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Liverpool's most obvious problem was exposed again last night

The Reds were left frustrated amid a 0-0 draw with Real Madrid at Anfield.

Mo Salah reacts during last night's match.
Mo Salah reacts during last night's match.
Image: Jon Super

Updated at 12.05

LAST NIGHT was the ninth time this season that Liverpool have failed to score at Anfield.

By contrast, in the entirety of the 2019-20 campaign, there was not one occasion where the Reds drew a blank on home turf.

The anti-climactic Real Madrid second leg summed up their sub-par season — it began with plenty of excitement and good play, but ultimately petered out badly.

While the defence and in particular the absence of the injured Van Dijk has routinely been blamed, their stats in that regard are not disastrous by means.

In the Premier League, they have conceded 37 goals, which is better than West Ham (39) in fourth, the same as Leicester in third and only three more than second-place Man United.

Their record would also be considerably better were it not for the freak 7-2 loss against Aston Villa, when they had arguably their first-choice backline in place of Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

It is down the other end that they have too often been inept when it mattered, and while Van Dijk’s return will inspire greater confidence within the team and encourage them to play higher up the pitch, it is unlikely to definitively solve their many problems.

There is a tired look about this Liverpool side, whose integral members are more or less the same as the side that faced Madrid in another memorable Champions League clash three years ago, with Alisson and to a lesser extent Fabinho the only really significant improvements on that starting XI.

It was also telling that, ahead of last night’s game, two players intended to add an extra dimension to the Liverpool starting XI, Thiago Alcântara and Diogo Jota, were both left on the bench, with old reliables in James Milner and Roberto Firmino preferred.

As a result, there was a staleness about Liverpool that was increasingly apparent as the game wore on.

Aside from an early opening flurry when Madrid were patently on the ropes, the Spaniards seldom looked like surrendering their two-goal advantage.

Zinedine Zidane’s strategy was not dissimilar to the one that has already brought significantly inferior sides, such as Burnley, Fulham and Brighton, success at Anfield this season. They essentially just defended deep and played on the counter-attack, ensuring there was minimal space for the likes of Firmino, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino to exploit.

It could well be the last season we see this remarkable attacking trio, that have served Liverpool so well, together in the same team.

Their stats vary. Salah has 28 goals (19 in the Premier League), Mane has 12 (seven in the Premier League) and Firmino has just six (all in the Premier League). Compare that to last season: Salah 23 (19 in the Premier League), Mane 22 (18 in the Premier League and Firmino 12 (9 in the Premier League). Or notice how they fared in the 2018-19 campaign: Salah 27 (22 in the Premier League), Mane 26 (22 in the Premier League) and Firmino 16 (12 in the Premier League).

So while Salah has continued his phenomenal scoring rate, it appears to be a case of diminishing returns with the other two stars.

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And Mane and Firmino are not necessarily solely to blame for this problem.

Liverpool look less effective attacking as a unit. The midfield is not transferring the ball forward quickly enough, with summer recruit Thiago somewhat unfairly scapegoated for this failing, while Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are not racking up as many assists compared to previous campaigns (they have five and four respectively compared with 13 and 12 last season, and 11 and 12 the year before that).

But perhaps one of the most significant factors is that Salah, Firmino, Mane and others have been averaging roughly 50 games a season for the past few years.

Particularly given the intensity with which Liverpool play, as well as the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic-inspired schedule has prompted, that is bound to catch up with them after a while.

And on Wednesday evening, Liverpool looked like an exhausted team ultimately consigned to autopilot, amid an occasion that felt, in every sense like the antithesis of their stunning 4-3 aggregate victory over Barcelona just under two years ago.

Jurgen Klopp, it seems, will face one of the biggest challenges of his managerial career this summer, as he bids to refresh his ailing squad. 

Originally published at 06.45

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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