As Liverpool’s slump becomes a full-blown tumble towards midtable, the temptation to hit the reset button and wake up in August of 2021 is strong, with hopefully an Anfield full of fans and a fresh vigour that has become stale after their first league title in over 30 years.
Amidst their worst home form in decades and looking increasingly void of ideas, attacking identity and defensive stability, everybody in and around the club will be wondering where they can go from here.
Beyond completely imploding the league season and putting all their eggs in a Champions League shaped basket, it’s hard to see the club shirking the current four-point gap to the top four until it’s mathematically impossible.
With the usual caveats of injuries aside, which have undoubtedly contributed to their form this season, the slump could be connected all the way back to before they got their hands on the league title last summer.
Immediately prior to the pandemic striking, Liverpool’s unbeaten season was ended shockingly by Watford in a 3-0 defeat. That was followed up with a loss to Chelsea in the FA Cup, before being knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid. It was a slog of a period that many eagle-eyed analysts at the time sensed could be the early stages of something worse.
When football restarted in June, Liverpool seemed to pick up where they left off with important wins against Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, but prior to lifting the trophy after defeating Chelsea they were decimated by Manchester City and lost to Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, two very poor performances for a side that had been having a record-breaking season prior to the coronavirus. The signs were there that we weren’t witnessing the same quality that had annihilated the first and middle thirds of the season, but that could easily be attributed to the circumstances of having to wait frustratingly long to get over the line after the lockdown.
Indeed, for a long period of this current season Liverpool looked the best equipped to handle the condensed calendar and have the quality to rebound their league winning form. Very early on it was established how strange and unique of a season this was going to be and it looked like the club who could best navigate their way through the gauntlet unscathed would go on to walk the title.
After five wins in their opening seven, even though that included a crazy 7-2 loss to Aston Villa, Liverpool looked well on course. Thiago was to come into the midfield and offer his world class ability, while Diogo Jota had hit the ground running better than anybody had expected. Although it wasn’t perfect, they seemed to have the familiarity of victory and experience to not get sucked into the uncertainty that was gripping football amidst the pandemic – merely toe the line and come out the other side, ideally with back-to-back Premier League trophies.
With the art of hindsight, it turned out Manchester City were to be that team – with three wins and three draws in that same period, in between a 5-2 loss to Leicester, they’ve improved steadily throughout the season to their current form which could arguably be deemed Pep Guardiola’s greatest feat yet given the circumstances.
In early September, Back Page Football published a piece by Alan Moore that drew a lot of ire and suspicion at the time from fans across both sides of the fence. It talked about the legal caffeine concoctions that the club had been generous in taking to help maintain such a high standard for two straight seasons before an inevitable drop-off. The article resurfaced in January and February as people tried to identify a reason for the collapse in form. Alan’s piece certainly demands respect at this point, especially in addition to the other factors that may have contributed to the drop-off. It’s likely a conversation football will never want to have and heads will continue to be buried in the sand. Much like other sports that we are quick to draw assumptions of, the dark arts exist in the shadows – but finding someone willing to talk on the record may be difficult.
An increased slate of niggles and minor knocks in addition to the long-term absences of Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, Diogo Jota and Naby Keita has decimated their squad and left little room for rotation. Where City have been able to bring in Aymeric Laporte to rest Ruben Dias or John Stones, Liverpool have had to rely on midfielders Fabinho and Jordan Henderson partnering the likes of Nat Phillips. It was a brutal situation that any team would have struggled with, although you have to question the club’s delay in signing reinforcements in January.
Now, with form at an all-time low under Klopp, the manager and his backroom team will have a lot of questions to answer over the remainder of the season and into the summer transfer window.
The overall health of the squad was enviable this time last year, but they must be reconsidering the long-term futures of some of their biggest players. It’s hard to see them parting ways with either Mo Salah or Sadio Mane anytime soon given their age profile and the economic state of the transfer market, but better goalscoring is needed in lieu of Roberto Firmino’s goal shyness. Fans concerned about Salah’s substitution against Chelsea and his agent’s comments afterwards should remind themselves that not many teams could afford Salah right now and goals in the not-so-distant future would quickly put a smile back on his face.
Divock Origi has nowhere near the quality despite his cult-hero moments, while the club’s decision to release Takumi Minamino on loan was a surprise and suggested Klopp doesn’t have faith in the player and Southampton is a chance to put him in the shop window to produce a quick profit. Jota was excellent prior to his injury and should demand a run in the side now.
Liverpool’s best player this season, Gini Wijnaldum, is out of contract in the summer and it seems ill-advised of the club to part ways with their one bullet-proof player. Had they sold him last summer and gone on to lose Thiago to injury and Fabinho to the defence, Liverpool’s problems would have accelerated. They have found a gem in Curtis Jones and finding the right balance with Thiago, who has been disappointing so far given his undoubted quality, and the other midfield options could alleviate some of the mess they have found themselves in over the past few months.
Michael Edward and Co. must be looking at the likes of Origi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri – all fine squad players in their own right – and look to upgrade in terms of quality and reliability.
To acknowledge the defence, Trent Alexander-Arnold has suffered a drop-off from the extremely high standard he set for himself – but that should only be temporary at 22 years of age. Andy Robertson has been his stitch-inducing self all season, although you have to question why they laboured to sign a backup in Kostas Tsimikas and then refuse to use him.
Overall, the club has stagnated from an epic high of a year ago to something that really should be temporary given the wealth of knowledge and expertise in the building. If you want to draw comparisons with this season to Klopp’s last at Dortmund, you really have to take into account the external factors of the pandemic, the empty stadia and the raft of injuries, as well as the inevitable drop-off from such an unsustainable standard for so long.
With the Champions League still in play, there’s still a chance at redeeming what has been an utterly horrid season for Liverpool. Klopp has enough credit in the bank to be allowed to see out this bad patch while FSG will come into focus in the summer when they must freshen the attack, potentially replace Wijnaldum and find reliable centre half options.
Where do Liverpool go from here? Well, Champions League will be a welcome distraction and they already have one foot in the quarter finals. But the league has been forgetful, ugly and after having to wait so long to get the monkey off their backs after 30 years – better days may simply have to wait once again until things are back to normal, fans are in seats and the team gets the kickstart it so desperately needs.