By Ivan Lim
What’s wrong with Liverpool?
As we enter the English Premier League’s Matchweek 20 – officially marking the start of the second half of the season – the league champions are languishing in fifth place, seven points behind league leaders Manchester City and six adrift of their arch rivals Manchester United in second.
At this stage last year, Liverpool were nine points clear of second-placed Leicester City and with a game in hand. The eventual champions would finish the first half of last season with 55 points, dropping only two points at Old Trafford where the Red Devils were very lucky to hold them to a 1-1 draw.
As it stands, Liverpool could drop further – to seventh – if they lose to Tottenham Hotspur early tomorrow morning (Singapore time) and if Everton, who drew Leicester this morning, won their game in hand.
Liverpool can take some comfort that United didn’t increase their lead this morning, contriving instead to lose their first game in 14 league matches against, of all teams, bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.
However, the champions need to end their five-game winless streak and start scoring again after giving their league opponents four clean sheets in a row. So what’s wrong with Liverpool? We can’t say for certain. Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp and his players probably don’t know either, but here are 10 possibilities:
1. The injuries
It will be a bonus to Liverpool if their talismanic centre-half Virgil van Dijk sees any action at all before the season ends. In a brutal Merseyside derby deadlock which also saw new signing Thiago injured, the Dutchman hobbled off with what was later discovered to be damage to his anterior cruciate ligament.
Joe Gomez, another centre-half, is also injured and is expected to be fit only in June.
Diogo Jota, so promising at the start of his Liverpool career this season, is still unavailable. Along the way, we have seen injuries to Joel Matip, Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson, Naby Keïta, James Milner, Kostas Tsimikas and Xherdan Shaqiri during critical periods of the season’s first-half.
With the number of injuries they’ve had, the AXA Training Centre at Kirkby – Liverpool’s brand new £50 million (S$91 million) facility – must look like a hospital.
But the injuries don’t quite explain completely why Liverpool are doing so badly – remember, it was not quite so long ago that a depleted Liverpool team that was probably only as strong as Manchester United last season managed to overturn a three-goal deficit to beat Barcelona 4-0 in the European Champions League.
2. They got complacent
The team lauded by their boss as “mentality monsters” were destroyed 7-2 by Aston Villa that left many Reds fans red-faced. The mauling was attributed to complacency on the part of the Liverpool players, who were also described as lazy and lethargic. However, since then, they don’t look like they’ve stopped trying, It’s just that they seem to be going nowhere at times with all their effort.
3. It’s not that they’re bad, the other teams are back to normal
While most people were shocked, impressed or overwhelmed by the dominance of Liverpool last season, some football fans – especially those supporting Manchester United – insisted that it was because the rest of the teams were really awful. I didn’t agree with these last season – Liverpool were simply too good, smashing anything that lay in their path to their first title in 30 years.
But, at the risk of being lumped with United fans or being called a closet supporter of the Red Devils, I suspect there may be some truth in their theory. The other teams, with the exception of Arsenal and Chelsea, have improved this season, and this may be what’s causing Liverpool so many problems.
4. Jurgen Klopp needs to chill
The Liverpool boss was a cheerful character on the sidelines for almost all of last season. This season, however, he looks either agitated or frustrated most of the time and perhaps some of the stress he is giving off is affecting his players. Sure, he remains classy during post-match interviews, but perhaps a pre-match chill pill could take some of the edge off his touchline tantrums.
5. They’re missing the fans. Badly.
Obviously. How else did the unbeaten run at home come to such a tragic end at the hands of lowly Burnley? The Anfield aura was definitely missing, and with the current coronavirus situation depriving the stands of their crowds, it’s no longer the fortress it once was. Perhaps broadcasters should keep it real instead of providing a fake viewer experience by playing crowd noise into the telecast of matches, so we get a sense of what it really is like. I’m no fan of canned crowd noise and I usually watch the games with the volume off. After all, the commentators seem able to describe every effort with only one word: Brilliant. Brilliant shot. Brilliant ball. Brilliant pass. One commentator even said, he’s crossed the ball into a brilliant area. Brilliant area? You mean the floodlights were on or it was bright and sunny? No. It wasn’t very lit for me. And I’m sorry I digressed.
6. Their strikers are not talking to one another
Three Liverpool strikers walk into a bar. “Our goal is to get drunk,” says one. They were still at the bar when this piece was published, because after six hours and 72 shots, they hadn't yet got their goal.
Things might become a lot better when Diogo Jota returns, but perhaps Klopp needs to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with his once lethal strikeforce, to get them working together again.
7. Manchester United have all the English referees in their kelong
Of course. Why else would the referee in Liverpool’s 0-0 draw against Manchester United blow the half-time whistle with six seconds to go when the ball was headed towards United’s goal, with Sadio Mane breaking away? Worse, even the refereeing in matches not involving Manchester United seem to go against Liverpool. Like the totally dodgy penalty awarded to Burnley, which they scored to end Liverpool’s unbeaten run at Anfield. It has to be Manchester United’s fault!
8. It’s karma
What goes around, comes around, Maybe it’s just shocking bad luck with the refereeing decisions, along with VAR. Or maybe it’s karma for laughing at United last season, and for calling on United to keep faith with clueless Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Now the Norwegian’s team have held Klopp’s to a draw at Anfield in the Premier League, knocked them out of the FA Cup and – despite losing this morning – sit three places above their bitter rivals on the table. In June last year, a Red Devils fan who calls herself Cher said that if Liverpool had their victory parade this season (which, unfortunately hasn’t happened), she hoped Manchester United would be above them on the table. Judging by their form, I never considered it a possibility that United would be above Liverpool less than eight months later. And no, I’m not celebrating it, lest you label me a closet United fan. But, yes. Maybe it’s karma.
9: They’re doing it deliberately
It’s just an elaborate ploy to keep the Spanish poachers from plundering the talent at Liverpool during the transfer window. Yes, play so badly that their scouts will be put off. Resume normal service once that window closes. Kill off all opposition thereafter. End of story. Yeah, right.
10. They’re saving their energy for the second half of the season
Indeed, the injuries have been tough on Liverpool. They’ll probably improve in the second half. We’ll definitely get a better sense of how things will turn out by daybreak on Friday – when we see whether or not Liverpool can score – and win – against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur in North London.