Ten games, one win. Eight goals scored, eleven conceded. Out of the running in three competitions in less than a month. That was the grim reality of Liverpool's 2017 up until their 2-0 win over Tottenham last Saturday. Granted, the run at the Premier League title was always unlikely, and dialing the ambition back to a top four spot shouldn't seem like a defeat — particularly considering Chelsea's prodigious form — but after the Reds blew the doors off any and all defenses at the start of the season, being realistic feels like settling.
How the offensive juggernaut became neutered to such a shocking extent has been and will be the topic of many a thinkpiece and podcast, but among the litany of hot fire takes containing the phrases "frauds" and "found out", fatigue is a factor that keeps coming up.
“December-January", was Klopp's answer to what had caused his side's form to take such a nosedive. "Not even Chelsea came through without no problems but they were able to play the same team all the time. They left the EFL Cup when, before it started? I don’t remember them playing one game in that competition. ‘Get rid of this.’ I spoke to Antonio for a long time at Anfield, maybe 25 minutes, and he mentioned it [the fixture schedule] but said they could play the same 13-14 players all the time. That is the big difference."
The Reds manager continued. “In December we missed players and did not have the best schedule. From 31 December to 2 January you could see the difference physically."
Indeed, Liverpool did play more matches than any other club in the winter period clocking up a total of fifteen games over the two months, three more than Chelsea's twelve. One of those matches, however, was an FA Cup rematch against League Two side Plymouth after an uninspired home draw that featured mainly second-string players — where Chelsea's reserves demolished Peterborough United 4-1 in their corresponding fixture — creating a self-inflicted wound.
The remaining extra matches were the back-to-back 0-1 losses to Southampton in the EFL Cup semi-finals, a competition Chelsea exited in October, two rounds previous. Should 180 additional minutes really take such a toll on the players, particularly when the schedule is well-known ahead of time? There was a precipitous drop in distance covered — a full ten percent, in fact — between the Stoke and Sunderland games, but perhaps a less physically demanding style of play would see less variance in performance levels when the schedule becomes constricted?
Having to rely on squad depth when there is none — Klopp trimmed the fat of the squad this summer in preparation for a campaign without European competition — makes sense as a reason for a drop-off in performance, but the reality is that in the league, the Reds have featured seventeen outfield players for ninety minutes or more. Chelsea have used sixteen. The difference is negligible.
There are many reasons Liverpool have been unable to keep up with Chelsea in 2017, and fixture congestion is certainly a contributing factor. It is also one Klopp will have been aware of beforehand, and one that could and should have been planned for if the manager wants his team to compete on three fronts. Another component is talent, and depth of talent in the squad, which can be remedied by adding quality through transfers. Playing style is a further element, and the German's heavy metal football — as stunning as it looks when his players are on song — has a number of weaknesses, among others the lack of a clear solution to parked buses, a soft underbelly to swift counters, and the physical toll it takes on the players, which leaves them unable to execute at the required level when games come thick and fast.
In this writer's humble opinion, it would be in Klopp's interest to focus on the factors he has some degree of control over. The fixture list is not it.