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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Explained: Why has Liverpool’s title defence faded in recent weeks?

A 0-1 loss to Burnley in the Premier League ended a 68-game unbeaten streak at Anfield for the defending champions as they fell six points off the top of the table, behind the high-flying Manchester clubs Leicester City.

Written by Shashank Nair , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 24, 2021 10:49:33 am
Liverpool's Andrew Robertson shoots the ball during the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Burnley in Liverpool, England, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (AP Photo)

A ‘massive punch in the face’ and ‘we can’t imagine the title race at the moment’ were some of the damning statements made by manager Jurgen Klopp after Liverpool’s season suffered a big setback on Thursday. A 0-1 loss to Burnley in the Premier League ended a 68-game unbeaten streak at Anfield for the defending champions as they fell six points off the top of the table, behind the high-flying Manchester clubs Leicester City.

It’s a far cry from Liverpool’s 7-0 demolition job of Crystal Palace before Christmas. The current slide has seen them win only one of their last five games. But Liverpool had suffered a slew of draws before the Crystal Palace game as well and a host of reasons have been offered for this team looking like a shell of the squad that ended a 30-year league title drought last season.

How has Covid affected Liverpool’s title defence?

A good pre-season is important. It allows clubs and players to rest and recuperate. But more importantly, it allows the players to slowly get back into the groove and intensity of the game in a controlled and scientific manner. The pandemic has not allowed this opportunity. The best teams in the league may not be at the top of the table currently – but the fittest teams certainly are. This, along with the fixture schedule, which has not taken into account the physical cost of ‘too much football’, has led to clubs facing injury problems, and none more so than Liverpool.

The shortened pre-season took a big toll on Liverpool, particularly because Klopp’s team has had a two-year run that has seen them finish on 97 and 99 points respectively. These feats are not achievable unless a significant physical debt is paid. Take for example, Virgil Van Dijk. Before a clash with Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, the Dutchman had played every league game for Liverpool for two seasons. The squad not getting enough rest in pre-season, coupled with their already incredible load over the past two seasons, was bound to result in a long injury list at some point.

How have injuries cost Liverpool?

It’s hard to imagine the champions with no established centre-backs currently available, but that has been the case for Liverpool for most of this season. Both Van Dijk and Joe Gomez have been out of the squad with long-term knee injuries. The same applies to Joel Matip, who is soon to make a return after an adductor injury kept him out of the squad during a ficture-heavy period.

Other than this, Liverpool’s latest signing Diogo Jota, who started the season in red-hot form scoring seven goals in nine appearances for the club, has also been on the injury list. The stack of injuries to some of their key men as well as fresh players brought in has badly affected Klopp’s tactical options.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah looks on following the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Burnley in Liverpool, England, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Burnley won the match 0-1.(Peter Powell/Pool via AP)

Why it’s Liverpool’s pressing in midfield that is failing?

One of the major changes that Klopp has had to make because of injuries is to deploy Jordan Henderson and Fabinho at the centre-back positions. This has worked in the sense that Liverpool aren’t haemorrhaging goals. But the adverse effect has been on their forward play and in particular, their gegenpressing.

In Liverpool’s 0-0 draw against Manchester United, Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics started out with their usual efficiency, particularly in the triangle between United’s David de Gea, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. But if Maguire managed to pass the ball to the midfield or wider onto the right side of the pitch, there was no Liverpool midfielder like Henderson applying a second wave of pressure – especially for passes made under duress by Manchester United’s backline.

The lack of a Henderson-like figure in midfield has ensured that Liverpool aren’t catching teams out in poor positions like last season and this has directly led to the effectiveness of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane going down.

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Is there a goal drought at Liverpool?

Five goals in their last six games, with four of them coming in a FA Cup 3rd-round fixture against Aston Villa, point to a goal drought. And while the midfield’s pressing issues have contributed to a lack of goal-scoring opportunities, another aspect of Liverpool’s game that has been pounced upon by opposition teams has been their attacking flow on the wings.

One of the most exciting aspects of Liverpool’s play over the last couple of seasons has been watching Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson bomb through the wings. Possessing two of the best attacking wing-backs in Europe has essentially provided chances for Liverpool’s front three. But many teams have now started to figure out a way around it. Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played Paul Pogba on the right side of a midfield three to stop Robertson from flying down the wing.

With little help coming from the wing-backs and the midfield not pressing the second wave of opposition passes, Liverpool’s attempt to prevent conceding goals seems to have choked the supply to their front three.

What are the big games coming up for Liverpool in the next few weeks?

An FA Cup away tie to Manchester United looms, followed by a Premier League visit to Tottenham. It’s followed by an away game at West Ham and a home game against Brighton. Liverpool then host Manchester City followed by a visit to Top-4 rivals Leicester City. All of these games are scheduled within three weeks.

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