February 18, 2021
With over a third of the season's matches left to play, Liverpool's attention has turned from defending their title to securing a top four finish.
Doing so would offset the sort of financial difficulty no Reds fan dares to think about. Covid-19 has hit revenues, FSG are in money saving mode and the renewal of several major contracts are looming on the horizon. Settling for securing the riches of another Champions League campaign would constitute a poor season by recent standards, but would be one that ensured Liverpool are in position to go again next season and beyond.
Fingers will point to a plethora of reasons why Liverpool have struggled so mightily in a league they dominated 12 months ago. Injuries, individual errors, a collective loss of form. These are all things that have hampered Liverpool's efforts at every turn. But along the way, a handful of key moments have had a decisive say in the direction of the campaign. Frustratingly, many of them were avoidable.
The transfer window
No one could've foreseen the scale in which injuries would hit. Nor that so many would affect one single position. But to go into a campaign with just a trio of established central defenders - one of which is the perma-injured Joel Matip - was bordering on the negligent.
You'll be hard pressed to find many Liverpool fans that didn't have their heart in their mouth when watching Dejan Lovren defend. The 31-year-old was shaky at times and prone to an error. But he had a superb injury record, knew the league inside out and had a wealth of experience. In other words, he was the perfect fourth-choice centre-back.
Liverpool have always had a fourth option in recent times that has been able to steady the ship when required. Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Kolo Toure, Ragnar Klavan. None would win any awards but all were vital to the balance and depth of the squad over the course of a full campaign.
Fabinho has covered the position excellently when pushed back. But moving the Brazilian out of the engine room has produced collateral damage to Liverpool's abilities to win back possession quickly and to cut out opposition attacks mid-flow.
January signing Ozan Kabak appears likely to fill the void for the remainder of the season. Upon signing, the Turk was described by ex-Borussia Dortmund chief scout and current Stuttgart sporting director Sven Mislintat as a "Lovren-type player."
If only there was a Lovren-type player we could've got our hands on six months ago...
“I think they [Liverpool] miss me more than I miss them.”—Dejan Lovren 20/01/2021
What can go wrong, will go wrong
What they got, however, will live in infamy.
5m: Jordan Pickford injures Virgil van Dijk with a horror tackle that somehow goes unpunished. Neither a red card or penalty is awarded for a knee-high challenge that ends the Dutchman's season.
19m: Everton equalise through Michael Keane with a header directed straight at back-up goalkeeper Adrian. The Spaniard fails to make the regulation save, albeit from close range.
81m: Dominic Calvert-Lewin brings Everton back on level terms for the second time. The striker was in the form of his life going into the contest, but was allowed an almost uncontested leap under the lightest of pressure from Andy Robertson and Joe Gomez.
90m: Richarlison knocks Thiago Alcantara out of action for 10 league matches with a dangerous lunge. During that time, the Spaniard's creativity is sorely missing in matches against teams content to sit deep and soak up pressure. Liverpool proceed to drop points with draws against relegation-threatened trio Brighton, Fulham and West Brom.
91m: Jordan Henderson sees an injury time winner ruled out for a marginal offside. Sadio Mane is the player adjudged to have strayed. VAR replays appear to show the lines drawn to Mane's elbow - a part of the body exempt from being offside given a legal goal cannot be scored with the arm.
Deep into injury time, a marginally late Robertson clearance saw him catch the underside of Danny Welbeck's boot. The forward did as all smart attackers should - go down with a hearty yelp.
No penalty was awarded, but the famous words of "VAR is having a look" were uttered. Referee Stuart Atwell changed his decision after consulting the monitor and with that, two points were dropped.
In hindsight, Robertson's attempted clearance was technically a foul, there is no escaping that fact. But was it 'clear and obvious' as the rulebook declares an error must be to be overturned? Debateable.
Liverpool's feeling of victimisation was evident in the post-match fallout. Captain Henderson remarked how even Welbeck himself had told him a penalty should not have been given.
To add insult to injury, precisely one week later an identical incident involving Ben Chilwell and Ian Poveda did not result in a penalty in Chelsea's clash with Leeds. Interpretation of the laws of the game vary among referees, but that kop out could not be levied here. The referee in charge of the clash that day? The very same Stuart Atwell.
A needless risk
Changes were rung, but eyebrows were raised when four names in particular were selected to start. Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota. The latter of that quartet was in the form of his life. Nine goals had been notched across his first 17 games for the club - a feat made even more impressive knowing only 10 were starts. It was a roll of the dice to start any senior player in a contest with nothing on the line. Klopp gambled, and unfortunately, he lost.
Injuries can happen at any time. But amid persistent rumblings of fixture pile-up and player fatigue, the decision to start four crucial first-team regulars in a nothing contest was unwise.
In the 13 league matches Jota has missed, Roberto Firmino has registered just four goals and three assists. Mane has fared worse, returning three goals and two assists. The pair's dips in form could've been alleviated with rotation. But when Divock Origi is the next man up, it's understandably hard for Klopp to rest any of his big three.
Jota's absence has hit hard, and the most frustrating thing is it resulted from a decision that gets costlier with each passing week.
Festive fixture flops
Liverpool's problems against the basement battlers were evident before this run, but they were laid bare for all to see here. Draws with West Brom and Newcastle followed by a tepid defeat to Southampton. Given the standard Liverpool and Man City have set in recent years, two points from nine here simply wasn't enough.
The Saints were a top-half team at the time, but amid a spate of injuries themselves, entered the clash winless in four. Since Danny Ings came back to haunt his old club on that day, Southampton have lost six straight.
Over the past three seasons, the lowest number of points either Liverpool or Man City have averaged per game against teams in the bottom half is 2.5. In the current campaign, the Reds are averaging 2.05. It may not seem like much, but when competing with Pep Guardiola's Man City, it is the difference.
The fortress is breached
Against Burnley on January 21st, the streak ended. More questions were asked over team selection as Salah was curiously benched. But it was the as yet faultless pair of Fabinho and Alisson Becker that sealed the streak's fate.
A hopeful ball over the top as Liverpool pushed out from a corner caused confusion in the ranks. Fabinho - lacking the instincts of a natural centre-half - presumed it was the keeper's ball. Alisson, meanwhile, presumed it was Fabinho's. The split-second miscommunication allowed Ashley Barnes to sneak in and win a penalty to ensure Jose Mourinho's 86-match unbeaten record with Chelsea lives on.
Neither Alisson nor Fabinho were to blame for the error. Teething problems were always likely playing a midfielder at centre-half, even one as accomplished as the Brazilian. But the defeat shattered Liverpool's aura of invincibility at Anfield and gave hope to others soon to arrive.
In the two home matches since that loss, Liverpool suffered back-to-back defeats.
The final implosion
Going into the second meeting of the season between the sides, the Cityzens had awoken from their early season slumber. Nine wins on the spin had been registered with just two goals conceded. The Reds entered the contest on the back of a dismal 1-0 defeat to Brighton, but this was the big stage and Liverpool boast big players for the big occasions.
On any given day this current crop can flip the script and inflict defeat on anyone. A cagey first-half saw each team give little, but as the break approached, Liverpool were shading it.
Goals from Ilkay Gundogan and a Salah penalty ensured the game remained deadlocked entering its final act. City won't drop many points against teams outside the top six this year. If Liverpool had any hope of clawing back the deficit, a late winner here was a must. And then, as if the weight of expectation suddenly became too much, Liverpool crumbled in a horror four-minute spell.
Alisson dawdled and Fabinho hastily cleared. But the ball kept coming back as panic set in. The irrepressible Gundogan capitalised and heads dropped, most notably Alisson's.
Liverpool's doctrine is driven into the players to the point that on the rare occasion something goes wrong, it remains full speed ahead. Moments later, a high City press forced the play back to Alisson once more when his body language suggested he'd rather see the ball land anywhere but his feet. Another misplaced pass and five seconds later, Liverpool's title defence was over.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. Unlike some of those aforementioned examples, Liverpool have a caveat. Injuries have blazed a path of destruction through their season from start to finish. Managing absences is something every club has to deal with through the course of a campaign, but rarely have we seen a position as pivotal as centre-back so badly affected. Going into a season with three senior centre-halves was a blunder, but having all three see their seasons over by February is something you couldn't even salvage on a video game.
Attention now turns to securing a top four finish. Should Liverpool achieve it - and we have no reason to believe they won't - they will be in an excellent position to challenge again next season.
Two titles in three years sounds mighty fine to us.