Liverpool 2021: Prelude to the End of an Era

This season hasn’t gone quite according to plan for Liverpool Football Club. But without wanting to stick the boot in, much of the damage appears to be self inflicted.
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Long-term injuries to star centre backs Virgil van Djik, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip triggered a gradual drop-off in form that culminated in six straight home defeats after Christmas. However, beyond the difficulties caused by those unforseen injuries, it has become increasingly apparent that the Reds' struggles are not solely the result of a patched up rearguard.

Indeed, there have been times this season when Liverpool's midfield have struggled to string a pass together. Worse still, the previously telepathic front line of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane - once the envy of world football - look more like misfiring strangers than clinical team-mates. Evidently all that was once fizzy and fun at Anfield has gradually fallen decidedly flat.

Roberto Firmino has been misfiring all season for Liverpool FC. 

Roberto Firmino has been misfiring all season for Liverpool FC. 

It’s been suggested in some quarters that Liverpool have become the victims of their own success. Apparently they’ve played too many games in recent seasons and now urgently need a rest. But are the glorious exploitations of recent years really to blame for the Reds' lack of effervescence? Maybe. But with so many members of the 2020-21 roster now approaching their 30th birthday, the most likely explanation for this season's slump is that the current squad has simply reached its physical peak and is now in decline.

Not only are the spine of this Liverpool team reaching 30 together, so too are manager Jurgen Klopp's backup options. By the time next season kicks off, Salah, Firmino and Mane will all be 29. Captain Jordan Henderson will be 31. Vice captain James Milner will be 35. Even Fabinho turns 28 in October. Defenders Matip and Van Dijk will be 30 and 31 respectively. While benchwarmers Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri are now well into their late 20s.

No wonder the pressing and harrying that defined manager Jurgen Klopp's trophy-laden team has largely disappeared from Liverpool's 2021 performances.

Indeed, to be successful with his chosen counter-press system, Klopp needs marathon runners in every position. Players with the energy to close down opponents quickly with a view to forcing mistakes. But with a makeshift defence that doesn’t have the pace to play a high line, a midfield lacking size, vitality and aggression, and a front three that no longer appear able to outpace or out muscle their markers, Liverpool don’t look big enough or quick enough to compete with the likes of Chelsea or Manchester United, let alone Manchester City.

What remains is a fading echo of what went before. And alarmingly, bar Diogo Jota, the club haven’t signed a single appropriate replacement.

Moving forward, this summer's transfer window takes on even greater importance. Energy, physicality and above all pace should be the recruitment prerequisites for a squad desperately in need of fresh legs and balloon-like lungs. Should the club fail to land these archetypal player types required for Klopp to successfully execute his tactical plans, then Liverpool will surely struggle again for trophies.

Jurgen Klopp Trent Alexander-Arnold

Jurgen Klopp celebrates with Liverpool FC's Trent Alexander-Arnold. 

In years to come there's no doubt that last summer's transfer window will be viewed as a missed opportunity. As reigning Premier League Champions and having recently won a sixth European Cup, it was important for the club to cement their standing as the leading club in England and arguably the continent. Yet the players who were brought in have only worked to unbalance Klopp's tactical template.

The acquisition of Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich, for instance, is looking increasingly peculiar by the day. The classy Spaniard is equal to Xabi Alonso in terms of technical ability, but he doesn’t have the chassis to do a job in a three man midfield designed for swashbuckling mega pressers. At 24, Greek fullback Kostas Tsimikas, signed from Olympiakos for a whopping £11.75million, should be in his prime, but he too looks physically out of his depth in the Premier League. The outstanding Curtis Jones apart, promotions from the youth setup have also proved unsuccessful, with Neco WIlliams currently too lightweight to compete at the top-level.

The lack of quality backup options has taken its toll on first team fullbacks Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who both look completely exhausted. And yet despite their noticeable drop-off in form, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are considered undroppable by Klopp since he doesn’t have a single suitable stand-in he can trust.

Liverpool have been cutting corners on their backup options for years and for the most part the strategy has worked. So much so that Michael Edwards has been hailed as a genius by certain pundits. However, this summer the wheeling and dealing has been royally exposed and the lack of investment will surely cost Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group in the long run, particularly if Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions League.

Liverpool managing owner, John Henry. 

Liverpool managing owner, John Henry. 

Of course, all great football teams grow old and eventually necessitate a rebuild. The only curiosity here is why the Reds hierarchy have allowed so many members of their all-conquering first time squad to hit 30 at the same time without bedding in a swathe of suitable replacements.

Nevertheless, let's not get too downhearted. Despite another average performance against Leeds United on Monday night, the current squad are still capable of securing a Champions League place. And although hustling for a top four finish with the likes of Leicester City and West Ham United feels like a massive a downer considering the achievements of recent seasons, in years to come qualifying for Europe's elite competition might be seen as a respectable last hurrah for an injured and aging squad that weren't able to call upon the power of the Kop when they needed it most.