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Dashed Title Hopes, Transfer Market Lessons, and Another Wasted Season

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Liverpool have lost sight of the title but their top four hopes are still alive—barely. Lessons must be learned.

Liverpool v Southampton - EFL Cup Semi-Final: Second Leg Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

It’s Liverpool’s worst start to a new year since 1993, this futile January run. Though a more useful comparison might well be 2001-02, when Liverpool headed into December title favourites and limped out of January having won just a single league game in nine and getting knocked out of the FA Cup.

Gerard Houllier’s side found their way again after that, only losing once over the final 15 games of the season, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the Reds’ mid-season collapse and in the end they finished seven points back of winners Arsenal. That’s about where Liverpool are right now.

Barring the most unlikely set of results this side of Leicester City winning the Premier League, Jürgen Klopp’s squad are out of the title race. But they can still recover; can go on to have a season that sees them comfortably in the top four. The kind of season many would have gladly taken at the start of it.

They cannot, however, afford to slip further. Not any more. Not without putting those top four hopes into doubt. If they can steady the ship, this can still be a season that provides a platform for the future. If they can’t, it won’t be the end of the world, but questions will rightly be asked about recruitment.

They should be asked either way. Over the summer, Liverpool turned a net profit in the transfer market despite fans being told Klopp had a £60-70M budget heading in. In January, too, money was made available. It appears likely the club will do no major business, though, instead waiting on the return of Sadio Mané.

Klopp is one of the best managers in the game, but injuries to Philippe Coutinho and Joël Matip along with Mané’s departure for the Africa Cup of Nations have made clear just how thin this squad is beyond its best eleven, a situation exacerbated by the sad physical decline of Daniel Sturridge.

Without European football there may have been fewer games to go around and less need for strength in depth, but it seems clear now—just as it seemed to become clear last season during an injury-riddled winter run—that more strength than the club have ended up with was very much required.

That misjudgement has cost the club a chance to challenge for the title, and it has now seen them knocked out of the EFL Cup at the semi-final stage with the promise of silverware so close on the horizon. It has seen them burn through every last inch of top four padding they headed into December with.

That is the bad news. There is nothing good in it. There can really only be the hope that Liverpool’s stellar autumn will yet provide Klopp and his charges a chance to secure top four football; that it will mean the club get the chance to learn from their mistakes while back in the Champions League.

On that front, at least, Coutinho is back fit. So is Matip, who saw his first action in some time in last night’s futile defeat against Southampton. There are just ten days to go in the AFCON, too, meaning that Mané’s return is drawing near. The title may be gone, but this slump may yet be survivable.

Hopefully, after two months of stumbling, Liverpool’s returning stars can steady the side. Hopefully, this time around, Liverpool learn the right lessons from their latest missed opportunity of a season and can turn it into a foundational experience instead of having it lead to another false dawn.