Liverpool are in a funk and it is difficult to know what to make of them at the moment. One day they are shutting Manchester City down and the next day they struggle to create a single chance against a Division 2 side. It is all very reminiscent of Klopp’s hot and cold 2015/16 Liverpool side.
It has not been a good start to 2017 for Liverpool. It began with a missed opportunity (against Sunderland) to close in on Premiership leaders Chelsea. This was followed by failure at Anfield in the FA Cup to beat Plymouth and continued with a loss to Southampton in the semi-final first leg of the EFL Cup, completing the trifecta and a horrid January to date for Klopp and his men on all three fronts.
Ominously for them, an FA cup replay at Plymouth and the second EFL semi-final are sandwiched in between a trip to Manchester United and a visit by Chelsea at the end of the month for what could be a defining month of their season. The omens do not look good.
What we know is this: With a full strength side they are capable of giving the Olympic Gods the run around. But shorn of one of their key players, Coutinho, Mane or perhaps even Lallana, this intricate and fragile speed machine capable of producing on its day a blur of movement, rhythm, and electricity can transform, Cinderella like, into a chugging and sputtering old boiler unit.
Following the game at Southampton, Klopp was lost for words and reasons as to why Liverpool played so poorly but in truth they have been far from vintage since the beginning of December. This has been evident since the team lost Coutinho to injury and their sparkle, effervescence and zest that so characterised them in the early months of this season disappeared with him too. That they have failed to hit the heights without their best player and most creative outlet is unsurprising. But the failure to get anywhere close to those heights with players of the quality of Lallana, Mane, Firminio, and Sturridge et al is alarming.
The form of Sadio Mane has masked a lot of the problems Liverpool have had since Coutinho’s injury. Whilst Lallana might have won the plaudits for goals and assists, it was Mane’s speed, work ethic, guile and the ability to hold and work the ball in the final third that carried Liverpool over these last six weeks. His absence against Southampton (playing for Senegal in the AFCON) was glaring and illuminated Liverpool’s sheer lack of incisiveness without him.
Liverpool saw plenty of the ball in their cup tie with Southampton but time and time again they did nothing but carry it into the opposition half where, met by two compact banks of four, and lacking creativity, they chose to pass sideways over and over again until they lost it. This has been the story of their last few weeks, against Plymouth, Sunderland, West Ham and also in some of those December games that they managed to sneak a win. This was in contrast to Southampton, who saw less of the ball but were far more effective in using it. They opened Liverpool up a number of times and were unlucky to walk away holding only a one goal lead.
There are three issues here. First, it appears for now that opposition teams have worked Liverpool out and know how to defend against them, defending deep in numbers, although Coutinho’s return may swing the pendulum back in favour of Liverpool again.
Second, the Liverpool midfield is stacked with sideways passing and high energy pressing players that don’t contribute enough in terms of attacking play. They remind me of Arsene Wenger’s second great Arsenal side that famously tried to pass their way into the oppositions net at every opportunity. They were simply guilty of over-elaboration; however, today’s Liverpool midfield just don’t know what to do with the ball once they get close to the opposition box.
And third, there are still too many journeymen in this Liverpool team. Sturridge is not half as good as he thinks he is. He has moments but rarely, if ever, puts in a performance that takes the breath away as Sanchez or Aguero might do.
Firmino too has looked off the boil in recent weeks and must be very close to the fabled red zone, and, I don’t know what he has to do to be dropped, but his Christmas Eve drink driving arrest could be considered a cry for help. His impending court case will give him a much needed and enforced rest for the visit of Chelsea.
Wijnaldum has yet to convince me that he is worthy of a place in Liverpool’s best eleven, and despite the best pass completion stats in the Premiership, Henderson (who missed the game) has largely achieved this with simple sideways passing and needs to look up more. Can at least tries to take responsibility by driving forward whenever possible, but is just not a good enough dribbler to do this consistently and loses possession far too often, as he did against Southampton. But he has other qualities that compensate.
The other top sides have variety in their midfields; City have Fernandinho, Gundogan and Toure whose first instincts are to look up and drive forward if possible; United have Pogba who will do the same and Chelsea have Fabregas and Willian who excel at this. Liverpool’s midfield contains no match winners and is rather placid by comparison.
One silver lining is the return of Coutinho who appeared to hit the ground running against Southampton. Within five minutes of his reintroduction he became central to everything Liverpool did and they improved as an attacking unit. Manchester United are up next, but this game may come a little too early for Coutinho to effectively influence it
United are on a nine game winning streak and have the momentum. Mourinho will have sensed Liverpool’s vulnerability, and with the opportunity to close to within two points of Liverpool, I feel he will throw caution to the wind and try and Blitzkrieg Liverpool from the go. A good performance here from United will answer a lot of Mourinho’s own detractors and the sins of his early months will be forgiven.
If Liverpool fail to get anything out of this game, then all their good work of the early months will also be undone. Putting aside the race for the title, it is Champions League qualification that is the real prize for Liverpool and having looked for so long like a shoe-in for one of the automatic berths, on current form, they may have a struggle on their hands. It is time for that midfield to stand up and be counted.
It has been a long time for these two grand old clubs but in terms of relevance, if not quality, Manchester United against Liverpool at Old Trafford will be one hell of a game.