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Dissecting 5 theories on what's gone wrong at Liverpool

The Reds have endured an underwhelming season so far.

Liverpool players pictured after Brighton's Steven Alzate scores.
Liverpool players pictured after Brighton's Steven Alzate scores.
Image: Phil Noble

FOLLOWING THE surprise 1-0 loss to Brighton, Andy Robertson’s verdict was pretty damning.

“Brighton were the better team,” he said. “We were hugely disappointing all over the park.

“You have to give the team credit for playing well. They created chances, pressed us — did everything we wanted to do.

“We didn’t really do anything of note. With a long record of going unbeaten we’ve lost two. When you don’t show up you don’t get results.”

The Scottish international added: “As this moment stands, we’re not in the title race.”

It’s hard to disagree with Robertson’s assessment when you look at the table.

After a 68-game unbeaten run at Anfield, Liverpool have now lost twice there on the trot. And Pep Guardiola’s side will be most people’s favourites to extend that losing run to three games on Sunday.

Even if they prevail in their next match, Liverpool’s title chances will still feel remote. The Reds are currently seven points behind the table toppers, who also have a game in hand.

After a very shaky start that saw them win only three of their opening eight Premier League games, the Etihad outfit are unbeaten in their last 13 matches, 11 of which were wins.

With 17 games left to play, they don’t look likely to drop many more points. The other two sides currently in the top four, Man United and Leicester, have been similarly inconsistent and unconvincing to Liverpool at times, and it’s difficult to see either lasting the pace.

Jurgen Klopp’s men may already be too far behind, but a victory this weekend would at the very least put an element of doubt in City’s minds.

The confidence and momentum that winning regularly yields feels even more pronounced this season, with the pandemic creating an especially intense footballing schedule.

This point is made starker when you consider the situation when City last suffered a Premier League loss. The 2-0 defeat to Spurs in November saw Tottenham go top of the table. With the Manchester club already eight points behind them at that stage, some critics were prematurely ruling Pep Guardiola’s side out of the title race.

Remarkably, just two months later, it’s City who are comfortably top, while the pressure is increasing on Mourinho, with Tottenham picking up just nine points from their last 10 games.

That turnaround is one example of why it would be foolish to make any definitive judgements at this point.

Nevertheless, what’s certainly obvious is that Liverpool are a pale shadow of the team that were so dominant last season, when they won the title by an 18-point margin. 

Below, we assess the valdity (or lack thereof) of five commonly suggested reasons for Liverpool’s slump.

1. The supposedly disruptive influence of Thiago

There were huge expectations amid the 29-year-old midfielder’s arrival at Anfield.

Like Liverpool, Thiago was coming off the back of a stunning season that saw Bayern Munich win the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and Champions League.

Moreover, with just one year remaining on his contract with the German club, Liverpool were able to secure his services for a relative cheap (in footballing terms) fee — £20 million, plus a potential £5 million in add-ons.

Thiago is certainly an excellent player, and no reasonable football fan would dispute that claim.

Yet his signing has been compared to the arrival of Juan Sebastien Veron into Man United’s 1999 treble-winning side, amid suggestions that the new man may have upset the team’s balance.

Let’s look at the evidence so…

Injury problems have restricted Thiago to just nine Premier League games since his arrival, seven of which have been starts.

Of those games, Liverpool have won three, drawn three and lost three. Meanwhile, in the 13 games without Thiago, Liverpool have won eight, drawn four and lost one.

Perhaps there is some truth in the suggestion that Thiago slows the play down, with his elegant, considered passing, but it seems incredibly harsh to make him the scapegoat for their poor form.

As the above stats illustrate, they have also dropped plenty of points without him in the team.

In addition, it’s far too early to be making definitive judgements on someone who has yet to rack up double figures in terms of Premier League appearances.

The early injury problems may have contributed to some sluggish and disappointing performances, but like Liverpool in general, Thiago has not become bad overnight, though the creative midfielder undoubtedly has the potential to be much better as his career at the club progresses.

2. Their makeshift defence

Multiple serious injuries clearly have been a major factor in Liverpool’s disappointing season so far.

The defence, in particular, has been badly hit.

Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, three of their top centre-backs, are expected to be out for the remainder of the season.

Consequently, inexperienced youngsters including Nathaniel Phillips have been put into the firing line, while midfielders such as Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have also been tried there.

Given the quality of the first-choice players, the team was inevitably going to suffer to some degree in their absence.

Occasional mistakes and dips in form by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have not helped matters either.

Yet in statistical terms, their defensive stats has hardly been that bad. With 25 goals conceded, only Chelsea and Man City in the top six have a superior record.

It should also be pointed out that these figures are significantly inflated by one result — the 7-2 defeat by Aston Villa in October, where their two starting centre-backs were Van Dijk and Gomez.

If you look beyond that one anomaly, the Reds have a better defensive record than most Premier League sides.

Yet you could argue that the defensive injuries have actually hampered their attack more than anything else.

Van Dijk managed five goals last season, including a brace in a crucial 2-1 win over Brighton.

And perhaps more significantly, the Dutch defender was often a key starting point for attacks, given his composure on the ball and impressive accuracy with both short and long passes.

In addition, as accomplished as Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have often looked at the back, their dynamism and guile has been missed in midfield, though the recent signings of Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak from Preston and Schalke respectively should help alleviate some of the pressure on their squad.

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3. Their inconsistent attack

Liverpool’s attacking inconsistencies have arguably been their biggest problem this year

After 22 games last season, they had 52 goals. By comparison, this season, they have found the net 43 times.

If you look at the pure stats though, this seems like quite a good record. In fact, it’s better than City and the second-best return in the league after Man United.

And there have certainly been times this season where they have played some scintillating attacking football — respective 7-0, 4-0 and 3-0 victories over Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester spring to mind.

Yet there have been too many games where they have looked sterile. This failing was apparent in the loss to Brighton during the week, where despite dominating possession, they managed just one shot on target in 90 minutes.

This issue was also evident during their recent four-match run without scoring a goal. 

Sides without their talent but who have been appropriately cautious and well organised, including Fulham, Brighton (twice), Southampton, Burnley and Newcastle, have all managed to take points off Jurgen Klopp’s men against the odds.

Mo Salah is the Premier League’s top scorer, with 15 goals and three assists. Sadio Mane has seven goals and three assists, which would be respectable for most players but disappointing by his high standards. And similarly, Roberto Firmino has six goals and four assists.

Not so long ago, the trio were being hailed as forming the best attack in world football. While none have been particularly poor, all three will feel that at times, they have fallen short of the lofty standards they previously set.

Another caveat is the arrival of Diogo Jota. The Portuguese attacker, signed from Wolves in the summer, has 12 goals in 25 appearances in all competitions this season, and had quickly elevated himself to a status where he was certainly considered on a par with Messrs Salah, Mane and Firmino.

Yet misfortune struck Liverpool again, as he has not played since December, picking up a serious injury in a relatively meaningless Champions League group game against FC Midtjylland.

4. The pandemic

Of course, every team has been impacted by the pandemic, but Liverpool appear to have suffered more than most.

As an elite team, they have more matches than most sides.

And even before the coronavirus crisis, they were having especially long seasons, with two successive appearances in the Champions League final, for example.

This partially explains why they have had such bad luck with injuries, as their squad struggles to cope with an unprecedented delugue of games after a shorter-than-usual summer break.

Granted, other sides have suffered injuries to key players too. For example, Sergio Aguero has made just five appearances for City this season in the Premier League.

Yet there is a sense that City in particular have managed the load better than others, which accounts somewhat for their slow start, whereas they’re now beginning to peak at the perfect time.

There is also a lingering suspicion that Liverpool’s squad depth isn’t quite at the level of other top European teams. Players such as Nathaniel Phillips, Divock Origi and Naby Keita have been inconsistent at best when called upon.

5. End of a cycle?

The very best teams these days usually struggle to stay intact and remain consistently great for longer than 3-4 years.

Even if you look at Alex Ferguson at Man United, the key to his longevity was being able to regularly rebuild teams.

The 1994, 1999 and 2008 sides — probably his three best sides — all had significantly different personel.

Even City under Guardiola now are showing real signs of evolution, with young players like Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden and Rúben Dias coming to the fore.

It is a little under three years since Liverpool reached their first Champions League final under Klopp.

The subsequent addition of Alisson was a significant improvement, but otherwise the core of that team remains.

They have had a great run, with one Champions League triumph, and they are desperately unlucky not to have more than one Premier League title, given how close they came in the 2018-19 campaign.

Yet now, Mane, Salah and Firmino are all 28 or older, and the trio have looked a little stale at times this season. The influential likes of Jordan Henderson and James Milner aren’t getting any younger either.

And at the elite level, minutes played at the highest level and the subsequent wear and tear often leads to players hitting their prime at an earlier age than the traditional time — 28 or 29 — with which it is associated. 

Klopp, too, has been in the job over five years — he is the second-longest serving Premier League manager after Sean Dyche

He enjoyed incredible succcess at Dortmund too, winning the Bundesliga twice and guiding the club to the Champions League final.

His time there though ended in underwhelming fashion, with the club finishing seventh in his final season in charge.

It would be premature to suggest the situation is repeating itself at Liverpool, but regardless of the outcome at the weekend, there are increasing signs that a Fergie-esque rebuilding job may be required if Liverpool are to again hit the heights to which they aspire.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures:

Saturday

Aston Villa v Arsenal (12.30)
Burnley v Brighton (15.00)
Newcastle v Southampton (15.00)
Fulham v West Ham (17.30)
Man United v Everton (20.00)

Sunday

Tottenham v West Brom (12.00)
Wolves v Leicester City (14.00)
Liverpool v Man City (16.30)
Sheffield United v Chelsea (19.15)

Monday

Leeds v Crystal Palace (20.00)

Originally published at 19.40

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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