Opinion: Liverpool's top-four hopes in peril with Hull the latest team to expose the Reds' recurring problems

Opinion: Liverpool's top-four hopes in peril with Hull the latest team to expose the Reds' recurring problems

Liverpool's season suffered its latest setback with a 2-0 loss to Hull City in which they were once again devoid of ideas on how to open up a resolute defence, and with the Reds still stuck firmly in their slump, hopes of qualifying for the Champions League are now at risk.

charlie-malam
Charlie Malam

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp must feel a bit like Bill Murray at the minute. 

No, not Bill Murray when he's fighting a gigantic lumbering Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the streets of New York City and most definitely not Bill Murray when he's playing basketball with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck for the Tunes Squad.

Obviously we're talking more like Murray in the 1993 classic, Groundhog Day, when he acts as a Pittsburgh TV weatherman caught in a time loop and repeats the same day again and again and again. 

Of course, Klopp is no weatherman - regardless of his now infamous wind comments after the EFL Cup semi-final defeat to Southampton last month - but the feeling that Liverpool are in a repetitive process that has no sign of an end when faced with deep-defending teams is one that cannot be shaken.

Klopp himself, and midfielder Emre Can, both declared that this Liverpool squad has the answers and tools to unlock stubborn defences before Saturday. This latest calamitous display again showed otherwise.

The latest disappointment in their increasingly miserable new year came away at Hull City in a 2-0 defeat. Ironic, then, that the annual Groundhog Day celebration in the United States was only on Thursday, because this was more of the same. 

Time and time again Liverpool have faltered in the same circumstances and Hull became the latest of a growing list of teams to take advantage.

Reds succumbing to same mistakes every time

Humberside has been a familiar setting for turgid defeats in previous years with the 1-0 loss in April 2015 and the 3-1 reverse in December 2013, both under Brendan Rodgers, as woefully inept as each other.

This smacked of similar, if not arguably worse, as the Reds served up their latest entry for their worst performance of the season.

Perhaps Hull's position in the Premier League table, 19th, was somewhat deceiving going into this clash. The Tigers have improved vastly under Marco Silva since the Portuguese boss arrived on English shores at the start of January.

How Silva has made a mockery of the comments of Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson in the space of just a few weeks. In four games against Manchester United and Chelsea, Silva's Hull lost just twice and conceded a respectable five goals.

For perspective, in the six games before Silva's arrival as a foreign unknown, Hull had leaked 15 goals.

This was a Hull team drastically different to the one that was comprehensively despatched back in September at Anfield, when Mike Phelan's side were fortunate only to lose 5-1.

Liverpool knew that, coming into this weekend, Hull would not roll over. Indeed, only four players from the eleven that were so well beaten on that pleasant Merseyside afternoon started on Saturday.

That showed here.

Hull once again proved themselves a much, much better outfit, largely due to Silva's sound management and the promising impact of their winter additions. Their league position completely belies their renewed identity and quality, which has refreshed home of surviving the drop.

Yet, as it has proved so often in recent times, for as good as their opposition were - Liverpool were at the centre of their own downfall. They were the eye of their very own storm.

They knew what to expect of Hull's approach, regardless of Klopp's pre-match praise of their ability to play good football. And yet once again they ran out of ideas and patience too quickly. And at the other end, a self-inflicted error allowed Hull to steal a precious lead.  

Another sequence of mistakes, not that it should be surprising. It's not like Liverpool's defensive deficiencies haven't cost them before this season.

Emre Can's poor touches gave away an avoidable corner and from the set-piece, Simon Mignolet failed to deal with Harry Maguire's header. Alfred N'Diaye pounced quickest to cap his debut off with a tap-in.

That gave Hull exactly what they were looking for and allowed them to simply sit back, keep their shape and wait to pick the visitors off. Surprise surprise, they did just that. 

The second goal may have come at a time when Liverpool were desperately chasing a goal to get back into the game, but again their back-line was split far too easily. Counter-attacks have proved a real weakness in recent months and it showed again here.

Oumar Niasse, a comical figure on Merseyside for his minimal return at Everton, scored his first league goal since joining last January in a £13.5 million deal from Lokomotiv Moscow. That said it all.

Champions League qualification hopes at risk?

Having seen title hopes quashed by defeat to Swansea City last month, this loss to Hull leaves Liverpool's top-four prospects in huge danger. Upgrade the threat level from substantial to severe, because in this current decline - the return to Europe's top table is lightyears away.

Liverpool have lost as many league games in five matches of the new year as they did across the entire first four months, and 19 games, of the campaign in 2016.

The current form table wouldn't even have Liverpool qualifying for the Europa League, in fact they'd barely be above the relegation zone. 

Troublingly, if Manchester City beat Swansea on Sunday afternoon, Liverpool will drop out of the top-four for the first time since 30 September.

It was only on 6 November that Liverpool topped the league table, a point above Chelsea. Now, the gap between the two teams is a gaping chasm - and one which Chelsea are the better side of.

With 49 points taken from an available 57 since the Reds beat them 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte's surefire champions boast a 13-point advantage over Liverpool and a nine-point lead over any other team in the division.

Worse for Liverpool, a win for Manchester United at Leicester City on Sunday would also put Jose Mourinho's side a single point behind them. Only 11 games ago, the gap between the two bitter rivals stood at 10 points. 

Reds' front-line a shadow of its former self

Oh how Klopp and Liverpool must wish they could rewind to before it all went wrong. Their stumble is worrying but the drop-off in their performance levels must have alarm bells ringing.

Even Sadio Mane's return to the starting line-up at Hull could not inspire a display more like the autumnal outings in which Klopp's charges blew away whomever stood in their path.

The Senegalese, as the rest of the team, put in the work and graft but effort has not been the key ingredient lacking from Liverpool's performances.

It is the disappearance of the confident, flowing, fast and fluid attacking football with which they appeared to establish themselves as title contenders back in September, October and November that is threatening to wreck their season. It has been replaced by bleak, predictable and ponderous play. Where did all the fun go?

This was the first time since the start of November in which Mane started alongside Adam LallanaPhilippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino and yet still Liverpool displayed painfully little threat. 

Not a single shot on target before the break and only five by full-time, that from a total tally of 22 attempted efforts on goal. Eldin Jakupovic just wasn't made to work enough.

An insipid first-half must have led to a fiery team talk, for Liverpool improved after the break, but it still wasn't enough. Chances weren't converted, shooting opportunities not adequately taken. 

All of Liverpool's forwards have struggled for form for too long. Coutinho and Lallana have yet to produce anything like the performances they managed before injury, with the Brazilian particularly lacklustre here. 

Liverpool remain the league's joint-top scorers but it won't stay that way for much longer on this evidence. Even in reserve - Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi have toiled for weeks, if not months. 

Liverpool have scored just six goals in five games since the league season hit the half-way mark in December and their attacking spark shows no signs of being rediscovered, at least against these kind of well-drilled defensive teams. 

Set-pieces show no sign of improvement either, with Liverpool's 15 corners amounting to nothing. Hull's first led to a goal in the 40th minute, at which point had wasted four.

The bigger picture makes even grimmer reading. Liverpool have dropped 12 points in their last five league games after only dropping nine in the 16 before that. They have still won just one of 10 games in all competitions in 2017, against Plymouth Argyle.

Klopp must find answers to stem Liverpool's recurring ruin

The hangover from the New Year's Eve win over Manchester City, seen as such a big statement to their rivals at the time, has proved unshakeable and how they have suffered. 

Their drop-off is reminiscent of the 2002-03 Premier League season, albeit it at a later stage of the campaign. Gerard Houllier's men went the first 12 games of the season unbeaten to boast a four point advantage ahead of Arsenal.

Then followed an 11-match streak without a win that spanned three months and severely derailed the campaign, even despite a late recovery in spring ensured a fifth-placed finish.

Having started so well earlier this season, Liverpool are threatening to let slip their chances of a top-four finish this term too. They have already seen all three opportunities of attaining silverware this season vanish.

They can afford few more setbacks. A top-four finish, in such a competitive campaign as this, would still be a success but anything lower, given the position Liverpool put themselves into with their start to the season, would surely be deemed a failure. 

Yet in order to prevent that from happening, answers must be found and back-up plans rapidly drawn up. If not, every top-flight team will be looking to repeat the approach that has earned the likes of Hull, Swansea, Wolves, Southampton and Burnley success.

Sit back, absorb the pressure, force Liverpool into areas out wide where they cannot cause harm and pack the middle of the pitch to deny the space for their creative players. Then, wait for the opportunity to counter-attack and the results will most likely follow.

It really is that easy to beat, or at least draw with, Liverpool at the moment. The Chelsea performance suggested they might be climbing out from the pit they've fallen into, but it could also just as easily prove a false dawn.

Liverpool must hope their record against the top six can prove just as impressive by the end of mid-March, for Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal both visit Anfield inside the next month.

With clashes with Leicester City and Burnley, and a daunting trip to an improving Manchester City, also coming up - Liverpool don't have long to think up ideas of how to prevent falling into the same trap time and time again.

The attacking approach of teams like Spurs, Arsenal and City should actually benefit Liverpool - for they have the quality to match them.

But it is when teams set up to frustrate and quell the Reds' front-line that their shortcomings are so ruthlessly exposed, and Klopp must earn his £7 million-a-year salary and think up some new tactical plans to stop Liverpool being unshielded so frequently.

If Liverpool do not stir themselves from a recurring nightmare, they risk facing very harsh consequences. 

There's still time to salvage the season, but a return to the enthralling football of the campaign's first-half is growingly difficult to envisage. At this rate, a return to the Champions League even more so.

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