With Jurgen Klopp’s men trudging back up the tunnel, soaking up the unprecedented reality of a fifth consecutive defeat at Anfield – the first time in the club’s history such a record has been attained – the questions around Liverpool’s disastrous title defence are continuing to mount.
It’s a feat that no one in their wildest imaginations could have predicted at the start of the season, much the same as the rest of the ill fortune that has plagued our campaign.
Yet here we stand, on the precipice of a crisis some claim will set us back years, asking questions about where things have gone so horribly wrong.
The obvious answer is the injury crisis and the giant, Virgil van Dijk-sized gap in our defence, through which many a side has gleefuly clambered through to exploit.
What about the glaring absence of Liverpool’s uproarious, game-changing fanbase? Football without fans, as I’m sure many of you would agree, is simply not the same – particularly so for a club that prides itself on an emotional, genuine connection with its fanbase.
However, as many of us will already be aware, such answers, no matter how rational, have inevitably morphed into accusations of excuse-making.
Ahhhh, but what of Manchester City? Manchester United? Everton? Chelsea? Leicester? You point out.
Momentum is a powerful thing, much the same as the support Liverpool receives when things appear hopeless.
Much is said of the influence of the Kop, with some ascribing to the famous stand a vacuum-like quality when goals were desperately needed to turn the tide.
It’s a stick often jokingly – though, let’s be honest, grounded in reality – used to beat City over the head, with the Etihad stadium seeming a library next to the carnival that is Anfield.
Fans do make a genuine difference, though not one we can necessarily quantify in points or XG – but it’s undeniably there and accepted as a normal part of football.
The comment has been made that sides like City, who can’t necessarily call upon the same level or ferocity of support that is habitual for clubs like Liverpool, have highly enjoyed this fan-less period.
Add on the lack of injuries the likes of Pep Guardiola’s side, United, Chelsea and Everton have had in comparison to us and it becomes further clear how circumstances have conspired to derail our season.
Having spent an inordinate amount of time fussing over what’s gone wrong and ‘excuse-hunting’, however, perhaps now is a good time to start looking ahead at what we can do to salvage the broken remains of our title defence.
Time for a radical tactical change?
Following Liverpool’s defeat to Chelsea, Jamie Redknapp brought up a potential solution to our current defensive crisis that will have certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst the fans, let alone the coaching staff.
“Right now, there’s almost too many things to look at, if you throw in one problem you think ‘we can solve it by doing this or doing that, maybe tweak the system’,” the former Red told Sky Sports, as you can see below (skip to 4:35). “I think someone said last week play three at the back. Nothing’s really going to change; you’ve got a back four right now that’s all over the place because they’re changing 18, 19 times this year.”
With Nathaniel Phillips the latest to succumb to the centre-back curse that has plagued the squad this term, Klopp was forced to use Fabinho once more in defence alongside loan signing Ozan Kabak.
It was hardly the end of the world for us, but given the obvious lack of balance in midfield, it was not the solution we needed.
Assuming that Phillips isn’t out for the long-term, (a prospect that would hardly surprise us at this point), we would have five options to choose from to form a back three: Fabinho, Ben Davies, Phillips, Kabak, and Rhys Williams.
Presumably, the idea would be to push Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson further up the pitch as more purely attack-minded wingbacks who could support the seemingly invisible midfield.
On paper, it’s an idea that seems quite attractive; greater numbers going forward, the prospect of more chances for our struggling front-three… all at the cost of some defensive integrity.
But with Liverpool on their worst run at home ever, is it a solution that we can afford to overlook?
The problem with playing with three at the back is as obvious as our current injury crisis: you need quality centre-backs to make up for the loss of the fullbacks.
With our most senior defenders currently being the aforementioned five, which include a midfielder-turned-defender in our No.3, it’s not an option Klopp could reasonably consider without risking a return to the gung-ho, metal football approach of yesteryear.
We’d yield a lot of goals, not to mention risk the same imbalance in midfield, with Fabinho an obvious candidate for one of the centre-half spots whilst our injury list remains full.
That being said, the potential for some more goals of our own would likely be higher, provided that the tactical makeover could spark our forward line back into life.
It’s one that the Liverpool boss will have on the back-burner, if at all.
How about minor tweaks?
With Liverpool now loitering in 7th and looking increasingly likely to drop closer to the mid-table than to rise up the ranks, one could be forgiven for suggesting radical changes.
Perhaps, however, a lighter touch is what is required to turn things around at Anfield and the season at large.
We’ve said before that Fabinho has to be returned to his favoured midfield spot, a suggestion that looked well-advised on the basis of our outing against Chelsea yesterday, as the midfield was utterly overrun.
Regardless of who we have left – a statement I may live to regret should the centre-back curse continue to cut through our remaining options – we need to stick with an actual centre-half pairing.
Even if that means relying on Kabak and Williams for the next few games, our insecurity in midfield is arguably a far more pressing issue in need of our No.3’s direct attention than our backline.
The next suggestion may be bordering on (if not entirely slipping over) radical, however, I wonder whether Klopp would be best served by resting two of his favoured front-three for the next couple of home games?
If you can bear to overlook the instantaneous feeling of sheer horror such a suggestion prompts, (I’m certainly a little taken-aback as I write this), there is a rationale behind it, from which Liverpool could benefit.
The form of Bobby Firmino and Sadio Mane has come firmly under the microscope of late, the former certainly so, with Mo Salah’s goalscoring exploits largely carrying the side forward.
Fatigue is a word that has been tossed about in regard to the Brazilian, with the Senegalese’s uncharacteristically average form far more difficult to explain.
— mark taylor (@MarkTaylor0) February 24, 2021
Again, if you’ll forgive its overuse here, the obvious explanation is the injury list and the resulting impact on team structure; with the club lauded as a well-oiled, intricate machine last term, it stands to reason that a few key missing cogs could have a disastrous impact on the opposite end of the pitch as well as around the immediate area within which the damage has been done.
There’s no easy fix for this without our long-term injurees, Van Dijk and Joe Gomez, making their much-awaited return to the starting XI.
Diogo Jota is the obvious man to fill in for one of Mane and Firmino, however, the remaining spot remains a conundrum given the uninspiring range of remaining options.
Xherdan Shaqiri would certainly liven things up a bit more than Divock Origi has proved to when given the nod by Klopp, but there are concerns over whether the Swiss could last the full 90 over a stretch of games.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been used interchangeably in the forward line but has similarly offered little impact when called upon.
Rather frustratingly, Taki Minamino, who was recently sent packing to the South Coast for a loan spell with Ralph Hasenhuttl’s struggling Southampton side, would have been the ideal solution alongside Jota and Salah, but it’s an option no longer available to us.
Liverpool face a difficult challenge – but we will come good again
There’s no sugarcoating our situation – it’s been woeful in comparison to the dizzying heights achieved in the past three seasons that wrought two Champions League finals and a first Premier League title in thirty years.
While we’ve no doubt you’re all tired of hearing the same explanation regurgitated countlessly over your screens, the fact remains that our problems this term all boil down to the same issues.
You’re all intensely familiar with them by now, so I’ll keep the words holstered, but what I will say is this: whatever circumstances seek to shape the remainder of our season, whatever Klopp decides to implement to change our fortunes, we will come good again.
With or without Champions League football next term, in spite of all the warnings that claim the Reds could be set back anything ranging from a year to a decade by our failings this season, there’s a brighter dawn ahead.
It’s been obscured by our recent woes, but much like the next day, cliche as it is, we can be assured of its coming.