As of February 2021, I would say I have been socially distancing from football.
I continue to feel obliged to watch all of Liverpool’s games, although to a very real extent some of the associated feeling has departed. I still celebrate goals when they do arrive, for example, but with a subtle “c’mon!” as opposed to a neighbour-frightening yelp.
That is not to begin a tirade against VAR and the delayed celebrations it causes – I generally side with Gary Neville on a willingness to accept any shortcomings if a system can vastly increase the general accuracy of decisions. I am perennially swayed by the knowledge that Steven Gerrard would have a Premier League winners’ medal had VAR been there to overrule the linesman’s howler which denied Liverpool a win away to Manchester City in December 2013.
Nonetheless, I would argue that my disassociation from this footballing season started when VAR awarded Brighton a last-minute penalty in a 1-1 draw at the AmEx Stadium for an Andrew Robertson ‘foul’ that even Danny Welbeck admitted was “soft”, and which the Brighton players hardly bothered to appeal for. It was not, in my opinion, a penalty, and anything but a ‘clear and obvious’ in-game error.
On that day it became clear to me that now, more than ever, results lie at the mercy of the whims and leanings of one official, rather than the 22 individuals on-pitch. VAR was supposed to rectify that issue, but is merely currently serving to transfer this power to a different Premier League official.
Nevertheless, the season kicked on, and more injuries plagued Liverpool. And their results, in turn, worsened. On Christmas Day I would have laughed at anyone suggesting we would not win a successive title, but we have not so much as won a home fixture since.
A run of 68 home league games without defeat was ended by Sean Dyche’s Burnley and soon compounded by a plucky Brighton side, before Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City – perennially troubled by their visits to Anfield – seized on lost confidence to win 4-1 on Merseyside.
The former Barcelona and Bayern boss was magnanimous in victory, admitting that the trip to L4 loses some of its edge with the absence of fans.
While there is no certainty that a rotated Liverpool would not have lost to a very good City side with the stands packed, there can be a fair assuredness that 50,000 fans chanting his name after a first costly mistake would have helped Alisson Becker to regain his composure more than the eerie silence brought about by a spectator-less arena. As it was, the goalkeeper lost his head, and consequently both the game at hand and any lasting title aspirations that his side may have harboured.
A week later, the same man took some flack after a miscommunication with debutant Ozan Kabak allowed Jamie Vardy to put Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City 2-1 up against the champions. Any player with significant experience playing in front of the Brazilian No.1 would have been ready for his foray outside the area but, as seems to be the way this year, Kabak was the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time for Liverpool.
All the same, until the City fixture, the Seleção stopper had been the Reds’ best performer so far in this horrible calendar year – slightly ahead of summer signing Thiago Alcântara.
The Spanish international is a world-class talent, who was signed to elevate an already superb Liverpool side. But since his recovery from injury and first run of starts in England, Liverpool have struggled to pick up points. This correlation has caused certain pundits to point to the former Bayern star’s arrival and ask if it is his introduction, and an over-willingness to accommodate him, which has led to the worst run of form seen from Jürgen Klopp’s side at any point in his Merseyside tenure.Embed from Getty Images
It is impossible to discount their opinions until there is evidence to the contrary, but I would point to Liverpool’s visit to Goodison Park in which Thiago started alongside Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, and the Reds created countless opportunities as the No.6 was named man of the match on his first Premier League start. The rapport between that trio looked ideal, perfectly balanced, but Richarlison’s horror tackle on the two-time Champions League winner prevented the emerging midfield from being given a chance to settle.
Liverpool’s biggest problem right now is that exact trio represents their strongest possible midfield dynamic, but it has not been seen since that fateful day.
Beyond that, even, Thiago’s first 90 minutes since his return from injury came away to Southampton, which was the first of a run of fixtures in which Henderson has been forced to fill in in the centre of defence. Through no plan nor design, neither the Reds’ captain nor Fabinho have been seen in the Liverpool midfield since Thiago returned to the starting fold. I would willingly bet both performances and results will pick up the moment that they are able to return there.
Of course, this piece is not here to undermine Liverpool’s depth. Gini Wijnaldum has proven himself invaluable time and again, and has been a first-choice Klopp midfielder for the most part since his arrival. Equally, James Milner has only ever been a crucial and much-loved member of this squad. But I think it would be fair to argue that both serve better to maintain, rather than initiate, midfield intensity.
Wijnaldum, for example, has never once looked incapable of handling the tempo of a contest, but it is rare that it is he who is dominating the flow of the game and attacking loose balls in the way that Fabinho, for example, does.
And, however useful Milner might still be, having to replace your Football Writers’ Player of the Year-winning captain with a 35-year-old for a prolonged period of time would pose a challenge to any team, let alone one with no fit central defenders.
Curtis Jones has impressed when given his chance, too, but it is notable that his press looks more erratic than that of the Anfield side’s more senior central players.
Henderson’s absence from the midfield is absolutely key to Liverpool’s slump. He has started 11 games in such positions in the Premier League this season, while there have been 13 in which he has either not started at all, due to either injury or rotation, or been pushed back into defence. This almost even split represents an ideal data comparison and Liverpool’s points won per game drop from 2.27 to 1.15 when Henderson cannot be seen in the centre of the action.
That is the equivalent of dropping from an 86-point season to one which yields just 44. From title challengers to relegation battlers.Embed from Getty Images
Is this too small a sample size to draw such big conclusions? Perhaps. And would a Klopp side permanently rid of Henderson really fall out of the top half? I doubt it.
But since November 2017, Liverpool have not lost a single Premier League game anywhere other than at the Etihad Stadium when their skipper has started in midfield. In total, in that period they have suffered nine league losses beyond the City away fixture. And, without trawling through tonnes of data, I feel safe in assuming that Henderson has started in midfield for the majority of other league matches.
It was notable in the loss to Leicester this past weekend that the hosts’ three goals all stemmed from counter-attacks. Henderson is not necessarily even one of Liverpool’s very best players, but his awareness and freak fitness in the middle of the park serve to dominate, prevent opponents from springing said breaks and also help to free up players like Trent Alexander-Arnold to lead a more advanced, more aggressive attacking position.
It has become apparent with the lack of crowds and natural crowd noise just how loudly and often Henderson will bark instructions to keep his team organised on-pitch, and Trent seems to be one of the most frequent recipients of such counsel.
In short, once Henderson is moved back into a central midfield role I would back Klopp’s starting right-back to fully recover from his recent blip in form – even if there were some signs that he is heading in the right direction with a promising display last Saturday.
Klopp himself cannot completely escape criticism for this run. It pains me to call out perceived mistakes from the greatest manager of our recent history but the tactical set-up for the home game against Brighton was, essentially, lunacy.
Liverpool play inverted wingers. Everybody knows that. That is what Liverpool do. Putting a left-footed player on the attacking left flank would surely thus only serve to deny Andrew Robertson space to run into and would emphasise a more defensive, cross-heavy tactical plan.
So when Klopp chose to play Xherdan Shaqiri, a diminutive positional ‘floater’, on the left of Roberto Firmino, another fairly short attacker who famously likes to drop into spaces, and Mo Salah, also small, he was essentially asking for Salah to be the sole presence in the Brighton box, and to win headers against a system that was always likely to feature four six feet-plus natural central defenders.
Robertson was taken out of the game by his own teammate, Shaqiri, who was equally dropping into the same spaces that Firmino would want to roam into. Consequently Salah looked completely devoid of support.Embed from Getty Images
It was a horrid tactical set-up that seemed destined to fail from the moment it was announced, and ultimately did so tragically. When Brighton took a 1-0 lead just past the hour, Liverpool were yet to register a shot on target.
Klopp would never want sympathy or sentiment to affect analysis of his tactical decisions, but it has recently broken that his mother passed away last month, and that he was unable to visit her during her final weeks due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. He will not even be able to attend her funeral.
It feels a tad off – and perhaps out-of-touch – to mix this news in with any footballing analysis, but you cannot help but feel that for a man who has seemed notably less bright and chirpy than usual in this past month. The obvious stress, anxieties and sadness will have been playing deeply on his mind.
Returning to football-specific matters, Liverpool’s owners, FSG, must harbour some blame for the current slump as well. As has been said, forcing regular midfield starters into defensive positions has hampered their club. Would the Reds still be in this title race if one of Ben Davies or Ozan Kabak had signed for the club on January 1, rather than a whole month later?
It honestly felt as though the club only moved after Joël Matip was ruled out for the rest of the season with a serious ligament injury. Long before then – with both Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez already sidelined for the long-term – it was evidently paramount that Liverpool reinforced in defensive areas. Why the cheque book wasn’t opened sooner is anyone’s guess.
It should go without saying that van Dijk’s injury in itself offers a fair excuse for Liverpool’s falloff. Pundits had seemed to ask for the past two years whether this Liverpool side would manage to cope without him for any serious stretch of time. Now the nightmare scenario has arrived, there is little analysis of his importance – only a fresh debate as to whether Klopp’s dynasty has reached its end.
Van Dijk enables this side to press high with his pace and prowess. Van Dijk wins games by both attacking and defending set-pieces. Van Dijk organises the back line.
To wrap up, then, Liverpool’s trouble at this moment in time cannot be pinned on any single factor. The situation is an amalgamation of a series of unfortunate events that have cut through the identity of the Reds’ strongest side. When such incidents mount up, a team filled with human beings loses confidence and belief, and the ‘mentality monsters’ we have come to adore currently bear no resemblance to that name.
Things will improve, you would hope. A run without further injuries could suddenly see Jordan Henderson allowed back into midfield, could see a regular central defensive partnership start to form, and could crucially see the players rediscover their mojo.Embed from Getty Images
Diogo Jota and Naby Keïta are both expected to return in the coming weeks. The Portuguese offers rotation and freshness to a currently tired attack, while the efficiency of the Guinean in the midfield press is an often overlooked strength of his, and something Klopp’s team is desperately missing right now.
In short – and I hope not to tempt fate here – it feels like everything that could possibly have gone wrong for this Liverpool side has managed to go wrong in recent months. That is to say that this is more or less the worst situation they could have found themselves in, and yet you would still expect the Reds to secure Champions League football, and a deep run in that very competition this term would not come as a surprise – especially considering what tends to happen when the Reds are drawn against German sides.
Obviously more injuries can always hit, especially in this anomaly of a season. But the famously intense festive period is now complete, which should hopefully ease the physical assault these players’ bodies have endured over the past two months.
Liverpool’s attempted defence of the Premier League title has been desecrated by misfortune, but this is not the end of the road for one of the greatest sides in this great club’s history. The world’s readiness to write these players off will only, eventually, become just another burning motivator as they mount their return to top form.
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