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The critical questions facing Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool as title defence falters

www.independent.co.uk

When Liverpool beat Crystal Palace 7-0 at Selhurst Park before Christmas, they were top of the league and appeared to be on their way to defending the title. Now the team is languishing in fourth place and embroiled in a battle for Champions League qualification. What can be expected for the rest of the season and beyond?

It may not be. Liverpool have three very difficult games coming up: away to Leicester City, a Champions League tie against RB Leipzig in Budapest and a home match versus Everton. Leicester’s form has been erratic and they were flat in the 0-0 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday but Jamie Vardy’s return from injury at Molineux will boost Brendan Rodgers’ side. The striker has scored seven in 12 games against Liverpool and will relish playing against their makeshift defence. These are three big matches for Klopp, starting with the tough assignment at the King Power.

Will we see Ben Davies or Ozan Kabak, the transfer window signings, bolstering the back four?

The last-minute nature of these deals is worrying. Supporters were eager to hail Michael Edwards, the sporting director, for getting things done before the window shut but there was an element of panic about the acquisitions. Davies was not on Liverpool’s radar and the £2 million pricetag and interest from Celtic accurately reflect the former Preston North End defender’s status. Buying from lower divisions can unearth gems: Andy Robertson came from Hull City. However, the Scot was only 23 – Davies is two years older – and Robertson had two seasons of Premier League experience on his CV. Even then it took until December of his first campaign at Anfield for Klopp to trust the left back. If Davies makes it on Merseyside it will be a great feel-good story. Don’t hold your breath.

Liverpool’s players react to their defeat by Manchester City

(Reuters)

Do all Klopp’s problems stem from the injuries at the centre of defence?

No. But the loss of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have had a huge impact on performances. Losing the only three, front-line central defenders at the club has left an unfillable hole. It comes down to poor judgement and flawed recruitment. The decision to let Dejan Lovren leave in the summer transfer window made sense only if the Croat was replaced. The gamble backfired and everyone involved bears responsibility. Putting it in the starkest terms, a centre half was a much bigger necessity than Diogo Jota and Thiago Alcantara. That is not just hindsight. Everyone knew that the season would be more congested than usual because of the pandemic and the thinness of the squad has been a worry in the previous campaign. For the first half of the title-winning season there was constant talk about whether injuries would derail the challenge. To not strengthen before the defence of the trophy was a huge mistake.

Was the lack of transfer activity because of cash shortfall caused by the pandemic?

That played a part. Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the owners, are cautious but would make money available for the right player. The roots of the problem were pre-pandemic.

After winning the Champions League two years ago Liverpool did not strengthen significantly. No one with even a remote chance of making the first team arrived in the summer and Takumi Minamino was the only January recruit. Traditionally, dominant teams build from a position of strength. Edwards and FSG like to do things differently but sometimes try to be too clever for their own good. Klopp cannot complain too much because he had backed the owners’ policy in public on many occasions. Edwards also should have done better in getting rid of the likes of Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri last year. Both have passed their sell-by date.

Divock Origi is one of a handful of players who Liverpool need to move on

(Getty)

Aside from City, Liverpool have not conceded that many goals when they have dropped points this year. Is the defence really the problem?

Yes. Moving Fabinho and Jordan Henderson into the back four means that two of the three first-choice title-winning midfield are not operating in their best positions. The duo, alongside Georginio Wijnaldum, comprised a unit whose contribution was often overlooked but crucial to the way Liverpool played. They are not a flash trio and were criticised by some for not scoring enough – they provided 10 goals between them last season – but they allowed the rest of the team to function. They dropped in and covered for the full backs when Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson rampaged forward. They screened the defence, pressed opposition ballcarriers and regained possession. It was a midfield that was happy to be bypassed by quick breaks. The trio provided balance and gave the team stability.

But surely Thiago is the solution in midfield?

Thiago dictates the pace but he slows the side down. That is not a bad thing if it is part of a coherent plan. But at the moment the team is trying to do the things they did last year with personnel who do not suit those methods. Plus, if the 29-year-old was playing with two of the first choice midfield on a regular basis, things might be different. The switch, mix and match approach Klopp has been forced into helps no one.

Questions have been raised over Thiago’s role in Liverpool’s midfield

(Getty Images)

Is it a case of Liverpool being found out? Managers realising the way to stop them is to sit deep?

Partly. No team can continue playing the same way for three years without the opposition coming up with ploys to stymie them. That is why Thiago was a worthwhile acquisition. Yet sides have been setting up to smother Liverpool for the past two years. For most of this period opponents were undone by speed, invention and intelligence. Those attributes have been missing in the destabilised side. Quite a few players have hit a dip in form, too. It could be argued that Liverpool passed their peak a year ago. They were stalling a little before the break caused by coronavirus and were not at their best when the league returned in the summer. The team probably needed freshening up 12 months ago or even the previous summer.

Are they mentally and physically exhausted? Is it because they press so much or the effects of the pandemic?

A combination. The core group of players have had a hectic two-and-a-half seasons. Last year, there was much talk about Guardiola’s squad being emotionally exhausted by the demands the Catalan placed upon them. There was an element of truth in that.

It’s also hard to defend the Premier League last year’s success came in a remarkable season. It was not just Covid-19 that made the campaign unusual but Liverpool ending their 30-year-title brought a huge amount of attention and stress. The ballyhoo was massive. That can be distracting.

Winning the Champions League gave the squad the experience of the aftermath of glory but they still could not comprehend the impact of bringing the title back to Anfield for the first time in three decades. It was seismic and life-changing. It brought heightened attention, TV documentaries and even more pressure for everyone, Klopp included.

Virgil van Dijk’s injury has been felt bitterly

(Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

The manager has been very spiky with the media. Is he losing it? And do his players still believe in him?

Klopp has always been combative. His sunny public image does not tell the full story about his character. He’s always up for a fight if he feels his team are slighted. As for the players, it’s always risky to keep the same group together for a long time with a manager. It is natural that some will stop listening to their boss and cynicism will creep in for others. Liverpool are nowhere near this point. The most dangerous time for Klopp was in the autumn of 2017, when he’d been at the club for two years and the team had not met expectations. A couple of the senior players expressed doubts and complained that Klopp did not have a ‘Plan B.’ The first five months of 2018 made them eat their words.

There is unhappiness at Anfield – poor runs always bring misery and an element of fingerpointing. It is not institutional, however, and will disappear as soon as results improve.

Have Liverpool been hurt by empty stadiums?

Yes, but that gets overblown. This team draws energy from the crowd in a manner that is unusual. They fed off the buzz and the supporters responded by upping the ante, causing a virtuous circle that was a huge positive for the side. The bottom line, though, is even a packed Kop could not elevate Liverpool beyond their present problems. Other clubs too may have had better results with fans in the ground. Leeds United wish Elland Road could have been packed and rocking for their return to the top flight. Anfield is not the only ground that is raucous and intimidating.

The team are good enough to improve and secure a Champions League place. Repeating the heroics of 2019 in Europe looks beyond them, though.

Jota will be back soon and he provides much better options up front. A rethink of tactics to get more out of Thiago is in order, especially if Fabinho and/or Henderson are stuck in defence for the rest of the season. The midfield needs to be reshaped anyway with Wijnaldum likely to leave in June.

Liverpool’s temporary drop in form will lead to potential suitors hovering around their best players. Mohamed Salah might become next summer’s transfer saga and the club needs to be prepared for that eventuality.

A moderate rebuild is necessary and the clearout that should have happened last year needs to be completed to free up resources. There is work to be done but there is no need for anyone to panic.

www.independent.co.uk

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