COMMENT: Loris Karius is far from Jurgen Klopp's only problem - Liverpool's squad is worryingly thin
When Liverpool were playing turbo-charged football in the first three months of the season, there were plenty of naysayers to keep the optimism in check.
“You can’t play like that over 38 games,” they said. “There will come a point when you have to grind out victories, and then we’ll see how good they really are.”
So exciting was Jurgen Klopp’s front three, the temptation to either ignore such doom-laden prophecies or offer a gentle slap across the forehead of the balloon poppers was irresistible.
Instead, as the festive season approaches, it is in indeed party time for the voices of bleakness.
The trainee Ebeneezers can raise their celebratory glass of water; put on their Best of Radiohead LP and gorge on the opening two acts of Les Miserables. Yes, you were right. Usain Bolt can’t win a marathon; Lewis Hamilton won’t win a World Championship without dropping gears on the trickiest bends; the Grand National is indeed won by the horse demonstrating greatest stamina rather than speed.
Over four games since the international break, Liverpool’s one-point lead at the top of the Premier League has become a six-point deficit. Philippe Coutinho will be missing for Christmas, Loris Karius has become the most divisive Anfield goalkeeper since Simon Mignolet, and Daniel Sturridge is continuing his weird and exasperating habit of feeling a muscle twinge every time he opens a new window in the advent calendar (Sturridge has played a grand total of 28 Premier League minutes in December since he joined the club four years ago, leaving us to muse if he has some pressing duties in a grotto at this time of year).
The chances of Liverpool winning the title in 2017 are far from over, but they’re in the midst of a downward trajectory and are in danger of leaving themselves too far adrift of Chelsea by the New Year.
What is so maddening about the recent setbacks is Liverpool – with one obvious exception – have not been playing that poorly.
They dropped two points in a high quality game against Southampton, overcame Sunderland with an admirable late surge, were 14 minutes from a comfortable away win at Bournemouth and failed to beat West Ham despite limiting the visitors to only three meaningful shots on target – all in the first half.
Performances that could be rated at eight or nine out of ten in September and October have dropped to a less impressive but in usual circumstances perfectly tolerable seven.
Three goals away at Bournemouth and two at home to West Ham should be enough to win. It certainly would be for Chelsea.
Without dwelling on what is already becoming a well-worn subject, the problem in the last two games has been a goalkeeper who has performed the little he has to do inadequately.
But as Klopp’s side prepare for Middlesbrough on Wednesday, there is another issue he touched upon in his post-match reflections on Sunday.
With a few injuries, Liverpool’s squad suddenly looks worryingly thin. It was an alarming insight into how different the season would have looked had they any European commitments - Klopp promoting the promising youngsters while acknowledging it is too soon to use them regularly. The squad depth is always tested most fully at this time of year.
Having looked certain to last the pace until at least the spring, suddenly the next series of games - inclusive of a Merseyside derby, the visit of Manchester City and a mid-January trip to Old Trafford - have a defining look about them.
No club can win the title over Christmas, but they can lose it. If you offered Liverpool the chance to get to the end of January still within six points of the leader, given the current circumstances Klopp might accept.
Having expressed reluctance to dip into the January market – Klopp’s eye is on the long-term with his recruitment policy – you’d imagine this is currently under daily review when the manager meets his Sporting Director Michael Edwards.
There was a similar clamour for reinforcement when Liverpool last carried title hopes. They tried and failed to sign Yevhen Konoplyanka for £16 million in January 2014. We’ll never know if the Ukrainian would have been worth the additional three points that would have pipped Manchester City, or whether his presence would actually have halted the rapid progress of Raheem Sterling in the second part of that campaign.
As always, supporters will want the club to spend. To forget next season and throw everything at this one; to take a risk on the player who could make a difference for five months rather than wait until the summer for the one you believe will elevate your side for the next five years.
Klopp’s instinct is to wait. He knows Coutinho is back in January, Mane will return from Africa Nations Cup duty and Sturridge will be back in… well… perhaps we'll come back to that one. But he knows players such as Ben Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold will be closer to being established first-teamers 12 months from now. He knows that the most punishing schedule is between now and the end of next month, so unless you have someone arriving on January 1 they may not have time to assist with fixture congestion. He knows his prime target, Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, will be easier to lure next summer than in January.
But he also knows a season that began with Liverpool believing they could finish first could just as easily see them in a challenge to stay in the top four.
Suddenly there is much to ponder for the Liverpool manager to, as he might put it, ‘keep in the race’ – and it is not just whether to stick with the under-siege Karius.