There’s a lot to pick through in the rubble of Liverpool’s season at the moment. It’s a good thing they’ve left so much rubble to house all of it. A team that was top of the Premier League on New Year’s Day has landed back to Earth with such a thud over the past month that even Wile E. Coyote is tugging his collar watching it.
Yesterday, Liverpool lost their second consecutive game at home, this time to Brighton (soon to be, if not already, the analytic darlings of the soccer world). Before this streak, they hadn’t lost at home in nearly four years. They have yet to score a goal at home in 2021, have only won two of their last nine games in the league, and have tumbled from first to fourth, and should they not beat Manchester City at home — again, where they haven’t scored in a month and City just happen to possibly be the best defensive team in the world right now — on Sunday, their title defense will definitively be over. If it isn’t already.
Where did it all go wrong? It’s easy to point to the injury list. Liverpool are currently without their entire centerback depth chart from the outset, and have been without the top two of those, Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, for most of the season. Joel Matip could only play once every three weeks before he was ruled out of the season earlier this week. There are few teams that could survive that. Throw in the likes of Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Thiago, and Diego Jota all missing time somewhere along the line, and it’s been an obstacle the size of Homer trying to scale the pro shop steps. What turtle Jurgen Klopp kicked will have to be determined at a later date.
Some will point out that even with the unheard of injury pile-up in the center of defense, Liverpool haven’t been conceding an avalanche of goals of late. Which is true, as they rank seventh in goals-against for the season, and that’s while carrying the touchdown and PAT they gave up to Villa earlier in the season.
But the injuries in defense have led to both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson having to move back from midfield into the backline, and they are sorely missed at the other end. When Liverpool were rolling all comers the past two seasons, their One True Front Three was buffeted by Henderson pushing the pace and Fabinho, along with van Dijk, cutting off counters before they even started. Attacks were recycled instantly, giving opponents hardly any team to breathe much less reset. They simply leaned on teams into goals.
With both of them now in defense, there’s greater space for teams to escape, if only to reset their positioning, which Liverpool have found impossible to break down now. A lot of criticism has been thrown at Thiago, but he was brought in to be an addition to the “death from the flanks” that fullbacks Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson used to provide, as well as Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum harassing everyone just behind the forwards and jumping into the box late. Now, with defenses having time to reset, either the fullbacks are crossing into a packed and fortified penalty area or Thiago is essentially trying to pass through a wall.
Liverpool are attempting to address this with two new centerback signings at the transfer deadline, simply to get Fabinho or Henderson or both back into midfield, but it may be too late to save the league season.
That doesn’t quite explain it all, though. And digging a little deeper, it may just be that you can only outrun the numbers for so long. Last season, Liverpool outshot their expected attack numbers by some distance. They “only” racked up 71 expected goals in their championship season, measured against what they “should” have scored with the chances and shots they created, but they scored 85. And that’s what happens when you have three of the best forwards in the world. That’s why they’re three of the three best forwards in the world, in that they’ll just score more from the same chances everyone else gets. But everyone loses form at some point, and that’s what’s happened simultaneously to Mane, Firminho, and Salah.
To put it simply, Liverpool’s aim has gone off the boil. Last year, they put 37% of their shots on target, best in the league. This year, it’s 33.6%, which is 14th. They’re still averaging almost the exact amount of shots this season per game as they did last term, around 15.4. And their percentage of goals from shots on target is roughly the same, 32% this season to 35%. Had Liverpool gotten the same percentage of their shots on target this year as they did last, they’d have about four more goals. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but four goals sprinkled throughout just this month and they could have anywhere from three to seven more points. That would make a hell of a difference.
The injuries hitting Liverpool’s depth outside of the centerbacks certainly hasn’t helped. Wijnaldum looks exhausted and has had to play farther back thanks to there being no other options. So do the fullbacks, as manager Jurgen Klopp has been reluctant to go without them with inexperience in the middle. The thrust from midfield to support the three strikers is gone with Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain mostly hurt. And without Jota, the main three have had to play way more than anyone would have liked.
Klopp isn’t blameless either. While two games don’t sound like they should make a difference, he had a chance to rest players in their last Champions League game which meant nothing or their 3rd round FA Cup game when the entire Villa squad was ruled out due to COVID protocols. He chose not to. Even the mental break could have done some good, They had pretty insipid draws after both matches.
And for a team that has always taken its energy cues from the manager, his constant whining over scheduling and TV deals very well could have put a cloud over the whole structure.
And it could just be that maintaining the pace Liverpool put up over the past two seasons isn’t sustainable in a league where the chasing pack is much closer to the top than in other European leagues, where Munich or Juve or Madrid or Barcelona can just canter away for almost a full decade. Man City put up seasons of 100 and 98 points back-to-back, and then “fell” back to 81 last season (a total that used to be more than enough to win titles not all that long ago). When you outrun all logic for two seasons, and throw in two Champions League finals, and get that much closer to the sun, the wings do eventually melt.