With the very biggest clubs and best teams, there is a perception that any crisis is fleeting. Results, while susceptible to spiralling out of control, will always revert back to the norm eventually. To offset that, any little issue becomes a storm in a teacup because it generates a story; regular occurrences are simply not justified for poor form. Liverpool are case in point right now; while their misery is continuing well beyond expectation, it has become a commonly-held belief that there must be something seriously wrong internally, given that they are gunning for one of the worst ever Premier League title defences.
Sunday’s defeat at home to Fulham certainly fuelled that fire. After maintaining a mammoth 68-game unbeaten run at Anfield and becoming almost unbeatable on their own turf, the Reds have now slumped to six straight home losses and are now winless in eight. Scoring goals has scarcely been an issue over recent years, but they are currently the among the lowest ranked in England in terms of attacking return, netting just once at home in the league this calendar year. They now just need to salvage their season.
That potency and intensity saw Jurgen Klopp coin the phrase ‘heavy metal football’ when describing his philosophy upon arrival in 2015 and he went on to turn Liverpool into arguably one of the best sides ever seen in modern English football. Over the past two seasons, they amassed 196 points, winning a first league title for 30 years after adding a sixth European crown to their collection. They swept all before them, except for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City
The heat of the Liverpool-City rivalry almost made it legendary overnight. Klopp had been gradually building something from the ashes of previous failures on Merseyside and, while Guardiola’s impact was perhaps less nuanced, suddenly there were two juggernauts on a collision course. Everybody else watched on in envy and disbelief, before grabbing their popcorn to find out who would come out on top.
After City’s domination in 2017/18, Liverpool ran them close the next year while also winning the Champions League. During the campaign disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, it was Klopp’s turn to oversee a relentless charge to glory. But for the first time in a while, they have hit a wall and the easiest thing to do it search for an explanation as to why. Last season, City endured something similar, but have bounced back stronger and laid down the gauntlet.
The truth is, there are a plethora of reasons for Liverpool’s struggles. It is jarring to see them failing to achieve the points and plaudits everyone took for granted as recently as a few months ago. Their home form is the best example of just how far they’ve fallen; not only was one defeat, let alone six in succession, completely unthinkable, but they used to steamroll the sides at the bottom of the table with ease. Of these recent losses, three have come to Burnley, Brighton and then, only a matter of days ago, Fulham.
Most of the explanatory factors in this dismal run are known, but they are not sensationalist, sweeping or bold enough to register as truth for those desperate to pin the story on another story. Virgil van Dijk’s injury, as obvious as it is to say, was the biggest setback for Klopp. Not only is losing such a talismanic figure difficult to recover from in terms of quality, but evidence that the Dutchman has transcended his role as a defender is there for all to see. He quickly became the squad’s leader and most vocal, and vital, member and regularly set the tone for Liverpool’s best work.
The Reds were very ordinary defensively before they signed Van Dijk, so it was hardly surprising to see them revert to type once he damaged knee ligaments against Everton. Add to that the fact that Joe Gomez and Joel Matip joined him on the sidelines with lengthy injuries and Klopp was then forced to play Jordan Henderson and Fabinho at the back, before they too succumbed to spells out, and the team began to fall apart on two fronts; mental and tactical.
It is easy to disregard injuries and general confidence as reasons for failure because they happen in every team. But with Liverpool specifically, there has been a domino effect; with no defenders resulting in Henderson and Fabinho being pulled out of midfield, Liverpool have lost their energy in central areas and supply-line to their attackers. The width from their fullbacks, another staple of their very best level, has been sacrificed to make sure they are not overly exposed at the back. These are tactical observations designed to explain a difficult situation, not evoke sympathy for their plight.
Klopp has made mistakes recently, and another huge issue a lack of responsibility from elsewhere on the pitch. In moments of adversity, character stands tall, and Liverpool are not showing enough of that.
As often happens with coaches who rely on intensity the way Klopp does, it can become tiresome; Liverpool have been at full throttle for three seasons and Klopp has only gradually freshened things up in that time. It was a similar story for him at Borussia Dortmund and he ended up departing. The vacancy at the German FA in the summer will send tongues wagging, but Klopp deserves the chance to oversee a deeper rebuild at Anfield, and the club deserve that from him.
Perhaps it is simplistic to suggest terrible luck with injuries, a lack of confidence and leadership and no contingency plan has led to Liverpool falling away but it is also closer to the truth than anything else. The idea that crises of this nature are less acceptable or more manageable without an overarching explanation at bigger clubs is ridiculous; the hunt for one needs to stop.
Liverpool have had a disastrous season, but small factors can accumulate and run out of control. While it will take more than their big stars recovering from injury to get them back on track, their absence, among other things, simply must be given more credence as an answer to their problems.