If the last three years have taught us anything, as Jürgen Klopp’s Reds grew from challenger to Champions League and Premier League winning behemoth and one of Europe’s most feared teams, it’s that this Liverpool side are a delicately balanced thing.
Surprisingly so, perhaps, for a group that for long stretches has been so dominant: a side where if you remove one cog, the entire machine rather breaks down.
When Roberto Firmino isn’t on his game, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané look worse for it. When Jordan Henderson hasn’t been fit to start, the tempo and urgency in midfield tends to drop off considerably. When one of the fullbacks isn’t available, the team loses almost all of its attacking width.
The result in each and every case is the same. The result is that the goals dry up. It’s what tends to happen when any one cog is removed from this great Liverpool machine.
Which brings us around to the last month or so of Liverpool football and the goals having dried up. Aside from a strong second half against Aston Villa’s exhausted teenagers in the FA Cup, Liverpool have just two goals in their last five games in all competitions—and one of those was in the first half of their FA Cup match against Aston Villa’s teenagers.
In their past four league games, they have one goal, in a draw against a dire West Bromwich Albion side. They have been shut out by Newcastle and Southampton and now Manchester United. The goals have dried up.
The obvious answer, perhaps, is to point to the forwards—after all, they’re the ones not scoring the goals right now. The lessons of past three years, though, should give us pause.
We know how well Firmino and Salah and Mané tend to play when the rest of the team is in good order. And we know that right now, the team is very much not in good order. We know that right now it is imbalanced on account of having to play two midfielders at centre half.
Even if one gives the exceptional Fabinho a pass here and designates him a centre half, one who’s proven he can slot in at the position without the team becoming imbalanced because of it, there’s the issue of also having to play Henderson there alongside him.
As we’ve often seen before, it can be a significant issue, taking Henderson out of midfield, removing his experience as the club’s tempo-setting captain from it. There’s also the knock-on issue of Robertson and Alexander-Arnold being less free to rampage forward as the team takes on a more defensive stance to protect the makeshift backline.
Having lost Henderson from its midfield and having the fullbacks playing a slightly more conservative game to protect the defence, the past three years have told us exactly what we should expect to happen to Liverpool’s goals. They will dry up.
Chances, too, are down. The Reds can count themselves unlucky by xG to have scored so little of late, but they’ve hardly been a dominant, creative attacking side: 1.45 xG created against West Brom with one goal, then 1.32 against Newcastle, 1.37 against Southampton, and 1.20 against United.
For the full picture, in those games West Brom created 0.74 xG, Newcastle created 0.82 xG, Southampton created 0.5 xG, and United created 1.19 xG. Liverpool’s cumulative xG in the four games has been 5.34 for to 3.25 against.
On aggregate, by the numbers, they should probably have had more goals and perhaps a few more points out of their past four league games. But it’s a close run thing, and even if the forwards had been more clinical that’s a spread from which you would expect a number of dropped points.
We know how good this Liverpool side can be at its best. We also know that, while this season may be a hectic and compacted one, the Reds have had two extended breaks of more than a week in the past month—eight days over Christmas and more recently a nine-day break.
General tiredness may be playing a role, but given their schedules it should be less of an issue for Liverpool right now than it is for their rivals for the top four and title.
In the end, while there may be other issues exacerbating the situation, from tired players to losing the in-form Diogo Jota to injury, at its core we have seen the same thing happen to Liverpool over the past month that has happened to them any time over the past three years when a cog is removed from Jürgen Klopp’s big red crushing machine.
Remove Henderson from midfield and the tempo drops and the goals dry up. Remove a fullback and the wide threat disappears and the goals dry up. Remove three senior centre halves due to injury, take Henderson out of midfield, and ask the fullbacks to play an even slightly more reserved game. And the goals dry up.
The question now is what comes next. Joël Matip’s expected return on Thursday will likely help, at least in the short-term, but the player’s injury record says he cannot be counted on to stay fit.
Then there’s young Rhys Williams and slightly less young Nat Phillips. Both have impressed at times, but neither is blessed with the kind of pace Liverpool’s senior centre halves have—the kind of pace that lets the Reds play an exceptionally high line, compressing the field in possession and setting up their press and counter game without it.
Neither answer, sadly—relying on Matip staying fit or Williams or Phillips as medium-term solutions—is likely to make Liverpool a true title contender this season. Not with Manchester City appearing to have rediscovered their form.
With the club apparently set on not bringing in a centre half this month, though, those appear—along with continuing to play Jordan Henderson at centre half—the only answers based on swapping the available players around.
Which means a tactical rethink may be needed. Some kind of a reinvention of the Liverpool side built out over the past three seasons. The one that relies on Henderson setting the tempo and two fullbacks who spend most of the game playing as wingers and that doesn’t ask its midfielders to create a great deal.
It’s hard to think of a manager more qualified to solve Liverpool’s current problems than Liverpool’s current manager, but having slipped from their league-leading perch and now in the thick of a top four race on the back of four poor performances and results, there is more than a little urgency to the situation.