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What's up with Liverpool?
A team that looked so strong last year has already stumbled a little this time. What gives?
What do we expect from this Liverpool team?
When Jürgen Klopp took over in 2015, the target was to get back into the top four within a few seasons. The Premier League title was the dream, but I don’t think anyone saw it as imminent. I remember seeing plenty of Liverpool fans sceptical that the club could ever win the league title without greater funding than Fenway Sports Group offered.
The team really kicked into gear around 2018, with successive strong transfer windows reinvigorating the squad. Getting to the Champions League final after not even qualifying in previous seasons felt like an achievement, even if everything went wrong over 90 minutes in Kyiv. It didn’t deter the side, as they followed up that disappointment by winning the trophy in 2019. It was the same story in the Premier League. Liverpool came just one point short of Manchester City in the 2018-19 title race, but won the trophy very comfortably the following year.
Then things slowed down. The Reds completely imploded in the middle of the 2020-21 season and had to fight to get top four. They returned to the previous standards last season, but had to accept losing the league title by a point to Man City and the Champions League final to Real Madrid. Both for the second time.
The Klopp era has been much more successful than what came before, but missing two Premier League and two Champions League trophies by such small margins has to sting. At the same time, Man City added Erling Haaland. It’s possible that this side’s window of opportunity is closing with only the two major trophies to show for it.
That’s why dropping those four points early on could matter. If Liverpool aren’t at it this season, then it really could be over. So is this it, or should we expect the side to turn it around and win games with ease for the rest of the season? Let’s take a closer look at those two matches and see what the concerns are.
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Klopp isn’t the first manager of a big club to hate lunchtime kick-offs and I doubt he’ll be the last, even if he does sometimes moan about them as though he is.
You sometimes see first halves in these games where one team hasn’t woken up yet. Tottenham’s first 45 against Wolves last weekend was one of those, and so was Liverpool away at Fulham. As you can see from the xG race chart below (from The Analyst using Opta data), Liverpool created almost nothing in the first half and were clearly second best until they turned it on around the hour mark.
Even when Liverpool were dominating in the second half, Van Dijk made a very clumsy error to give a penalty away. People can reasonably argue it was a “soft” decision, but he took a big risk by sticking a leg out in his own box. It’s the kind of clumsiness I’m sure he’d like to blame on early season lack of match fitness.
That summed up Liverpool at Craven Cottage: they were rusty. They couldn’t enforce their style on Fulham in the first half, and couldn’t cut out uncharacteristic errors in the second. These things happen, and can be attributed to the early season and kick-off time. Unless they keep happening, of course.
Despite the scoreline, Liverpool did not start slow against Palace. They attempted eleven shots in the first half-hour worth around 1.2 xG before the away side managed a single chance. None of them went in. Then Palace got their first shot off and scored straight away.
On the other hand, this is Liverpool’s shape before Eberechi Eze is about to dribble forward and play a through ball in for Wilfried Zaha. It’s not the best structure for preventing a counter attack I’ve ever seen.
Liverpool were throwing the kitchen sink at Palace. That always involves the full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson pushing right up. We know that’s been a vital part of the game plan for years. It didn’t always involve pushing the central midfielders so high. James Milner and Harvey Elliott both get caught in the final third as Palace break forward. Fabinho goes out wide to close Eze down, but gets beaten and gives up the whole midfield in the process.
Liverpool kept up the intensity before Darwin Núñez was sent off. That’s just pure stupidity as, however much contact was there, a head butt is always a straight red. Just don’t do it. It’s not asking a lot of him to follow that basic instruction. Liverpool were inevitably a little more open to counters when playing with ten, but still did pretty admirably at dominating the last half-hour, even if they couldn’t create enough to get the three points.
So there are excuses that can be made in both games along with a lot of noise around the finishing. Both games could have been won. But neither were barnstorming performances and there are some real issues at play.
Since 2020, Klopp has tilted his midfield to be more and more attacking. Thiago’s continued injury problems mean that Harvey Elliott is likely to play a lot of minutes this season, and that further emphasises an attack-focused middle of the park. The more energetic players to cover for this, Milner and Jordan Henderson, continue to age out of such a role. Liverpool tried to sign Aurélien Tchouaméni before the player chose Real Madrid and I think this is a huge blow. Tchouaméni would have been exactly the profile of player to plug a lot of these holes and help maintain the side’s balance. I’m still very surprised the club decided not to target a different midfielder, as this seemed a bigger priority to me than a striker in the mould of Núñez.
That midfield lightness puts a greater burden on the centre backs, where injuries are also hurting. Ibrahima Konaté is set to be “out for a while”, and Joël Matip has a “strange” problem that could also see him out for a decent length of time. Klopp does not have a track record of exaggerating injuries to surprise opponents. It seems likely that Liverpool will be playing Joe Gomez or Nat Phillips alongside Van Dijk for the time being, and that’s a risk if they’re going to push midfielders so far forward at will.
None of this really changes my opinion of Liverpool’s ceiling. When both squads are fully fit, Man City are only somewhat better than the Reds. But that means Liverpool always need things to go their way to get to the title. If both clubs have an equal level of luck, City win the league. Right now, things are breaking against Liverpool. It’s just very hard to paint a picture where the Premier League trophy ends up at Anfield unless things change quickly.
A win at Old Trafford tonight after City dropped points to Newcastle would cut the deficit in half. That’s meaningful in a long season, but these sides drop so few points that starting low has serious implications. Liverpool need to be perfect to win the league and they’re far from that right now.
I still think this team is excellent. I still think they’ll win a lot of points. I don’t think it will be enough to win a major trophy.