When Liverpool thrashed Watford 6-1 in a Premier League fixture in November 2016 and went to the top of the table, it seemed as if their hopes of finally having a shot at winning the League title was on par with their 2013-14 campaign under Brendan Rodgers. Watford’s manager, Tony Pulis, had admitted after the game that this Liverpool side under Jurgen Klopp is the toughest he’s ever faced. They had already defeated Chelsea, Arsenal and thoroughly dominated Manchester United in a draw at Anfield in the first half of the season. No one was doubting Liverpool’s credentials to go the distance.
However, two months into the new year, not only is Liverpool’s title bid in tatters, they now face an uphill task in ensuring a Champions League qualifying spot. They were eliminated from the EFL Cup and the FA Cup in the early stages. With just two wins (against Tottenham in the League and Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup) from 12 games this year, Liverpool look more dismal than they were prolific in the second half of 2016. Monday night’s humiliating loss to struggling Leicester City aggravated the wounds further. So what’s wrong gone for the Reds since the turn of 2017?
Klopp had said that his team had to suffer a slew of disappointing results because of the tight festive schedule during Christmas and New Year, but that isn’t a satisfactory reason. Manchester United are still competing in three major tournaments and have already won the EFL Cup. So, rather than blaming the schedule, maybe it would have been better for Klopp had he kept a check on the fitness of his players and rotated the squad accordingly. His tactics have been reminiscent of Louis van Gaal’s last season at Manchester United. Though Liverpool are unbeaten so far against the top 6 teams in the League, they have dropped crucial points against teams like Sunderland, Hull City and Leicester City, all of whom are currently relegation-threatened.
The players haven’t been upto the mark either, especially the defense. The lack of experience which came along with the departures of the likes of Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure hasn’t been nullified yet. Liverpool have conceded 33 goals so far in the league, which is the highest among the top 8 teams. Alberto Moreno isn’t the same player as he was at Sevilla. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren haven’t been reliable either. Klopp’s choice of playing Lucas Leiva at CB ahead of Ragnar Klavan against the Foxes on Monday backfired terribly. Jamie Vardy dominated Lucas the entire game. Both Goalkeepers, Simon Mignolet and Lorius Karius, have been below-par for most parts of the season.
Liverpool’s excellence in 2016 and their mediocrity in 2017 have shown just how important Jordan Henderson is for Klopp’s team. Apart from displaying able leadership skills, the Liverpool skipper’s workman-like attitude as well as his constant passing and possession-winning ability is what keeps the tempo of Liverpool’s devastating gameplay on. The inability of Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Georginio Wijnaldum to fill the void left by Henderson’s absence due to injury has left their attacking play in jeopardy.
At the other end of the field, the attackers have been misfiring. Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane wreaked havoc at the start of the season, but soon faded. The injury to Coutinho and Mane’s trip to the AFCON seems to have disrupted the rhythm of both the players, while Daniel Sturridge has spent more time on the sidelines than on the pitch. Liverpool have the joint record most number of goals (55) in the league so far, but have scored just 9 since the start of 2017. It is a testament to the current bluntness of their attack.
The most striking feature which has been common in every area at Liverpool, ever since the start of the season, is the lack of depth. Klopp simply doesn’t have the quality of backup players, who would be able to keep the momentum going the absence of their first-choice team-mates, at his disposal. In their 2-2 draw against bottom-placed Sunderland on 2nd January 2017, Liverpool’s bench consisted of 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold, 19-year-old Ovie Ejaria and 23-year-old Kevin Stewart.
Jurgen Klopp is widely considered among the most tactically sound managers. However his statistics at Liverpool in terms of win percentage is worse than that of his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, and former Manchester United manager, David Moyes. This has raised questions about keeping him at the helm of the club. Whether he manages to answer those questions positively in his favour, remains to be seen.