With goals flowing from various avenues, and the attacking trio of Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino proving a nightmare for opposition defences, it was hard to fault them.
However, since the turn of the year Liverpool have watched the wheels come off on their season, crashing out of the EFL Cup and FA Cup in just four days. A start that promised so much has since faded away, with Jurgen Klopp’s side only winning once in their last eight games. That victory came in an FA Cup replay against League Two’s Plymouth Argyle when Lucas Leiva netted for the first time in seven years.
The Reds now find themselves 10 points adrift of league leaders Chelsea and much has been made of their mid-season slump. With any moves in the January window looking increasingly unlikely before the deadline, have the Reds been made to rue not strengthening their squad?
Sadio Mane’s absence
The departure of Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations has undoubtedly hurt Liverpool hard. An attack that looked so fluid and unpredictable has been blunted in recent week, with a severe lack of creativity in his absence.
In contrast to the fast and thoroughly entertaining attacking play we were so akin to seeing from Liverpool at the start of the season, the side looks lost of ideas and innovation.
“Liverpool look like they’ve run out of energy and legs which is a big worry.” – Jamie Carragher
Mane’s blistering pace had been a huge part of Liverpool’s play, bringing a new dimension to the forward line. Contributing nine goals and four assists, the Senegalese forward goal threat was always going to be a big miss for Liverpool and what’s become so abundantly clear in recent weeks is that there is not another player that can deliver what he does.
Adverse effect on others
Liverpool have been so pedestrian in possession and the lack of speed within the side has been a key reason why their system has been figured out of late. Teams now have a blue-print of how to set up and frustrate Jurgen Klopp’s side – who have resorted to swinging in aimless crosses to the box.
Mane’s absence has crucially affected those around him, with Adam Lallana moving out of midfield to accompany Firmino. The England midfielder has enjoyed his best campaign since moving to Anfield, and the key to that has been his withdrawn role from the front line. With Mane out of the team, Liverpool have had little choice but to push Lallana up the field, and subsequently his performances have dipped.
The midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum that has come about because of Lallana’s positional change has also been ineffective of late. The ball is moved at too slow a pace, with a lack of creativity in the middle resulting in a detachment between the midfield and attack. As such, Liverpool’s reduction in form has been a result of Mane’s absence – but perhaps more indirectly than many may think.
No activity in the market
We always knew that Mane would be leaving for the African Cup of Nations in January, but the club’s failure to recruit any new faces has been the key to their dip in form. Entering a crucial period of fixtures, there was hope Jurgen Klopp would sign a winger to replace Mane to ensure the side kept up their momentum and retained some pace within the attack.
It’s no secret that Klopp likes to give his academy players a chance and while that is admirable, especially in the current age where youngsters receive increasingly limited action for their respective clubs, it has indicated the lack of depth at Liverpool. Appearances for both Sheyi Ojo and Ben Woodburn typify the lack of options at Klopp’s disposal while Mane has been gone and with neither ready for regular first team action, it’s puzzling as to why no effort has been made to recruit some more faces. Likewise, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi have failed to impress when given the opportunity.
Christian Pulisic and Julian Brandt are just two of many names that have been linked to the club over the January window and while their respective clubs have been reluctant to part ways with their star players mid-campaign, alternative avenues should have been explored.
The lack of new faces in the January window has cost Liverpool their momentum of late, with a slide in form seeing them left with only one avenue until the end of the season. A top four finish is now necessary for this side, unless they want a promising campaign to filter out into nothing.