Thursday 14 December 2017

Comment - Liverpool's slump runs deeper than just a misfiring attack and defence

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

Jordan Seward

It’s a question very much on the lips of the Kop faithful – what’s happened to Liverpool?

It’s the mystery at Anfield that is yet to be resolved. It stems as far back as the 2-2 away draw with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on 2 January. Since then, the Reds have won just once in their last nine games, an FA Cup replay away to League 2 side Plymouth.

It is not only their form that presents a problem to Jürgen Klopp, though, it’s the way they’ve lost. It’s been so un-Liverpool. This is not the side we saw play with intensity, flair and vigour at the start of the season, who pressed high and worked tirelessly to win the ball back, the team we all thought was here to stay under Klopp. Things have only got worse for the German in recent weeks.

The 1-1 home draw with Chelsea last Tuesday offered Klopp little joy, though it did spare his side equalling their worst home run since 1923. A draw against the best team in the league who look certain to storm their way to the title this season is not a bad result, and it should have been their watershed moment. Worryingly it wasn’t. Goals from Alfred N’Diaye and Oumar Niasse at the weekend condemned them to an embarrassing 2-0 away defeat by relegation-threatened Hull City, meaning Klopp will have to wait for that moment.

Their drastic change of fortune threatens to spoil a season that began with so much promise. A month back Liverpool looked Chelsea’s only realistic challengers to the Premier League title, but now they’ve slipped to fifth and missing out on a top four spot is becoming the reality, with their rivals Manchester United finding their tune. Their sudden fall from grace is for no one reason, but for a number.

They lost Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations at the beginning of January, who any team would be worse off without, and Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi failed to make an impact in his absence. But, though his role has been instrumental, it hasn’t been anything too spectacular – certainly not enough to be the solitary explanation. He played against Hull and the outcome was the same. His absence in January was just one of the many missing pieces to the jigsaw.

Perhaps, Klopp missed a piece by failing to recruit in January. The best solution isn’t always to spend money and sign players; nevertheless, the Liverpool crisis was well-timed, coinciding with the January transfer window, yet no players were brought in. Klopp hasn’t exactly got the pick of the bunch with his fairly thin squad – and though he is well known for his frugality and shrewdness in the transfer market, no investments were made, despite their hectic schedule – a schedule that has since got less hectic after being knocked out of the FA Cup and the EFL Cup.

But the damage has been done. Though this could be manipulated to be seen as a positive thing, their schedule has taken its toll on their players. In the last month Liverpool have played ten games and a lack of intensity has crept into their play. The verve from their front trio of Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho is missing. The only possible reason for this is to assume the players are suffering from tiredness. If Liverpool are to get themselves out of their funk, these three are vital to it. If they perform well, Liverpool performs well but they haven’t and it’s because they’re fatigued.

Tiredness is at the heart of the problem, it leads to poor performances which leads to players being bereft of confidence. This torrid run is only making it worse. Teams have also begun to work them out, presenting them with a problem England struggled with in the European Championships last summer in breaking teams down. On many occasions this season teams have sat deep against Liverpool but when Firmino, Lallana, Coutinho and Mane were in full swing they were able to negotiate ways around the opposition’s defence. Liverpool are scoring less at the moment and it’s because their creative players aren’t performing and unfortunately for Klopp, no one else is stepping up to the plate.

But the problems don’t end there, its Liverpool’s defence, too. They have only registered two clean sheets in their last ten games, both coming against Plymouth. It has led to Liverpool fans calling for Klopp to change his mind on Mamadou Sakho, who he exiled from the first team after breaking club rules on their pre-season tour of America. The Frenchman was an integral part of Liverpool’s defence last season but Klopp has sent him out on loan to Crystal Palace and it’s unlikely he’ll feature again in a Liverpool shirt.

But he could have offered Klopp a different option to choose from other than the three centre backs he rotates between, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan. Sakho, at 26, still has plenty to offer. It’s refreshing to see Klopp installing discipline but if there was the opportunity to make amends, Sakho seems like he would – having played weekly for the Under-23s – and right now Liverpool would be better off with him at their disposal rather than at Selhurst Park.

When you’re losing games, failing to score and struggling to keep cleans sheets, ideally the fixture list won’t do you an injustice. In Klopp’s case it has. Liverpool face three of the top four in Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City in their next five games. Klopp does however boast an impressive record against England’s top six having taken 13 points against them this season and he’ll need more of the same if Liverpool are to get back to winning ways and remain in the top four – which now is their top priority.

Liverpool simply came out of the starting gate too quickly and now it’s catching up with them. No Mane in January, Klopp failing to spend, tiredness, a hectic schedule, lack of intensity and creativity, no clean sheets and a lack of depth in defensive options – this all adds up to why Liverpool have endured the run they have.

(© Independent News Service)

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