Opinion: Crisis alert for Liverpool after slide continues with FA Cup defeat to excellent Wolves

Opinion: Crisis alert for Liverpool after slide continues with FA Cup defeat to excellent Wolves

Liverpool were dumped out of the FA Cup in the fourth-round by an energetic and resilient Wolves side on Saturday, meaning the Reds are out of both cup competitions inside four days and have suffered three straight Anfield defeats in a week - so is it too early to signal a crisis?

charlie-malam
Charlie Malam

'Learn to play the Liverpool way', the electronic billboards at Anfield flashed up to say just before half-time. The score line at the time? 2-0. Forget the supporters, Jürgen Klopp's side themselves look like they need a reminder. 

A week that was already disappointing just became disastrous for the Reds - who now, barring a miracle of incredible proportions in the final 16 league games, must wait until at least 2018 to end their silverware drought.

A week dubbed as one that could define the season has done just that, only not in the way that Liverpool had hoped. Rather than draw a line under the progress of the current campaign, recent results have  seriously undermined it.

The end of Liverpool's year-long (or 370-day) unbeaten run on home soil casts them further adrift of run-aways Chelsea in the title race and was a bad enough start last weekend. Yet at that stage, it could be viewed as a blip - even if a sizeable one. 

But, now seven days later, Liverpool's chances of cup silverware are all over. Liverpool underwhelmingly crashed out of the EFL Cup to Southampton on Wednesday, and endured just as dismal a 90 minutes against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.

Five years without a trophy and now just one triumph in the last 11. After Saturday, Liverpool are resigned to that trophy-less run stretching to 12 years. And that's at a minimum.

Reds too flat in another substandard first-half

Klopp, having said he wouldn't make 10 changes, made nine. And while the visit of Chelsea awaits in the Premier League on Tuesday, those changes meant Liverpool carried little real threat. Undoubtedly, the line-up was weaker than many had anticipated.

Every now and again they put together well-knitted spells of possession but once in the final third, those moves often ended without an attempt on goal. 20-year-old goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne, making his first-team debut for Wolves, didn't have a single save to make in the first-half.

Sadly, it was all too predictable. Though this team was much changed from the ones that faced Swansea and Southampton, they showed just as little firepower in the final third and constantly looked vulnerable defensively. 

It took just 52 seconds, from a set-piece, for the away side to take the lead. Richard Stearman was left with what seemed like the freedom of the entire penalty box to head beyond Loris Karius, who initially came off his line intending to meet the cross before hesitating and back-tracking. 

And though Liverpool dominated possession for the rest of the first period, they remained second-best. They were incredibly fortunate Helder Costa, who embarked on an incredible 60-yard solo run, couldn't finish it off for what would have been a goal of the competition contender.

Still, the rest of the first-half was worryingly familiar. Toothless at one end, self-destructive at the other. Liverpool passed from side-to-side, moving out wide before looking back into central midfield and moving to the opposite side of the pitch, without ever looking they were going to penetrate beyond Wolves' back-line.

There were some glimpses of quality, as there were against Southampton, but they were never substantial enough. The finishing let Liverpool down in mid-week, but here they didn't even create any chances or force Burgoyne into a save.

The Reds' susceptibility at the back reared its ugly head again and they even managed to lurch to new lows for Wolves' second goal. Liverpool meandered forward to the edge of the visitors' box, predictably lost the ball and within 10 seconds, it was nestled in the Kop end net.

Credit must be given to Wolves for the pace and invention of their breakaways, but Liverpool - as they have been so often this season - left themselves painfully vulnerable on the counter.

Costa's through ball for Andi Weimann to hop over the on-running Karius and slot into an empty net made it look all too easy. The wide-man even had the audacity to tap in with a no-look finish.

Liverpool's lack of fight and backbone the real worry

Before long, rivals on social media were delighting at Klopp's post-Southampton comments that the wind had made it difficult for his side to play passing football on Wednesday night. "Must be windy on Merseyside again", they joked.

And truthfully, Liverpool's performance was nothing short of comical. Boos are rarely heard at Anfield, but that's what met the half-time whistle, even if it was only from a quarter of those home fans in the ground.

Steven Gerrard, doing the punditry at half-time for BT Sport, might as well have laced up his boots and come on himself. That was how desperate and abject it looked at the break, with no-one looking like stepping up and injecting the leadership and drive they craved.

The lack of fight, aggression and intensity was alarming - not just to supporters, but surely to Klopp too. 

The German, reflecting on the Southampton loss, took faith from the fact his side remain "really still fighting for each point, for each little victory, for each big success."

The display against Wolves was the antithesis of that never-say-die mentality of the manager. Even the change to a back three, Philippe Coutinho coming on for Connor Randall at half-time, could not stop the rot.

Liverpool pulled two goals back against Swansea after a lifeless start in another 12:30 kick-off last Saturday (though they threw that game away five minutes after equalising) but could not repeat that trick here.

They improved, as they did against Southampton in the second-half, and carried greater threat when they upped the urgency and intensity. But ultimately it brought no end result. Passes were still misplaced and movement was still missing. Shots, even those off-target, were far too sparse.

Wolves fully deserving of hard-earned victory, though Liverpool weren't at it once again

For that, Wolves' valiant defensive effort must be acknowledged. This is a team 18th in the Championship, and while their squad has more quality than their league standing suggests, this result is still a shock. Even in spite of Liverpool's form, this is the kind of result the FA Cup and it's perhaps clichéd 'magic' is renowned for.

It wasn't until the 43rd second of the 59th minute that young Wolves shot-stopper Burgoyne had to make a save. Wolves' rigid defensive organisation, coupled with their pace and fluidity on the break, meant they deserved to win.

But from Liverpool's perspective, too few questions were asked of the Burgoyne that first shot on target.

Moreno almost met Coutinho's through ball but was unable to control the ball before it ran out of play beyond him. Elsewhere, a curling Daniel Sturridge shot, an easy save, and a hopeful low Divock Origi drive were the only other attempts. 

It was easy for Wolves, as it was for the other teams that have sat back and asked this Liverpool team (be it their full-strength XI or a second-string team like this one) to try and break them down. The Reds simply don't have enough answers.

Klopp believed the fact that Liverpool created chances against Southampton was a positive, but taking stock of all their defeats and draws in this manner - the opportunities they created that night feels more like an anomaly than the norm. More times than not, sitting back and waiting to counter against this Liverpool side will bring success.

Origi's late tap-in, cutting the score-line to 2-1, only came about from a defensive Wolves error. A poor header inside the box fell straight for the Belgian, who thrashed home to halve the deficit. 

That temporarily roused Anfield. A goalmouth scramble ended in Burgoyne's best save, diving across his line to deny Origi, but that late glimmer of hope only made the defeat all the more disappointing. 

Why? Because this Liverpool team showed that it was capable of causing problems to Wolves - albeit with Sturridge, Coutinho and Emre Can all on off the bench - but left it too late to prove it. 

And even with Liverpool's brief step-up, they were still hopelessly open at the other end. Only Lucas Leiva's right leg prevented Jon Dadi Bodvarsson from capping off a sublime individual run with a neat finish inside the near post to make it 3-1. Few could have argued that Wolves' wouldn't have deserved it had it sneaked in. 

They were superb on the afternoon, at both ends of the pitch. There is good reason for the real hope that surrounds Wolves under Paul Lambert, who has already showed signs of transforming them from the second-tier also-rans they had been before him. This, added to the win at Stoke City in the previous round of the competition, shows that.

And yet for all the quality of Bodvarsson's venture into the box, and Costa's first-half run, and even Wolves' two goals - Liverpool made it look much harder to defend him than it could have been.

They've made quite the habit of shooting themselves in the foot in 2017, in which they have won only one of eight games across all competitions.

Success of Liverpool's season hanging in the balance

The full-time whistle, unlike the half-time whistle, wasn't greeted with as audible a smattering of boos but there was still some discontent voiced. For the first time under Klopp, Liverpool have lost three straight games. There is real worry surrounding the future of the current campaign.

Klopp, rightly, will be questioned. His team have become one-paced, predictable and easy to beat, a complete contrast to the team that won so many plaudits with their enthralling attacking football a couple of months ago.

On the pitch, Liverpool desperately need a change. No new signings are on the way and so perhaps an adjustment to the formation is the answer. After all, Liverpool cannot bank on Sadio Mane - once he returns from the Africa Cup of Nations - to come back and save them.

The situation is simple. If Liverpool play like they have in their last three games against Chelsea, their title hopes will be categorically over with several months of the season still to go. Again.

Even now, they are hanging by the thinnest of thin threads. A win would cut the gap to seven points, a not-insurmountable but still considerable difference.

Even then, Liverpool dauntingly welcome top-four rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur to Anfield after that. Their record against the top six under Klopp may be excellent until now, but it won't stay that way if the club can't shackle their current downturn.

With Chelsea as excellent as they have been in a 3-4-3 system, it's incredibly hard to see them stuttering between now and the end of the season - especially enough to give up that kind of advantage.

In truth, Tuesday's showdown with Antonio Conte's front-runners is probably more about whether Liverpool can prove they are capable of ending this poor patch and finishing inside the top-four this season.

In their current form, their credentials are very much open to debate and right now - Liverpool's season is staring into the abyss.

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