Opinion: Is this Liverpool's blip? Or something more?
(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Opinion: Is this Liverpool's blip? Or something more?

After two disappointing and untimely draws, a sense of unease appears to be setting in at Anfield

dave-comerford
David Comerford

What a difference a week makes in a Premier League title race.

On January 30, Newcastle sprung a remarkable surprise to beat Manchester City in what seemed a banker for Pep Guardiola's men. Liverpool, facing Leicester on their own patch the following day, had a chance to establish a commanding seven-point advantage at the top.

But the following Tuesday, they find themselves pondering what might have been. One disheartening stalemate against the Foxes was followed by another against West Ham, and now City can reclaim the lead, if briefly, by beating Everton on Wednesday night.

Liverpool fans, so desperate for their team to end nearly three decades of hurt, are understandably worried. But just how anxious should they be?

Injuries to blame?

One factor in these setbacks in this absence of some key personnel. An injury to Trent Alexander-Arnold has seen Jordan Henderson and James Milner deputise at right-back, and neither have been able to replicate the youngster's defensive solidity or attacking contribution.

Joe Gomez, so imperious alongside Virgil van Dijk in the early months of the season, was supposed to be on the verge of a return at this stage, but has had to undergo surgery on his hairline leg fracture. 

Amid Dejan Lovren's prolonged recovery from a hamstring problem, fourth-choice centre-half Joel Matip has inspired little confidence. 

Moreover, the absence of skipper Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, consistently impressive under the radar, was felt against West Ham, with the midfield notably lacking balance.

But the outlook could soon improve. Alexander-Arnold, Lovren, Henderson and Wijnaldum could all be fit again for the visit of Bournemouth

And the club insist that Gomez will play again this season. Some reports estimate he could return at the beginning of March, at which point Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be back in training.

These anticipated comebacks will offer the Reds a significant boost.

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A dip was inevitable

Perspective remains important. Liverpool are in a far better position at this stage than most of their supporters could have anticipated.

Jurgen Klopp's side have won 19, drawn five and lost only one of their 25 league games thus far this season - an objectively excellent record.

Prior to their draw with Leicester, they had won every single game against teams outside the top six.

They may have lost all three of their away games in the group stage of the Champions League and gone out at the first hurdle in both cup competitions, but this is their first real dip in form in the league.

Many of the Reds' domestic victories have been hard-fought, though their record may suggest they have been passing these tests with ease.

It was unrealistic to expect that there would not be a minor slump eventually. They befall virtually every title-winner.

Even last season, the all-conquering City side saw their record winning run halted by a goalless draw at Crystal Palace before their hopes of an invincible campaign were dashed within a fortnight. 

All that matters for Liverpool is ensuring that blip, which was coming eventually, extends no further. 

The nature of the West Ham performance

Liverpool's last two results, and indeed the jittery display against Palace which preceded it, have led to accusations that they lack mettle, with the title race beginning to intensify.

And whilst the Reds were undeniably shaky against Leicester, the dropped points at West Ham were not down to nerves.

Instead, it was simply a poor overall performance. Liverpool would, in fact, have scraped a fortunate victory had they not switched off and allowed Michail Antonio to dart around the wall and score an equaliser.

They were dominant in the second half and paid not for their anxiety, but for their lack of invention. West Ham were comfortable in a regimented defensive shape because Liverpool lacked the guile to break them down and played, curiously, with little urgency.

The failings were more tactical than mental. And therefore, they are easier to rectify.

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The timing of the setbacks

If this is indeed a blip, it is of course better for it to come now than in April, when the stakes will be even higher.

But still these results do not bode well. City's loss at St James' Park presented Liverpool with a glorious opportunity to lay down a significant marker. They could have made their rivals' latest slip-up a decisive moment in the title race.

But they have begun to falter with the possibility of the elusive crown looming suddenly larger. That has led to legitimate questions about the squad's psychological strength. 

There is only one way to answer them - by thriving, rather than cowering, as the pressure is increasingly cranked up.

Rock-solid defence springs a leak

Liverpool have only conceded 15 goals this season - at least five fewer than any other side. 

But they have shipped almost half of those goals in their last five Premier League games and have only managed a single clean sheet since their win over Newcastle on Boxing Day.

Whereas last season it was the Reds' rampant attack that was central to their success, this season it has been built upon their peerless defence. But if that solidity is undermined, will things unravel?

The effectiveness of Klopp's stylistic switch from largely unrestrained heavy-metal football to sensible pragmatism is contingent upon a strong backline. 

The defence has at times compensated for the failings of a misfiring attack. That situation may need to be reversed.

There is, though, reason to believe Gomez's return, if it comes as soon as hoped, could be crucial. Liverpool shipped four goals in twelve games with him, but have let in 11 in the 13 games since his injury.

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The games begin to look tougher

Liverpool have laboured through a kind of run of fixtures. Having just about survived against Palace, they edged past Brighton and have now, of course, stumbled in two successive games.

Had they come through them with authority, confidence levels would be brimming, but now Saturday's meeting with Bournemouth seems a must-win. Fans will focus not on the clear gulf in class (Liverpool beat the Cherries 4-0 in December), but on the sizeable counterattacking threat Bournemouth pose. 

Whether or not this is customary in a title race, routine fixtures now appear much trickier.

And a trip to a red-hot Manchester United, who will be doubly determined to dent their archrivals' title ambitions, lingers on the horizon.

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Fans grow apprehensive

Many noted an atmosphere unease at Anfield when Liverpool began to struggle against Leicester. Rather than rallying behind the players, the crowd grew frustrated and nervous, and that was projected onto the team.

A glance at social media after the draw at the London Stadium confirms that, already, serious doubts are creeping in. Fans fear a repeat of the heartbreak of 2013/14.

Their belief has been tested, as well as that of the players. Now, more than ever, the supporters who call themselves the best in the world need to prove their worth. 

Much to their frustration, Liverpool have not been able to pull away from their rivals when handed the chance. It has become clear that they will instead face an almighty battle over the course of the run-in. 

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