For the third straight year, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool went into the New Year atop the Premier League.
The last 12 months have brought historic success to the club, with the Premier League trophy finally making its long awaited entrance through the fabled Shankly Gates after a 30-year absence.
But despite a year with another huge success, the Reds might actually be happy to see the back of it. An early-season injury crisis has taken some of the most essential cogs out of the Klopp machine and left it looking like a shell of its former self.
Liverpool have uncharacteristically limped into 2021, having dropped points against four of the bottom seven clubs and tallying six draws through their opening 16 games, a sum only bested by Brighton.
For so many reasons this is set to be the most important January for the club on and off the field since Liverpool acquired the services of a certain big Dutchman. All signs point towards the next 30 days being some of the most definitive in a season in which a new contender seems to join the title race every matchweek.
The obvious place to start is on the pitch. From a fan’s perspective, Liverpool have had a frustrating end to the year. The Reds have squandered numerous chances to extend their lead at the top of the table against bottom of the league opposition. Results have fallen their way leading into several of their questionable draws and has conjured up questions of complacency.
But upon taking a deeper look, consistency is the most pressing factor on and off the field. No Liverpool fan will doubt Klopp’s ability to get a team ready to play, no matter who they oppose, or the competition it falls under. One has to wonder however, if the constant rotation due to injury is starting to affect the team’s ability to churn out wins that we have come to expect over the last two years.
No position can identify more with these inconsistencies than in defence. Klopp has now seen all three of his veteran centre-backs sidelined by injury over the course of this season. This has seen Klopp put his faith in Fabinho to act as a stand-in central defender and lined up what seems like a different player next to him each week.
Now, let’s not take any credit away from the job that the makeshift backline has done. Liverpool have been solid at the back and, despite their recent run of form, they have still seen a number of clean sheets and have not conceded twice in a game since playing at Goodison in mid-October.
What has been surprising is how much it has affected the play going forward. Having Trent miss a month and struggle to get back into the rhythm of the season has also been a major part of what has been a tame Liverpool attack in recent weeks.
The most obvious sign of the difference is the speed of build-up play. It was rare when the backline was at full strength that the ball would stick for too long.
It seems that one of the things that has been thwarted has been the team’s ability to have speedy build-up play, and a distinct lack of full-back to full-back cross-field passing, means that defences are not having to shift as much as they once did. This is allowing teams to stack the wings, nullifying Mané and Salah as effectively as we have seen.Embed from Getty Images
Albeit, going into January with a need for a centre-back is not unfamiliar territory for the German and his recruitment team. As previously mentioned, one of the most iconic Klopp signings came in January, and I think it is fair to say it was a good piece of business.
With the January window imminent, it is almost certain that Klopp will have identified a centre-half to be brought in. The club have been linked with just about every centre-back in top-flight football since the injuries to van Dijk and Gomez.
There are several suitors that have fans eagerly awaiting the opening of the window. The likes of Dayot Upamecano, Perr Schurrs, and Sven Botman have been thrown into the mix to potentially slide into Klopp’s backline later this month.
Business will be expected to be done quickly too. January presents more than just a continued struggle against an injury-plagued season and a stacked schedule. Fans will be looking for Liverpool to be in a position to put this title race to bed as early as possible, especially with more clubs looking dangerous and hitting form as the season progresses.
Several teams have looked dangerous at one point or another, and since Liverpool seemingly put a dent into Spurs confidence, it has been the Reds’ most bitter rivals who have stepped up to the plate and presented their challenge. Both Manchester sides, as well as our Evertonian neighbours, have found some form.
This makes United’s trip to Anfield on January 17, one of the most significant title race games to be played between the two clubs for a significant period of time. Liverpool will need all of the points available to them in January to regain a firm grip on a title race which is begging for them to do so.
Having said all this, Liverpool are still the team to beat. Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’ have been far from their sensational best, but that’s exactly why you would be a fool to bet against them.
As this month progresses, a Liverpool team that sits atop the table is only likely to get better. The side will be strengthened from not only the transfer window, but in the returning players sidelined in that early-season flurry of injuries.
And, if Thiago’s performance in his return to action at Newcastle is anything to go by, we may also see an evolution to a team which was 18 points better than anybody else last season.
Don’t miss a thing
Get new content delivered directly to your inbox. It’s free!