The Liverpool Offside 2022-23 Season Review
Part III: The Unexpected Struggles
Liverpool and the club’s fans entered into the season expecting title challenges and silverware after 2021-22’s quadruple chase. Instead they got dropped points, disappointing cup exits, and key players struggling for form and fitness. In a season that started with such high hopes and saw an awful lot go wrong, then, we try to figure out which things going wrong—both at a club level and individually—surprised us the most.
I’ve been beating this drum all year and I’m not gonna stop until I’m proven wrong: we tried to do something different in pre-season—likely with an eye on the World Cup break—and it backfired spectacularly. The players looked like it was April in August, and the number of fixtures and ever-increasing list of injuries simply didn’t give them a chance to recover.
So many of our on-pitch issues this season appeared to my eye to be entirely down to fatigue, with players who we know know better constantly getting caught halfway between a press and a cover position, giving up easy passing lanes, and not having the legs to recover. When that sort of thing impacts the whole squad and not just a few players, and not against one or two opponents but all of them, my coaching instincts scream training load.
Whatever the case, it is unlikely to be reprised this summer, and as such it would be utterly shocking to see the players begin next season looking as exhausted as they did in 2022-23.
Away from the pitch, though, the backroom staff exodus is also something from the past season that troubles me somewhat and it has been an extremely surprising development in what has otherwise appeared to be a tremendously well-oiled machine over the past half decade.
Looking back, a lot of what went wrong this past season was probably at least a little understandable given the amount of football this side has played for the last two years. What was and still is hard to understand, though—and was at times truly infuriating, even if in the end it’s hard to hold it against a group of players who won so much—was the way Klopp’s one time Mentality Monsters looked so defeated at times.
It was clear at the end of last season that these guys were running on fumes and had given absolutely everything they had, but they still never looked out of a game. No matter how exhausted they looked, mentally and physically, you always felt they could pull out a result.
That wasn’t the case this season. This season, when things weren’t going well, too often it felt like the team had simply accepted their fate and were just looking forward to the final whistle. Even accepting this group was exhausted, it was hard to watch them at times looking like they’d given up. It was maddening and unlike anything we’ve seen under Klopp. I truly hope an offseason and a few new signings will ensure that shit is behind us.
Fabinho’s shocking decline from his world class best could arguably be seen as the key factor in a disappointing Liverpool campaign, at least for me. While a continued drop in form at the back from the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Jordan Henderson’s dwindling physical abilities, or the lack of adequate pressure up front from the new look attack all share some of the blame, it was ultimately Fabinho’s unexpected poor form that had the largest impact.
Suddenly, the high defensive line was repeatedly exposed as the Brazilian appeared incapable of shielding his defence from conceding the most league goals in Klopp’s seven full seasons in charge. And while there were dour performances and defensive errors throughout the squad, the delta in form between this past season and the quadruple-challenging campaign before was comfortably largest in Fabinho’s case. Looking back, it could be argued the willingness to spend €100m last summer on a failed bid for Aurelian Tchouaméni was due to a recognition by FSG that—riffing off Audun’s point—the load the Brazilian destroyer had borne in the club’s trophy-winning run had begun to take its toll.
Remember when we were all praying for the World Cup to come so that our players could take a break and our coaches could cook? Well, Liverpool came out of that break looking just as hungover as they did at the start of the season.
Liverpool have always been more of an “impose our will on the opponent” type team than a ultra-flexible tactical unit under Klopp, but it was still super disappointing to see them come out of the break making the same mistakes and looking listless as attackers continued running straight down the middle on counter attacks. It was just pretty bizarre to see the same things happening week after week and it took far too long before tactical tweaks—namely Trent’s move to a hybrid role—appeared to inject new life in the side.
Having maybe found a new approach, then, I’m still hoping that the coaching staff can do a better job adapting when things aren’t going to plan moving forward.
Others have already mentioned the loss of the mental edge, and I’m also going to go with Fabinho’s steep decline this season as being the single greatest factor in it. The Brazilian has had a lot of minutes over the last few seasons, and those minutes seemed to catch up with him all at once.
His angles in recovery runs were suddenly terrible, leading to him making more than a few poor tackles to try and make up for it. His decision making with the ball also seemed to suffer significantly, and he became a turnover machine during the winter months. While statistically he didn’t appear too far out of line with previous years, it was telling when he was eventually outshone by 18 year old Stefan Bajcetic before the youngster succumbed to a season-ending injury.
In fact, due to injuries like the one to Bajcetic, Fabinho ended up playing more minutes in the league than he ever has for Liverpool. He even managed a mini-renaissance at the end of the season with Trent Alexander-Arnold tucking in next to him. But based on everything that came before, it’s a little difficult now to trust that he’s a player who can hold down the six by himself at this stage in his career.
Like most, I’ve struggled trying to figure this out all season. The obvious issue to highlight is the ageing midfield, with yet another injury crisis keeping Klopp from regularly fielding our best team. Even before then, though, early in the season and following the departure of Sadio Mane last summer it felt like we were really struggling to figure out what the best team was.
Players that in the past were relied on heavily like Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk were—to put it mildly—suddenly unreliable. And if I’m honest, I don’t know that I have an answer beyond that. I’ve been struggling with the idea that a player like Jordan Henderson is now probably past his prime and holding the team back at times, while the potential replacements for those roles—players like Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott, and Fabio Carvalho—have promise but remain young and as a result struggled to consistently make a real impact.
Then there’s the fatigue. I’m usually the voice in the room that reminds people that players are human and are allowed to be tired in their work. Last season was unprecedented. It went so long and was so intense from start to finish that there just wasn’t enough time to fully recover. And when we thought the mid-season break of the World cup would help players like Mohamed Salah, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Instead it seemed to make everyone more sensitive, more in their own heads, and just truly struggling with the gruelling needs of the modern game. Yes, they are very highly paid and elite athletes, but they are still human. They are just as fallible as the rest of us, and prone to exhaustion when they have simply given too much. This past season, we got to see exactly what too much looks like.
There’s a lot I could focus on as far as things that unexpectedly went wrong—from pre-season preparations that seemed to set us back to reliable prime-age players falling off cliffs physically to taking too long to find any tactical answers—but for sheer inexplicable what-the-fuckery I’m gonna focus on a result of said unexpectedly going wrong that I will never be able to fully understand. Namely, Liverpool’s record against sides in last place.
Don’t ask me exactly how it’s possible, because I’m pretty sure that statistically it pretty much isn’t, but Liverpool played five times against sides when they were in last place in 2022-23. And in those five games they drew twice and lost three, earning two (2!) points from a possible 15 at a rate of 0.4 points per game.
Across a season, 0.4 points per game gets you 15 points, ten fewer than Southampton—the team that actually ended up in 20th—ended up with. That’s the form the Reds had against last place, and that with an unusually large sample size. Meanwhile, Liverpool averaged 1.97 points per game in their 33 games against not-in-20th-place sides. If they’d managed to maintain that across the season they’d have ended up with 75 points and finished third ahead of Manchester United on goal difference.
So. I really can’t explain any part of it. It’s stupid. It’s nonsense. I can’t make sense of it but thank fuck the season’s over and maybe, if you squint at it just right, it’s a sign that Liverpool aren’t actually all that bad. I mean, other than when they’re playing the worst team in the league at the moment. Because other than that, they averaged 1.97 points per game and that’s good for third. And third wouldn’t have been too shabby for a down year before a rebuild. But also hopefully we somehow never face a side in last place next season.