Liverpool truly are the Robin Hood of football – taking points off the richer, bigger clubs before slipping up and handing wins to struggling sides further down the Premier League table.
Having held league leaders Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Anfield, the Reds continued their miserable January into February with a 2-0 loss away to Hull City.
Any hope gained from the performance against Antonio Conte’s side was shattered at the weekend, and Jürgen Klopp cannot seem to find the answer to his team’s woes for the moment.
Ironically he may be thankful that Liverpool have a tough period of fixtures coming up, including home games against Tottenham and Arsenal, as they seemingly have a better chance of picking up wins against those sides.
Yet for the last twenty-seven years Liverpool have been experts at holding their own against the best, only to struggle against the sides they expect to beat.
Why have the Reds struggled recently?
For Hull, Liverpool were able to reunite their front four of Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane for the first time since November yet they were all lethargic and lacking ideas, with Mane the only player offering a resemblance of a threat.
However, the entire team appear pale shadows of their former selves from the start of the season, which has now left Liverpool fans wondering if the Reds overachieved hugely during the autumn.
Winning the Premier League title was always going to be a tough ask but Liverpool’s football in 2016 made it appear possible. 2017 has removed all chance of that, and now a place in the top four is under threat if this downturn continues. Indeed, Liverpool are now outside the Champions League places following Manchester City’s last-gasp 2-1 victory against Swansea City.
Klopp will have to change tactics – perhaps formation, with figures including Jamie Carragher calling for a 4-2-3-1 line-up, moving away from a midfield three. Whilst this may be effective, giving opposition teams something else to think about, so far this season Liverpool have won and lost with Klopp’s 4-3-3 system.
Given Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi’s poor form, Liverpool lack a top-class striker, with Firmino only a false nine, not a leading frontman.
Instead, there are other reasons to consider for Liverpool’s loss of form in 2017, which have culminated in a loss of confidence that has spread throughout the entire squad, slowing down their electric playing style and reducing their effectiveness.
Liverpool have never been the strongest side mentally in the last two decades, often containing squads with little experience of winning trophies, and their chances of winning silverware this season have all but gone because of the issues Liverpool have been hit with.
Liverpool struggling against deep defences
Losing Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations was a huge blow, for momentum offensively if nothing else.
Mane provides something different to every other Liverpool attacker under Klopp – pace. When Liverpool are at their best, Mane would stretch sides in behind, allowing the likes of Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana to find space to devastating effect.
Yet the latter trio have lost belief and fluency without their Senegalese partner. Mane himself has also seen his confidence eroded from a penalty miss in Senegal’s quarter-final defeat in the African Cup of Nations, and needs time to move on and readjust back to the Premier League.
However, given Liverpool’s reliance on his qualities for Klopp’s system, Mane will feel under pressure to perform, which could delay any Liverpool resurgence further.
Injuries were another factor, particularly to Philippe Coutinho and Joel Matip – not just for their absences, but their struggles in attempting to rediscover their best form. Coutinho was awful against Hull, while Matip was culpable for Hull’s second goal by Oumar Niasse.
Hull found success continuing the formula employed against Liverpool in 2017 – consisting of defending deep, stopping the Reds from playing through the middle and hitting effectively on the counter-attack, knowing that Liverpool’s fragile defence will offer up chances.
Sunderland, Plymouth Argyle, Swansea City, Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers have all utilized the same tactics to equally painful effect, given Liverpool have only recorded one victory in 2017, away to Plymouth in an FA Cup third-round replay.
Continued goalkeeping issues have not helped. Loris Karius was dropped in December after committing high-profile errors against Bournemouth and West Ham United, however Simon Mignolet has fared little better, and was at fault for Hull’s opening goal on Saturday.
A lack of stability at the back, with no outstanding goalkeeper and no Matip entirely, has seen Liverpool’s biggest weakness – the defence – become a liability.
Season not yet beyond repair
The congested fixture list in December and January has perhaps been too much for a thin Liverpool squad that runs itself into the ground every game with Klopp’s ‘gegenpressing’ style, and it has clearly impacted the majority of the players.
Firmino has been terrible in front of goal, missing big chances against Chelsea, and looks tired, yet has to play as Sturridge and Origi are even poorer options currently. Jordan Henderson and Nathaniel Clyne have also at times had to play with injuries because of their importance to the side.
Liverpool are undoubtedly paying for a lack of squad depth, and the workload has been too much for some, causing a loss of form and confidence.
All is still not lost however. Beat Tottenham and suddenly second remains attainable, but more importantly it would set Liverpool up for the rest of the season.
Momentum in football can quickly change from game to game – it seemed the Reds had turned a corner against Chelsea, but alas that was not the case. Yet Liverpool are back to only playing once a week again, the only positive of being eliminated from both domestic cup competitions. Therefore, the physical demands will be lessened and the Reds can perform at optimum energy levels for every game onwards.
Moreover, the likes of Coutinho and Matip will find their best again soon, and if Klopp’s main outfit can remain fit, as was the case in the autumn, then there is no reason why Liverpool cannot finish in the top four, despite the competition.
However, the turnaround – a proper turnaround – is needed now.