It’s an interesting time for Liverpool fans as their team had raised expectations with impressive form during the first third of the season, only for realism to strike with the last few results highlighting that this team probably isn’t yet at the level required to win a title.
Before a ball was kicked in the English Premier League even the most optimistic of Liverpool fans wouldn’t have anticipated their team being above the big spending Manchester clubs after 15 games. Most would have gladly taken the fourth spot in the league and another couple of good cup runs as a season of consolidation before a title tilt the following season.
Manager Jurgen Klopp had a good summer streamlining his squad with Christian Benteke, Martin Skrtel, Brad Smith, Joe Allen and Jordon Ibe, among others, not deemed good enough to remain. Combined with the acquisitions of Sadio Mane, Joel Matip and Georginio Wijnaldum, it was a good period of squad building that didn’t break the bank. As Klopp continues to blood in impressive academy talent and improve the atmosphere at the club, you can’t help thinking that he is absolutely the right man for the Liverpool hot seat and fans wouldn’t trade him for any other manager in the game. Yet he might have done too good a job, as out of the free-flowing and glorious to behold style of play seen this season, hope has sprouted and a little hope is a dangerous thing.
Slaven Bilic’s team arrived at Anfield under considerable pressure after previous results had seen his West Ham team fall into the bottom three. For Liverpool, this was an opportunity to eradicate the disappointment of their capitulation that saw the Reds squander a 1-3 lead to lose against Bournemouth in their last game. With the fall-out from the loss to Eddie Howe’s team and focus on catching Chelsea, it was perhaps forgotten that this was a West Ham team that beat Liverpool home and away in the Premier League last season and were also victorious in the FA Cup 4th round against Liverpool.
Those defeats seemed ancient history as Adam Lallana swept home with Liverpool’s first meaningful attack and the ease with which West Ham were cut open suggested that it was going to be a confidence building rout for Klopp’s team. It wasn’t to be and rather than building on Lallana’s 5th-minute goal, Liverpool seemed to drift into auto-pilot with anxiety and nervousness creeping into their play, rendering Dimitri Payet’s equaliser almost inevitable. The collapse at Bournemouth can be held aloft as the reason for defensive nervous and frailties, but the truth is they’ve been there for a long time now. Week after week this Liverpool team gift goals to the opposition and the list of culprits extends beyond the man between the sticks.
In the opening weekend, Alberto Moreno and Adam Lallana were the guilty parties against Arsenal, next up it was Nathaniel Clyne and Ragnar Klavan being error prone to present three points to Burnley. Over the course of this season Lucas Leiva, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren have also produced individual errors that have directly led to goals being conceded. This, of course, brings us to Loris Karius, who more than anyone is getting criticism for his performances at West Ham and Bournemouth.
Payet is a dead-ball master and has gotten the better of many a keeper with his free-kicks, but this wasn’t particularly difficult for him. West Ham’s equaliser was a 25-yard free-kick that went in at least a yard inside Karius’s right-side-post and although the shot-stopper got a hand to it, his initial positioning made it easy for Payet. The second West Ham goal can be attributed to the returning Matip being wrong-footed by a deflection, but rather than make himself bigger and force Michail Antonio to find a finish, Karius stood in no-mans-land presenting an easy target for the Londoner. The blame can’t fall solely at Karius’s feet, but it was another incident where he could have done better.
Matip was understandably tipped by oddschecker to be the reason Liverpool would concede but still take all three points against West Ham. Although he has been a superb acquisition for the team, it’s asking a lot for him to come straight back into the team after injury and be the rock in defence that Liverpool require. He’ll have to hold his hands up to the mistake that let Antonio in, but he’s one player who has oodles of credit in the bank from his performances this season.
To Liverpool’s credit they dominated proceedings after conceding the second and although Darren Randolph gifted the equaliser to Divock Origi, only one team seemed likely to find the net again. Unfortunately, it will feel like two points lost and until Liverpool cut out the individual errors it is liable to continue to be a season of devastating attack stifled by woeful defending.
For high-profile teams used to prevailing near the top of the league, it is particularly difficult for keepers and both Manchester clubs and Arsenal have had recent troubles with their goalkeeping selections. Being at a top team means the keeper is often asked to do very little, but mistakes are magnified to such an extent that even the most assured of individuals will start to feel the pressure. Karius currently isn’t helping himself as stats from whoscored.com reveal that Liverpool concede an average of just 7.8 shots per game, compared to Chelsea’s 9.1 per game, it’s clear that too many of those shots are hitting the back of the Liverpool net.
Goalkeeper is a merciless position, but the evidence so far indicates that Karius just isn’t performing at the level required and with a hesitant keeper between the sticks, nerves and errors are scattering throughout the team. Although Karius has the pedigree from his impressive performances in the Bundesliga, he’s still a young keeper at just 23 and players in this position tend to find their prime years at closer to the 30-years-of-age mark. There is still time for the German to convince as his errors have been minor compared to Liverpool goalkeepers of the past and Klopp has done the right thing in sticking up for his player after harsh criticism from the ‘expert’ Neville brothers. Yet, the busy Christmas period needs to be error-free or Simon Mignolet will rightly be reestablished as goalkeeper numero uno and Liverpool will be watching their back, trying to protect a Champions League place rather than dreaming of a title.
Loss of Coutinho
It was obviously going to be a setback when Philippe Coutinho was injured against Sunderland, yet there was hope that the team would be able to continue finding results until his return in January. The little magician is Liverpool’s number 2 for league goals scored, shots on target, chances created, dribbles completed and number 1 for assists this season. Yet his absence means more than just the loss of his individual contribution to the team, as Liverpool now struggle to find the shape that was so devastating previously.
With Roberto Firmino now operating on the left wing and Origi up top as a striker, the team has lost some of its intensity and looks more venerable to the counter-attack. Origi is perhaps immune from criticisms, as he’s now on a run of 3 goals in 3 Premier League games, but his effect on the team and particularly Firmino is distressing. The Brazilian looked lost against West Ham after his devastating early form and his drifting in from the left to seek the ball upset the midfield balance, leaving Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson out of position when an opposition attack developed. The interplay and pressure on the ball appears to have also been reduced since the loss of Coutinho, meaning teams are finding it easier to track players and get up the pitch.
The absence of one player shouldn’t cause such a seismic shift in performance or shape for a team challenging for the title, but the fact that Coutinho’s absence has done just that is another tick in the box for reasons Liverpool aren’t quite there. Klopp managed his squad well last season to reach two cup finals, whether he can smartly manage this much-improved squad to remain within touching distance of the Premier League summit come May remains to be seen.
As good as Origi has been in taking his chances, Firmino in the middle just makes Liverpool better. With Lallana and Sadio Mane positioned on the left and right flanks and Emre Can providing attacking support through the middle of midfield, Liverpool might start to resemble the team that was so destructive before the injury to Coutinho.
It seems as though some psychological damage was inflicted by the Bournemouth defeat and it hasn’t dissipated just yet, but it should disappear soon. The nerves that surround Anfield when things aren’t quite going Liverpool’s way appear to have returned and Klopp will be required to exorcise them once more.
The pundits will say that Liverpool should be happy with a top-four spot and that a title challenge was probably beyond what The Reds are capable of in Klopp’s first full season in charge. Yet although the team has dropped points recently, it’s not yet time to throw in the towel and let Chelsea stroll to another title. Not long ago it was Antonio Conte’s team that was in crisis and now they’re top of the league and favourites to win it. Currently, it’s Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City that are supposably in crisis and before that it was Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs. It’s a long road to the title and although Chelsea have pulled out in front, there will still be many more twists and turns before a champion is crowned. The pundits might be right, Liverpool might not have what it takes this season, but who knows what will happen over the summer.
A mega bid for Coutinho could mean the squad will be weaker than it currently is or European football might make Liverpool less potent in the league next season. It’s best to focus on right now and right now Liverpool are the top scorers in the league and are just a few points away from the leaders. It’s going to be an exciting race and if Liverpool can maintain the vivacity whilst eliminating the individual errors, they just might win it.