Sunday afternoon was the fourth time this season that Liverpool have failed to score against a Southampton side whose season has faltered since they beat Liverpool in January to reach the EFL Cup final.
That’s put manager Claude Puel under pressure, according to reports, but he was still able to mastermind a fourth clean sheet against Jurgen Klopp’s side this weekend. That means in 360 minutes of football this season, one of the top-scoring sides in the division have failed to net even once against the Saints.
So if Southampton are stumbling over the finish line, what exactly does that mean for Liverpool?
After yet another disappointing draw at Anfield, Liverpool seem almost determined to let fourth spot – and another crack at the Champions League – fall by the wayside. With just two games to go, the Reds are in pole position to achieve that, but over the last few weeks, it’s seemed as though it’s failings of others – not their own brilliance – which will hand Liverpool fourth by default.
Despite finding themselves goalless again, they were saved by a heavily-rotated Manchester United side who lost to Arsenal. The week previous, Klopp’s team were defeated at home to Crystal Palace, but then bailed out the very next week by United’s draws with Swansea and Manchester City.
But it all could have been so much easier for the Reds – mostly if Klopp had a squad filled with more options than he currently has.
This time last year, Liverpool were fighting for a place in the Europa League final before finally losing to a superb Sevilla side. At the time, the temptation was to say that Klopp was coming to the end of a very impressive first half-season at the club. He took over a side that had seemingly gone stale and took them to two cup finals despite having to resort to using Steven Caulker as a makeshift centre forward. Clearly this German coach was a miracle worker. Just imagine what he’ll be able to do after a full pre-season.
But one year on and it’s obvious that the side needed more work than he was prepared to do – especially in terms of new faces. The one thing that each of Liverpool’s goalless games against Southampton have in common, for example, is that they’ve missed Sadio Mane.
In fact, this is a common theme. The Senegalese forward’s jaunt to the African Cup of Nations in January seemed to cripple Klopp’s side, who went from being surprise title challengers to a team who were unceremoniously dumped out of all the cup competitions and ended up in a struggle for fourth place.
To say they are reliant on Mane, then, would be an understatement.
It is clearly unacceptable that a team in the Premier League’s vaunted top six should be so reliant on one player, but the main question is why the squad is in such a state without him.
Over the last few weeks, it’s started to feel as though Liverpool Football Club has done something terrible enough to warrant a place in some sort of footballing underworld where their punishment is having their attacking potency taken away whilst also being forced to break down the most defensive sides in the league. The games seem to mirror one another, and the only way it seems that Klopp’s side can best this Sisyphean task is to rely on a moment of footballing magic from one of their most unlikely sources, Emre Can.
Perhaps the most visual reminder of this is the fact that against both Crystal Palace and Southampton, Liverpool have relied on penalties only to find that they have had no luck there either. James Milner missed after some ‘gamesmanship’ from Fraser Forster, whilst Philippe Coutinho was denied a spot kick against Palace for having the honesty to stay on his feet and try to score.
These aren’t excuses, though. Complaining about penalties usually just hides the more important question of why you’re relying on referee’s decisions in the first place. The fact remains that Liverpool without Mane is Liverpool without their mojo.
That needs to be addressed in the summer, but it would be wrong to assume that just buying another pacey, skillful player who can run in behind defences would be the answer to the problem.
At first glance, Liverpool’s front three without Mane sees creativity fall to Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, both of whom are skillful but certainly not pacey dribblers: they like to play with players ahead of them. Mane, then, gives another dimension. Without his pace and skill, Liverpool’s creative attackers need midfield runners to get beyond the attackers, and that’s not happening.
But it’s not quite that simple: getting runners from midfield beyond your attacking trio is a dangerous game. Not being able to break down a well-set defence is the sort of problem that dogged Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United last season for precisely the same reason. Pushing midfielders into attack leaves a manager in fear of being hit on the counter attack. Especially when he doesn’t trust his defence. The result was turgid and boring football, of the kind witnessed at Anfield over the last few weeks.
So perhaps Klopp has the same fear right now. Results since the start of the year have been in decline, and it’s not a jump to suggest that it’s the defence – not the attack – which is worrying the Liverpool manager.
In January and February, Liverpool conceded three goals to Swansea and Leicester, and conceded twice against Wolves and Hull in games which all ended in defeat. Since then, they’ve only conceded more than once on two occasions (including a late equaliser at home to Bournemouth and a couple in an abject performance against an in-form Crystal Palace).
It’s not news to say that Liverpool’s defence has been poor this season. It would be natural, in that situation, to try and shore up at the back in order to get over the line in fourth place. Especially with so much at stake. And if Klopp’s team looks overly cautious and, as a result, impotent, then that’s probably why.
An over-reliance on Sadio Mane only tells part of the story. Liverpool will need more than just another pacey attacking player in their ranks this summer. At the moment, their manager seems to be stifling one of the league’s most fearsome attacks: that’s how much he doesn’t trust his defence.
The fact that Liverpool are goalless might not be what’s worrying Klopp. It’s the fact that his defence can’t be trusted to deal with the ensuing counter attacks if he does attack.