Liverpool’s form over the last two months or so has been a complete contrast to the early part of the season when they were sensational at times. Since December ended, they have been poor on the whole, not least in the game against Leicester on Monday night.
Losses to the likes of Wolves in the FA Cup, twice to Southampton in the EFL Cup semi-final over two legs, and to Swansea at home in the league have all contributed to the Reds dropping out of both major domestic cup competitions, as well as the race for the title, in the space of a few weeks.
Ask any football fan back in November or December who was nailed on to finish in the top four, and Liverpool would likely have been their first answer, or at least their second after Chelsea. That, though, is now far from certain, as a string of matches have seen points dropped at a crucial time.
The issue, as has been more than well-documented, is not against the biggest teams, but those in the bottom half, specifically those likely to get relegated. Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have drawn with Champions-elect Chelsea and soundly beaten second-placed Tottenham, yet losses to Hull City, Swansea and now Leicester mean those results are tainted, less important than they should have been in the race for the Premier League crown.
Once tipped as the closest challengers to Chelsea at the top, Liverpool have now lost five league games across the whole season, against Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull and Leicester. A 2-2 draw with Sunderland can be thrown into the mix too, as a day when the win to be expected did not arrive.
Liverpool won away at Arsenal and Chelsea, and beat Manchester City at home, and yet often struggle when faced with teams they should be brushing aside with ease.
Liverpool’s recent form has prompted widespread criticism, not just from the usual quarters (social media and knee-jerk reactions from supporters and pundits alike), but from ex-players and more measured observers too.
Didi Hamann, for example, called Jurgen Klopp’s side “one dimensional”, whilst Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville tore into his team after the Leicester game on Monday Night Football.
Criticism of Liverpool’s recent form is correct – no one could have foreseen it, and Klopp is of course not unattached to blame – but in the long-term he is undoubtedly the man for the job. Some questions have been asked as to whether that is the case in light of recent results, and in a world when a man who delivered the title to Leicester City gets sacked, nothing can ever be ruled out, but those questions are premature.
No one is beyond criticism but the enigmatic German is the perfect man for Liverpool. In the long-term, Klopp will be a success at Anfield, even if right now it might not feel that way. A couple of wins in the next two games and suddenly the mood will swing completely the other way again.
For a start, Liverpool’s problem is beating the smaller teams. For someone like Tottenham, who have the opposite issue and cannot buy a victory over a top team, the fix is far more difficult. Both problems are perhaps mental issues, but it is easier to sort out being able to beat smaller teams than it is to suddenly become a ‘big game’ team, and perform against the best.
We know that Liverpool are capable of beating the lower teams, by the fact that they win against teams that are amongst the best in the world, but it might just be the case that Tottenham currently do not have the players to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights.
If Liverpool can somehow find a way to get in behind packed defences against teams who sit in and aim only to counter attack, perhaps with a signing or a new method of attacking, results against low-lying teams will come. For Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs, the solution is not so simple.
The other consideration is that Klopp’s success with Borussia Dortmund did not arrive straight away. Klopp finished sixth in his first season, and fifth in his second, before finally clicking into gear at the third attempt, winning the title in back-to-back seasons.
It is easy to forget that this is Jurgen Klopp’s first full season on Merseyside, and his style of play, not to mention bringing in more of the players he wants during transfer windows, will take some time to implement fully. Like with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, his style is hard for some to grasp, and learning takes time.
Klopp’s Liverpool is in its infancy; the main problem really is that the team overachieved in the period before Christmas, raising expectations to a level ultimately not maintainable. Praise and suggestions of the title back then were not without reason, and in time consistency will arrive.
The scintillating attacking play seen earlier in the season has been lost, but probably only momentarily, and when the defence has been called upon, too often is has not had enough to withstand even minimal pressure.
Liverpool’s players were too impressive for their own good up until Christmas, and that is when it began to unravel. There is no way of dressing up the poor performances this calendar year, but at the same time it is easy to forget just how impressive Liverpool were before: find a balance between the two by working on the training ground and investing in more players, and Liverpool will be a consistent force once again.
Whether Klopp should have had the foresight to buy another player like Sadio Mane, in order to cover for him when he left for the African Cup of Nations, or another centre-back in the knowledge that Lucas and Ragnar Klavan lack pace, and Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are susceptible to picking up injuries, can be debated.
But that is for this season only. In future, having made more changes in the summer, that will not be the case.
What cannot be debated is that when Jurgen Klopp has had this Liverpool team for another couple of years, and moulded it even further, that is the time to judge.
If then the same issues occur– from Lucas playing at the back to not having the character and fight to compete in certain matches – then that would be the time to panic. Right now, patience is required. This season has turned into a scrap for the top four, but that is no more or no less than what was expected at the start.
Had you offered Liverpool this position in terms of points with twelve games to go back in August, many people involved at the club would have taken it. There are still points to play for, and Liverpool are still in the hunt for the top four, with Manchester City and Arsenal still to play.
Qualify for the Champions League, and no matter how disappointing the part of the season just gone was, it will have been an overall success.
Finish outside the top four, and that would be a disappointment, but even then that would only be relative to how good Liverpool were at the start.
Either way, Klopp will be in charge of Liverpool for years to come, and the best thing to do is to just enjoy the ride. Greater consistency will arrive in time.
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