Liverpool's Struggles a Product of Many Coinciding Factors

It's not just the injuries that have led to Liverpool's extended wobble in its Premier League title defense.
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It has only been a month since Liverpool won 7–0 at Crystal Palace. That came three days after a 2–1 win over a Tottenham side that, at the time, was looking like a serious contender for the Premier League title. It was not unreasonable that the general reaction then was to assume that Liverpool had finally clicked into form and that, with Manchester City still sputtering, it would put together a run of wins that would build up an unassailable lead in the table. 

Since then, as Man City and Man United have hit form, Liverpool has taken three points from five games, four of them against sides in the lower half of the table. It has scored only once in those five games and suddenly is six points behind the leader, United, while Thursday’s defeat to Burnley ended its 68-game home unbeaten streak in league play. 

When Jurgen Klopp said after Sunday’s 0–0 draw against Man United that the challenge was less to win the title than to get into the Champions League, it seemed like an attempt to reduce the pressure on his players and temper expectations, but perhaps he was simply speaking the truth. Perceptions always change quickly in football, and perhaps quicker than ever this season, but as a blip starts to threaten to become something more serious, Liverpool currently looks more like finishing fifth than first. 

So what has gone wrong? The past month has not come out of nowhere. In the context of this season, it is the Palace win that is the outlier, not what has happened since. Liverpool really has been short of its best for a year. Last season peaked with the 4–0 win over Leicester on Boxing Day, and, while Liverpool still played well enough to win the nine league games that followed, it lacked the fluency of autumn 2019. The defeat to Watford at the end of February last year, the penultimate domestic match before the shutdown, ended a run of 18 straight league victories and came between a pair of defeats to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Liverpool has not hit top form consistently since football started up again. 

It’s easy to find reasons why. That tail end of last season was odd for everybody, but Liverpool perhaps especially. The job was done, the 30-year wait for a title ended. All it had to do was see the season out, but the absence of fans meant it wasn’t the victory lap that had perhaps been anticipated. The feeling, anyway, is that Klopp’s sides tend to need regular fixtures to find their rhythm, and the break did it no good. 

This season, the truncated preseason and the compressed calendar have had a major impact on how Liverpool plays. It is a team that relies both on physical dynamism, which is harder when the schedule is relentless, and on specific planning for each game to tweak the press for the opponent, which is harder when there is so little time between matches. That in part explains why Liverpool let in three against Leeds and seven against Aston Villa. 

And then it lost Virgil van Dijk to a serious knee injury. He is not just Liverpool’s best defender, but a figure who radiates authority. There was probably no player it could so little afford to lose. Injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have compounded the problem, and the absences at center back have had a knock-on impact elsewhere. 

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

One goal in five games—and none in the last four—suggests a problem in the forward line, despite the fact that the first four of those games featured the first-choice front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. All three of them are perhaps slightly out of form, but at least part of the issue is that with two midfielders, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, regularly deputizing in the middle of defense, everything about Liverpool is a little more tentative, the press doesn’t function so well and so there are fewer turnovers in dangerous areas. There are knock-on effects everywhere, and now, as Klopp acknowledged on Thursday, confidence has begun to ebb. 

Perhaps Liverpool should have had additional cover at center back. And perhaps Klopp has been over-reliant on his front three, but the injuries could hardly have been targeted worse. To lose three central defenders at once is desperate misfortune, while, for all the frustration around the failure to integrate Takumi Minamino, Diogo Jota was working well as an additional attacking option before he, too, was injured. 

There will be those who note that it all began to go wrong in Klopp's seventh season at Borussia Dortmund and, given that this is now his sixth at Liverpool, wonder whether he has a natural shelf life at a club. But the bigger issues seem to be an unusual environment that makes his approach harder to enact, and a string of injuries just where Liverpool didn’t need them.