By Lucas Wilson
It is undeniable that defending Premier League Champions, Liverpool, are in a slump. They are currently a side whose struggles at the back are matched in severity only by their troubles in front of goal, a deadly combination that has led to them losing six consecutive games at Anfield for the first time in the club’s history. The achievement of this undesired accolade is only compounded by the fact that three of the six defeats were handed to them by Burnley, Brighton, and Fulham, all teams situated around the bottom of the league table.
The Reds undoubtedly look a shadow of the team they were both last season and at the start of this one, but why?
It is a difficult question to answer, but it is impossible to at least attempt to do so without addressing a central issue hampering Liverpool’s title defence: the constant injuries which have beset the side’s defensive line. Let’s begin with the season-ending injury inflicted on the immensely commanding presence of centre-back Virgil Van Dijk by Everton keeper Jordan Pickford in October last year.
This unfortunate trend only continued in November however, when Van Dijk’s stalwart defensive companion, Joe Gomez, joined his partner on the physio’s bench after picking up a knee injury when on international duty with England in November, an injury he is yet to fully recover from.
Joel Matip acquiring an ankle injury in January this year in a 3-1 victory over Tottenham only worsened the issue, forcing manager Jürgen Klopp to play midfielders Jordan Henderson and Fabinho as makeshift centre-backs in a desperate attempt to mend the gaping hole in his defence.
Losing such core components of the team (and having to accommodate for their absence by utilising players from other positions) is obviously not without consequence. If you were to remove three parts from a car’s engine, toss them on the ground, and replace them with other parts from within the engine itself, the car itself wouldn’t work.
And, if you’ll forgive the rather heavy-handed analogy, this is what’s happening with Liverpool. Klopp has been forced to put square pegs in round holes in a manner that unbalances the whole team, resulting in a vast disconnect between the players on the pitch which has damaged the performance of the whole squad not only in defence but also in attack.
Every attack must begin with a solid foundation in the defence, after all. This is, even more, the case with Liverpool, who have become a team renowned for retaining possession whilst playing a remarkably high line, a tactic which enables them to heavily press their opposition and effectively keep them boxed in their half of the pitch. Of course, in a squad that is missing its most competent centre-backs, pressing high and building possession by playing out from the back is both extremely difficult and incredibly risky, contributing massively to Liverpool’s recent offensive failings as much as it does their defensive ones.
Liverpool are not only stretched defensively at present, but the club’s goal-scoring ability is also far from what has come to be expected of it in recent times. In fact, they have only scored four goals in their last six Premier League games, one of which was a penalty, and another a deflected effort. For a team known for its ability to bury their opponents under a glut of goals if they are given the opportunity (something they demonstrated in December last year in their 7-0 victory over Crystal Palace) this failure is harder to explain.
Whilst the defence does contribute to a lack of attacking potency as aforementioned, the responsibility for Liverpool’s low goal output has to rest mainly with the team’s forwards, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah.
It is highly likely that when watching their team, Liverpool supporters will feel immense frustration as this once lethal offensive trio consistently overcomplicate matters in front of goal, always searching for another pass where one doesn’t exist or attempting to get a better angle on goal when the better alternative in both scenarios would just be to unleash a shot from the space they are currently occupying.
Perhaps this hesitancy to shoot reflects a greater, more insidious force is at work when Liverpool play: low confidence. The players themselves are no doubt entirely aware of their sinking form, something which will play on their minds every second they are on the pitch. And, most worryingly for Liverpool fans who are still hopeful that their team will climb the table from their current position in eighth place and reach the highly coveted Champions League places before the end of the season, low confidence has no simple solution.
What Liverpool need right now is one thing: consistency. They need to field a consistent team selection every week, they need to stick to their bold playing philosophy, and, amid rumours about his departure, they need to retain manager Jürgen Klopp. Faith needs to be placed in both player and coach in equal amounts if Klopp is to repeat the miracle he achieved as manager of Bundesliga team Borussia Dortmund in their 2014/15 season when he lifted them from 17th in winter to seventh place by the season’s end.
As pundit Roy Keane said last Sunday after Liverpool’s 1-0 loss to Fulham at Anfield, “it’s absolute crisis time for Liverpool now”. But if one man is to lift them from the depths of despair and restore their confidence, it has to be Jurgen Klopp.
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