It had all been going so well. When Liverpool beat Manchester City 1-0 on New Year’s Eve, it seemed it had won the status of being Chelsea’s main Premier League challenger. It was second in the table, six points behind the leader, and, perhaps most importantly, it seemed to have added a defensive solidity and resolve to the attacking prowess it had demonstrated earlier in the season.
But Liverpool has won only one of seven games since (1-3-3), and that was an FA Cup replay away to League Two's Plymouth Argyle. On Wednesday it went out of the League Cup in the semifinals, going down 1-0 at Anfield to Southampton having already lost the first leg 1-0. Jurgen Klopp still has plenty of goodwill on which to draw, but for the first time in his Liverpool career, serious questions are beginning to be asked about his methods.
When Liverpool suffered a similar winter slump last season, going on a run of three wins in 11 league games and slipping out of the FA Cup against West Ham, it was blamed on fatigue. Klopp demands high-tempo pressing from his players at all times and the suspicion was that, without a preseason under him, his squad was wilting under the intensity. But even with a preseason, it seems, weariness may be setting in.
Or at least, that’s the simple theory–but even that has a host of causes beyond the simple claim that he pushes his players too hard. It is true that Liverpool didn’t invest as heavily as it might have done in the summer and that its squad is relatively slim. When Klopp has made changes to his side this season, in the league at least, they have tended to have been forced upon him. It may be that he could have done with three or four additional players.
The absence of Sadio Mane at the Africa Cup of Nations has exacerbated those problems. Back in November Klopp suggested he would make a January signing as cover, but that has not materialized. Without the Senegal international’s pace and directness, Liverpool’s attack has lost some of its edge, while the decision to move Adam Lallana out to that flank has damaged Liverpool’s balance in midfield.
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Even that explanation for Liverpool’s fading form, though, isn’t wholly satisfactory. From the second weekend of the season, when Burnley sat deep against Liverpool, allowed it possession and picked it off on the break, winning 2-0, there has been a sense that Liverpool struggled against sides that sat deep against it. That’s why, although Liverpool has the best record of any team against other members of the top six, it has the worst record of the top six against the bottom six.
After the defeat to Burnley came league draws against Southampton, West Ham and Sunderland. The formula for frustrating Liverpool slowly emerged. Would Mane make such a difference against teams who sat deep? Perhaps, with his speed of thought and of foot, he would, but he always looks at him most impressive attacking the space behind defenses.
And that brings us to the crux. It’s obvious how to stop Liverpool from playing. The notion of sitting deep and not letting Klopp’s side attack into space with rapid transitions is not complicated or obscure. The difference is that early in the season, Liverpool was not thwarted by the tactic. It may not have enjoyed playing against deep-lying sides, but it had the wit and the wherewithal to play quick one-twos around the box, or players were able to beat an opponent with a trick and open up a defense. It’s that which seems not to be happening anymore (allied to an ongoing defensive vulnerability; Liverpool shouldn’t have to score three goals to beat a West Ham or a Sunderland).
The reasons are more complicated. Perhaps analysis has led opponents to be able to get closer to Liverpool players to deny them the time and space to generate the moments that unlock defenses. Perhaps a fatigue has set in–tiredness is not always seen in diminished running stars–and players lack the burst of energy or the mental acuity to prise a way through. Or perhaps it’s simply self-perpetuating as such matters so often are: one poor result leads to a loss of confidence which in turn lessens a side’s fluency and makes it less adept at breaking down stubborn opponents afterwards.
A blip like this perhaps isn’t overly surprising, but Klopp must ensure it remains only a blip. In his first full season in the job it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a serious title challenge–what Antonio Conte is doing at Chelsea, with a squad that has recent experience of winning the league, is remarkable–and the successes of early season perhaps generated unfair and unrealistic expectations. But without European football, this was an opportunity for Liverpool to make its mark: qualifying for next season’s Champions League, with the revenue and–more importantly, when it comes to signing players–status that brings, is vital.