And it had all started so well. Cast your mind back a few months and you might just recall Liverpool being installed as the (albeit very early) bookmakers’ favourite for the Premier League title; such was their excellence. The Reds had only lost one game in all competitions between August 14 and November 26, and Jurgen Klopp’s smile was getting broader by the week.
But then something happened; well, a few things actually. First, they threw away the most comfortable of 2-0 leads at Bournemouth, and in conceding a trio of goals in 15 second half minutes they would succumb to a 3-4 defeat.
A new year usually means a fresh start, but not for the Merseysiders. The last strains of Auld Lang Syne had barely rung out and they had once again dropped points against a side they really ought to be beating; Sunderland this time, in a 2-2 draw. Further missed opportunities against Manchester United and Chelsea – not to mention the awful 2-3 loss at home to Swansea – have all but ended their title hopes for 2016/17.
January really has become a month to forget for Reds fans, who also saw their side knocked out of both domestic cups in the space of a fortnight.
So where did it all go wrong for Klopp’s men, and where do they go from here?
Lust for Life
The key to their early season brilliance was the joie de vivre that they seemed to impart on the pitch. There was a real romance to the way the red shirts flew forward in unison, and was reminiscent of the great Liverpool teams of yesteryear. It was champagne and oyster football, rather than the soggy chips down on the Stanley Docks they are delivering now.
Goals, you just can’t beat them (literally and euphemistically). In the early goings they blasted four past Arsenal, Leicester and Crystal Palace, five past Hull and a full half-dozen flew into the Watford net. They were always likely to regress from that point, of course, but the fizz and verve of their attacking play appears to have gone flat.
If you’re not doing the business in the final third, at least there’s always your defence to fall back on. Ah, about that. Jurgen Klopp has chopped and changed between two goalkeepers, is playing a guy who has spent the last 15 years of his career in midfield as a left back, and has been shorn of his best centre half thanks to a legal wrangle with FIFA. They have kept just one clean sheet in their last six Premier League outings, as a consequence.
If one facet of your game isn’t working then it isn’t the end of the world. If both are failing then it leads to the kind of January which has brought Liverpool’s campaign almost to a standstill.
Heart of Africa
Even the very best teams in world football rely on a talisman or two to deliver the goods when all else has failed, and it just so happens that two of Liverpool’s have been elsewhere throughout this key period.
Sadio Mane, in particular, has been outstanding this term, but at this vital winter juncture he was off catching some rays at the African Cup of Nations. That didn’t end too well – Mane missed the decisive penalty as Senegal were knocked out at the quarter-final stage – but his importance to this Liverpool side cannot be overlooked. Nine goals and four assists, plus 2.40 completed dribbles and 1.70 key passes on average per 90 minutes, speaks for itself.
It’s no wonder the Reds have looked toothless in attack without him, particularly as Philippe Coutinho has been injured for much of that period. His direct style will be crucial in turning this ship around.
And then there’s Joel Matip, who has been fairly colossal (if you could be such a thing) at the heart of the defence. Like Mane, it’s no coincidence that the Reds’ purple patch came with the Cameroon ace in the side.
But a bizarre legal wrangling with FIFA over his absence from his country’s AFCON squad meant that he had to sit out much of January, and Klopp’s defensive options were much worse off as a result. Summer signing Ragnar Klavan has been unconvincing so far, and with another inexperienced defender in James Milner to his left, far too often the Merseysiders have been pulled apart. To concede three against Swansea is bad, but four shipped against Bournemouth is symptomatic of something rather more sinister.
With Matip and Mane restored to the starting eleven, things should presumably improve.
Crisis, What Crisis?
Slump, crisis, disaster….these are all harsh words to describe what we might more accurately label a ‘fallow period’.
Jurgen Klopp used the cup competitions as a means of resting weary legs and giving his stars of tomorrow and fringe players a try. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off, but not necessarily a sign of impending doom.
The squad is thin, sure, but at least the German gaffer didn’t senselessly panic buy in the increasingly-manic transfer window. Recruits in goal, at left back and on either flank will be brought in during the summer; at which point Klopp will know his side’s destiny in 2017/18.
And perhaps we are too quick to judge these days too. Using the ‘x number of points behind Chelsea’ yardstick is unhelpful, as the Blues have been extraordinary in the past three or four months.
After Gameweek 23 of the 2016/17 campaign, leaders Leicester had 47 points. At the same stage this term, Liverpool have 46. They may not emulate the Foxes and win the title against all odds, but Champions League qualification is very much in the offing. Crisis, what crisis?