position.
If injuries weren’t enough, the personnel have had to deal with bereavements away from the pitch.
Klopp recently divulged that his mother had passed away last month, but he wasn’t able to go to her funeral and be with his family because of UK’s lockdown protocols and instead continued to appear for matches. He has been admittedly under a lot of stress, what with having not been able to be with his family and [on the pitch] having to deal with issues beyond his control.
To make matters worse, goalkeeper Alisson recently revealed that his father had died few days ago in a drowning accident near his home in São Paulo. He’s currently on his way to Brazil to be with his family at this time.
It can be hard to imagine football players and managers as human beings like you and me, but if the past year has taught us anything it’s that there’s more to life than just this game. People grieve in their own ways, but it can never be easy having to deal with these situations and focus completely on the game. ‘Understanding grief and showing compassion towards athletes’ is an important discussion in its own right, but for now we can all but wish their families some solace in this difficult time.
Understandably, Liverpool’s current predicament has resulted in doubts over Klopp’s future. Many had started speculating that the German might just resign given all the stress he’s under both professionally and personally, but Klopp has since quashed those rumours.
Another prospect being tossed around is Liverpool deciding to sack Klopp, which can only be considered nonsense at this point, given everything the 53-year-old has done for the club in the past five-and-a-half years.
When you look at Klopp’s track record during his time at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, his tenures usually last seven years, with some mental and physical exhaustion expected towards the end given Klopp’s emotive persona and intense management.
Currently, Klopp has a contract with Liverpool until 2024, and the likeliest scenario is that he will see out his contract. However, nothing is certain in this cutthroat results-based industry, and while we can safely rule dismissal out for now, if things do not seem to improve quickly, there is a slight possibility that the Liverpool hierarchy might try to subtly and respectfully part ways with Jürgen. Most probably it won’t happen, but you just never know.
THE ROAD AHEAD
There is no doubt that Liverpool are in a bad place right now. What was already going to be a hard season has been worsened by circumstances no one could pre-empt. However, all’s not lost for the Reds. While the title is most certain Man City’s, all bets are off for how the Champions League positions will fill out by Matchday 38. Liverpool are surrounded by teams currently in a rich vein of form, so they are going to have to pick up their pace sooner rather than later. They’re also taking a lead into the 2nd leg of their Round of 16 Champions League tie against RB Leipzig, a competition they might have to focus on as a salvage for the season. The only positive here is that things would soon get better when players (and eventually, fans) return, and if there was ever a club that by the virtue of its community knows how to bring people together to weather a storm, it’s Liverpool.
They have never walked alone, and they never will.
Liverpool face bottom-placed Sheffield United in their next Premier League on Monday 12:45 AM IST. They currently sit sixth in the table with 40 points, nine points behind second-placed Manchester United and nineteen points behind the table-topping Manchester City.