Like many of us, I’m finding the current scoring drought and run of form hard to take. I’m no stranger to having my mood impacted by poor results (a bad loss has always been able to ruin my whole day, and sometimes whole sets of days) but I can’t help feeling like this run of poor form is impacting me more than it should — we’re just six points off the top at the halfway point of the season, after all, so why does it feel a bit like 2011 (or pre-Klopp 2015/16)?
I think a set of factors are coming together as a perfect storm to create Horrible No Good Very Bad Moods. Here are my top three reasons for why this particular run of form is so hard to take, though by all means please add elements I overlooked in the comments.
The injuries and bad luck
Liverpool came back against Barcelona two seasons ago despite having crucial players unavailable, and have pulled out good results when fielding a rotated squad any number of times since then; the capacity to win against the odds is certainly instilled in a team lauded often as “mentality monsters.”
What’s happened this season isn’t just one or two short injuries, however, and the Reds are being asked to go again (and again) every few days, making due with the best eleven available as the injury crises seem never-ending. While the centerpiece of all of this is the fact that Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez will likely miss around 37 games each given current projections, the Reds have also been without Alisson, Joël Matip, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, Thiago, Jordan Henderson, Naby Keïta, James Milner, Kostas Tsimikas, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Diogo Jota during key periods when each was needed to bolster the squad (this injury list is so long I’m sure I’ve missed someone).
Indeed, a list of players who have not missed more than one match with injury would be quite a bit shorter — and the season is barely at its halfway point.
An injury uptick was bound to happen this season given the foreshortened preseason and the constricted schedule, but Liverpool have also been unlucky recipients of lengthy injury spells unrelated to muscle strain and fatigue: Jota and Van Dijk, for instance, are both out with injuries sustained through contact, and Thiago just returned from a similar contact-injury spell.
The lengthy injury list not only makes it harder for Jürgen Klopp to field a team, but also makes it feel like the Reds have been operating under a seige mentality for a third of the season, battling against the odds with starting lineups that are far from the manager’s ideal scenario. For months Klopp has had to perform cost-benefit analyses to determine who to start where, knowing that no perfect choices exist.
While this squad has been more than capable of making up for important absences, it’s a lot harder to do this for long periods of time, and for many positions at once. It’s a big ask to continuously go again, particularly with no fans to applaud your efforts, and such little space between games.
The mental strain from this effort is likely compounded by match officiating. Leaving aside debates about particular calls and moments that feel inconsistent, Liverpool have been most negatively impacted by VAR this season (on -5 net points per Dale Johnson at ESPN). Whether or not these calls are the correct ones, constantly being on the wrong side of narrow calls and long reviews certainly exacerbates the feeling of “us against the world.”
That it feels like Liverpool have a steep hill to climb every time they play certainly makes poor results harder to take for fans — and it likely makes playing the games quite a bit harder, mentally, for the players.
Poor form — and bad luck
This mental challenge is exacerbated (or maybe illustrated) in the team’s recent form.
The Reds haven’t scored a league goal in 2021, and the last goal they did score was in a draw against West Bromwich Albion, a side currently sat in nineteenth place. Given that Liverpool remain top scorers in the league despite this dry spell, the shift between scoring loads (prior to the 0-0 against Newcastle at the end of 2020, Liverpool had scored in 18 consecutive matches in all competitions) and not scoring at all has been extreme.
It doesn’t help that the statistics say Liverpool should have been scoring: it isn’t simply that the Reds have failed to create chances or get into promising positions (issues the squad has had in the not too distant past), but rather that the team has failed to convert the chances they have created. The odds of this happening over this period are extremely small, which has likely subconsciously made the results harder to take.
Per understat values and @DannyPage's xG simulator, the chance of Liverpool scoring zero goals from the last four league games is 0.16%. pic.twitter.com/ps7xPXSDhG— Grace Robertson ️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) January 22, 2021
Indeed, per Twenty3 Sport, in the last five league matches — what we can all agree is a “bad spell” — the Reds have taken 84 shots (putting 16 on target) and accumulating an xG of 6.99 (post-shot xG of 3.38). They’ve managed to score just one goal in this period, and were terribly unlucky not to score more.
In pointing out this bad luck through statistics I by no means want to deny the eye test: Liverpool have been in terrible form over this period. While they easily could have (and probably should have) taken more points than they did over this stretch given a little luck with no other significant changes, the Reds haven’t looked like winning for a while.
Though Liverpool got three points from poor performances quite often in 2019/20, it’s been some time since the Reds have pulled points (and goals) from nowhere, and this is worrying — there is no break on the horizon, and the slog of games will continue for some time yet. It hasn’t been fun to watch Liverpool play in weeks, and that’s not great news for fans; this is, after all, a leisure activity.
That the players are fatigued (mentally if not physically) is understandable, given the challenges of this season. The poor form and bad luck, though, makes the never-ending pace of games this season exhausting for fans, too.
No fans and no matchdays
All of this is, I think, exacerbated by the lack of fans in football grounds, and, for most if not all of us, our inability to keep to our usual matchday routines.
Having fans in the ground would impact the performances by lending players energy when mental and physical exhaustion hits, and being in the ground makes fans feel like they can impact the result — it makes us feel like we can do something about poor form or perceived injustices in officiating. Empty stadiums feel unnatural and stale, even if they’re medically necessary at the moment.
It’s more than just the sterile feeling of empty grounds, though, as the majority of global Reds wouldn’t be in Anfield on a given matchday anyway. While some may be able to maintain regular routines, most of us are unable to do even that: social distancing and lockdowns in many places mean that most of us are watching from home, without our normal routines, and without our usual friends to offer respite.
A run of poor form (or just poor results) is easier to take when you’re not isolated by a pandemic. It’s easier to have your whole day (or weekend) impacted by results if you’re cooped up in your home when you’re not doing essential work or travel.
It’s mentally harder, I think, to watch the Reds play and lose on your own at home when you’d set “watching the match” as the one bit of fun on offer for the day. Winning matches behind closed doors is already not ideal for us or for the players, but the poor form, poor results, and constant challenges produced by bad luck and injuries are so much harder to take when you can’t just have a pint with friends (and strangers) afterward.
These are not normal times, and fans and players alike are reacting to the mental strain. And that’s okay, even if that doesn’t make it any easier.