After a good start to the season Jurgen Klopp finds his Liverpool squad in a state of crisis.
2017 has been an disaster for the manager and his team with challenges across all fronts either being ended or severely damaged thanks to a run of results that have seen exits from both domestic cup competitions and a title challenge ended.
The last Premier League victory was the 1-0 win over Manchester City at Anfield on new year’s eve. That has been followed up with draws on the road against Sunderland and Manchester United, both matches that arguably should have been won, and defeats against strugglers Swansea City and Hull City. Leaders Chelsea arrived at Anfield this past week and went home with a draw which they will feel should have been a victory. It means that there is yet to be a league victory in 2017 for Liverpool.
It can be argued that both Swansea and Hull won off the back of improvements under new managers Paul Clement and Marco Silva, but neither should be threats to a team with genuine title aspirations. The point at Old Trafford was a creditable one and United’s goal followed Antonio Valencia being offside in the build up. Both sides has plenty of chances to claim the three points and will feel aggrieved that they didn’t. The draw against Sunderland, which started this run of disappointing results, was a game where the team shot themselves in the foot by giving away two avoidable penalties. Sadio Mane signed off for the AFCON with a handball to gift Jermain Defoe the chance to grab a point and things haven’t been the same since.
The mental strength of this squad has been put to the test since the turn of the year and the results have generally been absolute failure. The draws with rivals United and Chelsea aside, the results and performances have been underwhelming at best and woeful at worst. League Two club Plymouth Argyle took a second string side to a replay and can feel disappointed not to have pushed things further. Wolves went one better and cruised to a comfortable 2-1 win at Anfield in the following round. Many could see the performance and result on the horizon when the team was announced that day.
Southampton deservedly, and comfortably, won the EFL Cup semi-final 2-0 over two legs with 1-0 victories in each leg. It could, and should, have been much more comfortable for Claude Puel’s side – who have been in freefall in the Premier League recently. Divock Origi could have had a penalty and Daniel Sturridge wasted two glorious chances in the second half of the second leg at Anfield, but Southampton really should have been out of sight by that point.
What has been a common theme throughout almost all of the games during 2017 so far is that the opposition have sat deep and soaked up what Liverpool have had to offer before picking us off on the break. Only United had a real go at us and we took the role of defending side at Old Trafford. But practically all the other games have seen what has become a similar pattern of us toiling in possession before being put out of our misery on the counter.
This has seen many point to Klopp and say that he has no plan B and it is hard to argue with that given the way we have setup in very similar formations and systems for most matches during this barren run.
Fingers have been pointed at Emre Can in particular since the beginning of the year. The German midfielder hasn’t had a good season and is struggling to develop into the top class player that many fans consider his potential to represent. He has looked slow, hesitant and laboured on the ball and also gets caught in possession regularly. But he hasn’t been the worst player of late. What is a major problem is his inability to work together in a midfield alongside Jordan Henderson. The duo are too similar in where they want to be and what they want to do with the ball. Klopp needs to assess which of the two he wants in his side and stick with him – and most supporters, despite many slating him last season, would consider Henderson the player to go with.
Adam Lallana has occupied the third position in the midfield trio for much of the season after a tactical masterstroke by Klopp in dropping him into a deeper role. It worked wonders during the first half of the season and the England international looked a different player to the one who previously slowed down attacks in a more advanced position. But Lallana has seen his form drop off in tandem with that of the team in general. He hasn’t had the same intensity and craft to his play since Christmas and it has to be a factor.
Another who hasn’t been the same of late is Philippe Coutinho. After an excellent beginning to the campaign that had many worrying about the Spanish giants lining up to lure him away from Anfield, the Brazil international has struggled. It’s clear that the injury suffered against Sunderland back in November has played a part, but he isn’t showing any signs of regaining his best form yet.
What is shown by the struggles of Coutinho and Lallana is the lack of alternatives in the squad. Klopp doesn’t appear to trust Origi or Sturridge enough at the moment to use them and take the pressure off Coutinho and Lallana – as well as Roberto Firmino. Mane can also be put in that bracket, but he has only just returned from Africa.
This lack of depth in the squad saw many supporters calling, and later screaming, for signings to be made during the January transfer window. But the calls fell on deaf ears with Klopp deciding to wait until the Summer for the right players rather than those available – of which it can be clearly seen that weren’t in plentiful supply. Calls were made to Germany to see if Bayer Leverkusen wanted to part with Julian Brandt or whether Borussia Dortmund fancied letting Christian Pulisic make a move. Both were met with the same flat responses.
While there were no new arrivals, there was an exit when Mamadou Sakho was allowed to join Crystal Palace on loan for the remainder of the season. That was met with bewilderment from some supporters who are still unsure why the Frenchman was told to find another club with his fellow centre-backs struggling. Dejan Lovren looks no more convincing than usual, Ragnar Klavan always has an error up his sleeve, Lucas Leiva looks a player who has been kept on a season too long and Joe Gomez isn’t ready to step up. A closer look at the situation, as well as Sakho’s history, shows that he isn’t the answer and moving him on is the best solution for the club.
Behind those defenders, the goalkeeping position looks no closer to being solved. Simon Mignolet looked more assured following his return to the side, but he has reverted to making mistakes this past week. His lack of concentration saw David Luiz cheaply put Chelsea ahead at Anfield and Mignolet’s flimsiness saw Alfred N’Diaye mop up a chance gifted to him by the Belgian to put Hull ahead. It’s further evidence that Mignolet is not good enough to be considered a long-term option as number one at the club – if proof were needed after his previous three campaigns at Anfield. His regular, and costly, errors during his time at the club should have meant that he was replaced some time ago, but the former Sunderland man was handed a new contract a year ago and has been persisted with. While Loris Karius’ inability to perform consistently saw the newcomer lose the spot to his fellow custodian. The German did look improved in his cup of cup games for the club, but it remains to be seen whether he can reclaim the spot before the end of the season with no more cup action in which to stake a claim.
Klopp is being regularly linked with moves for young attacking, and midfield, talent in the form of Brandt, Pulisic and Mahmoud Dahoud and while these players would be exciting additions to the squad, it’s at the back that improvements are needed most.
Lovren is not good enough to be anything more than a backup at centre-back and James Milner is not a left-back and the fact he, as a midfielder, has been used in the role ahead of Alberto Moreno says it all about the Spaniard’s prospects at the club. Nathaniel Clyne and Joel Matip are the two defenders most assured of their places in the side, but neither has been impressive of late. Clyne doesn’t offer enough going forward, but his relative solidity defensively means that his place won’t be under threat from a new signing – but perhaps will be from Trent Alexander-Arnold in the coming seasons.
Klopp will have been given an eye-opener as to how much needs changing still from the squad he inherited from Brendan Rodgers back in October 2015. He got rid of plenty of the deadwood he found when he arrived with Mario Balotelli, Christian Benteke, Martin Skrtel, Jose Enrique, Joe Allen, Luis Alberto, Jordon Ibe, Jordan Rossiter, Joao Teixeira, Jerome Sinclair, Brad Smith and Tiago Ilori all moved on. But there is still work to be done on that front with Lucas Leiva, Jon Flanagan, Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno all under threat going into the Summer. Daniel Sturridge and Mamadou Sakho will also likely find themselves surplus to requirements for different reasons come the end of the campaign. Danny Ings might also be allowed to leave after two years of being on the sidelines injured and time running out on his contract.
The German needs to make this his squad, despite his previous assertions that it now is. Of his signings, only Matip and Mane are nailed on to be in the starting line up at present. Georginio Wijnaldum has made a good case to be chosen ahead of Can so far, but he was left out in favour of the German in the loss at Hull. Marko Grujic is one for the future still and his chances of getting game time have suffered thanks to an injury hit first season at Anfield. Alex Manninger was never likely to get any starts this season, barring an emergency. Klavan was only signed to be a backup and that is how he has been used so far.
A genuinely suitable goalscorer needs to be brought to the club in the Summer. Sturridge and Origi are not fits for the system Klopp deploys and Firmino isn’t a natural enough finisher to be relied upon without support. Klopp doesn’t appear to trust either of his recognised strikers, given the lack of game time they have been afforded, and doesn’t tend to call from them when goals are needed late on in matches until the closing stages.
Klopp is essentially still in the initial stages of sorting out the mess of a squad that he took over sixteen months ago. He needs time to change things and won’t be doing it as quickly as the impatient sections of the fanbase are hoping/expecting. He said himself that he’s no miracle worker and will need to be afforded patience as he sets about replicating the success he oversaw at Dortmund – after similarly indifferent first couple of seasons with the Bundesliga club – and the success that followed is exactly the kind of thing he was appointed to bring. Let’s just let him have the time and space to make it happen.