This is the slump. The dip in form, the crisis, the unravelling, and the change in fortunes that may have laid waste to the tenuous line between doubting and believing. Seven games across three competitions have yielded only a single victory in what has understandably been a sorely testing and vexatious month for Liverpool fans.
2016 ended with a clean sheet and three points over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at Anfield. Not many thought that it was a game that would be won through resilience, controlling space, digging in, and defending gamely against a flawed but dangerous opponent. Victory for either side was to be achieved through outscoring the other in the final Premier League match of the year. When 2016 gave way to 2017, there was only a game left for Sadio Mané—the definition of a marquee signing in attack that fans have long craved for—to play in before departing for international duty with Senegal.
Liverpool twice went ahead at the Stadium of Light but could only draw 2-2 with Sunderland. Mané was very much involved in key moments as he scored a goal to restore the away side’s lead and gave away a late penalty that eroded his own contribution. Daniel Sturridge, too, provided a reminder of his capabilities by scoring the first goal of the game. Since then, however, the fortunes of Sturridge and Liverpool have been placed firmly within what seems to be a debilitating fog.
To be clear, this isn't the usual plea for patience that is the usual thrust of this column. The last edition was on Halloween and basked in the momentum built up by Klopp’s irrepressible team heading into November. Alan Pardew’s beleaguered Crystal Palace side was put to sleep at Selhurst Park 4-2 with four different goalscorers in an away shirt, silly defensive mistakes, and much in the way of entertainment. Watford would suffer a week later at Anfield in a display that not only underlined the progress made under Klopp but also exemplified just how devastating Liverpool’s attack could be. And so, the the power of the collective propelled the Reds to the top of the league table.
On hindsight, the column’s content was my way of celebrating Klopp restoring Liverpool’s relevance among the best England had to offer, which is still the case, considering that six points separate the five teams below Chelsea. Liverpool are fourth and essentially as cut adrift from Chelsea as any of their top six rivals. That is not to excuse the poor form endured this month but remind those in despair that all is not lost. Everything written in the last column nearly three months ago was a fan’s testimony to the transformation that had taken place in the space of a year under one man. There was no desire to write another this season unless compelled to do so.
So far, the words written have been primarily to remind those reading what Liverpool have done so far this season as the journey has become lost among growing frustration in 2017. Nonetheless, January has been disastrous and exposed a squad that was tailored for a season without European football. Daniel Sturridge looks past his best and shorn of the pace that—combined with his wonderful natural ability—troubled opposition defenders so.
Liverpool and Sturridge have experienced better weeks, but a problem is assessing what has transpired before recent labours. Why has there been a worrying drive to paint the past as bleak to further drain the colour of the present? We English—pathologically obsessed with the weather—are painfully aware that it can rain tomorrow despite today’s patch of sunshine. The form of Daniel Sturridge being headline news is acceptable on some level due to his profile, but even when he was playing well and scoring goals, he didn’t receive the generous coverage he deserved.
Sturridge is almost the main talking point after every game where it looks that he isn't quite the same, especially now that Liverpool are producing disappointing results and performances by the week. However, the notion that he hasn't quite been the same player for a number of years is hollow. Where were all these think-pieces and proclamations last season or the season before? They didn’t exist. Look for them if you will, but be prepared to come up with very little in the way of evidence.
The doubts surrounding Sturridge were not about his current level as a top striker or his pace for a side in need of players who can stretch the play in attack. No, these were not the queries of an oft-queried striker. His attitude, his pressing, his durability, his professionalism, his demeanour, his willingness not to be injured, his desire to play through injury, and much to do with his character were brought forward as issues of contention. There was not much concern about his attacking movement, and even though it was recognised that he wasn't the most suitable for Klopp’s adherence to counter pressing, he was seen as a potentially vital attacking weapon for a Klopp side. The lack of movement and awareness shown by Christian Benteke was a stark contrast to what Sturridge could do. Liverpool's top scorer in all competitions last season wasn't holding the team back.
Daniel Sturridge may need to leave in the summer and certainly shouldn't start ahead of Roberto Firmino, a Klopp favourite who has proven that he deserves to start up front alongside Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané in attack. Individually the three are fine players, but when combined, they give Liverpool possibly the Premier League's best attacking unit with support from Adam Lallana in central midfield. The validity of Sturridge’s decline as a striker is not the focus here. The revisionism and portrayal of a player as one who has under-performed for some time is, however, extremely problematic. The general treatment and assessment of Sturridge has never been fair among a fanbase that claims to be the world’s best and bandies a slogan around without any discernible awareness of how their actions may be judged against it.
As for Liverpool, does this poor month eradicate the fact that 43 points from 19 league games is better than every single Liverpool season at that stage in the Premier League era? This does not detract from the fatigued form witnessed this year, but thinking of this season as potentially wasted or possibly in crisis is a curious stance to take. Let's put that into context for a moment. In the previous 24 seasons, no Liverpool side or manager has matched Klopp's current squad when 2017 began. The way this milestone was reached—against a Ped-led Manchester City—was significant.
Two draws and a defeat in the following three league games shouldn't cause so much panic. Defeats in both legs of the EFL Cup semi-final against Southampton and a replay against Plymouth shouldn't inspire fraught soul searching. Liverpool had no European football and went with a tighter squad, one that is tiring and still short in key areas. What Liverpool have done over the past three league games is to drop further away from Chelsea but still remain in the top four.
Liverpool's next best haul over the first 19 league games of the season was under Rafa Benítez in 2008/09 with 42 points, a point fewer than this season. Brendan Rodgers’ 2013/14 Liverpool boasted a precocious Raheem Sterling, a peerless Luis Suárez, and Daniel Sturridge in attack. Together they garnered 36 points after 19 games and 43 after 22 games. Liverpool currently stand on 45 points, two short of Benítez's 08/09 title challengers. Gérard Houllier's 2001/02 team collected 37 and 39 points after 19 and 22 games respectively. An inquest into the past month may be required, but Liverpool's season is not in need of one.
All the sides in the top six have experienced difficult periods that they had to recover from, but only Chelsea have shown monstrous consistency to deservedly sit at the top of the league. Liverpool need to improve but have set a historically high bar to live up to. What that means for the 16 league games and FA Cup campaign ahead is up to you. What isn't in doubt is the impact, force, vision, and charisma of Jürgen Klopp.
Don't forget that Liverpool responded to dropping five points against Bournemouth and West Ham United in December with four successive wins that got Klopp talking about the luck Chelsea's were benefitting from. The 49-year-old doesn't appear partial to mind games but was perhaps sensing Liverpool's growing momentum to challenge for the title. The draws with Sunderland (less than 48 hours after the previous league game) and Manchester United (Liverpool had lost 11 out 17 league matches at Trafford before the game) weren't terrible results, but the horrid home defeat to Swansea City compounded the failure to win either of those games. Klopp's substitutions against a team that was at the bottom of the table revealed a desperation to win the game and remain close enough to Chelsea to possibly unsettle the league leaders.
Like Liverpool fans, Klopp wants to win the Premier League title. This squad doesn't have the depth to do so, but Klopp believes in his players. It is fair to say they have served him well so far even with deficiencies in the squad, but beyond wanting action in the January transfer window—which would have given Liverpool a boost without the vital Mané, Liverpool have got most of it right. Comparing 24 Premier League seasons, not a difficult month that leaves Liverpool in the midst of a battle for a spot in the top four, would suggest that Liverpool's season is surely far from over.