Liverpool have won one match in 2017 – Plymouth Agryle away. It is now nearly the end of January. For a team with title ambitions and who were competing in both of the domestic cups, that is an abysmal return. That is the sort of form that derails a season and can see managers widely questioned.
Jurgen Klopp has been afforded a great deal of patience at Liverpool – far more than Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola – and that is largely down to the initial expectations for Liverpool this season, probably slightly lower than for the others. Those expectations were elevated by Liverpool’s strong start to the campaign, though.
While the respective absences of Joel Matip and Sadio Mane take some of the blame for Liverpool’s downturn this month, Klopp’s inability to adapt his team to the loss of his two most important players is a concern. Mane, despite all the doubters when he signed, was the player Liverpool needed last season. The trouble is, Liverpool have no Mane mark II. Matip, meanwhile, remains the only reliable central defender at the club. The Cameroonian does what all top quality centre-backs do as well, he makes his defensive partner better.
Recruitment can be blamed for Liverpool’s woes without Matip and Mane to an extent, but Klopp has barely addressed the weaknesses in his team. Again partially down to the players available, the German manager has not adapted the style of his team, they have continued to function as if Mane was running behind opposition defences. It has left them stuck against low blocks with their midfielders unable to pick the defensive lock. Players who can open such a defence are rare and immensely expensive, like Mesut Ozil and Cesc Fabregas, they are also hard to sign. For that reason, Liverpool must find a way of creating chances. It would, of course, help if they took the chances they are creating.
Defensively, the situation is a little different. Even if given protection by two deep midfielders, Liverpool’s defenders are making individual errors that cannot be accounted for. This is, yet again, where recruitment should be questioned. That for the most part cannot be blamed on Klopp. His responsibility is the shape of the defence – or lack of it. Sticking to his famous high-pressing, high-line blueprint is costing Liverpool at this point.
Klopp has taken Liverpool on leaps and bounds since his appointment over a year ago, but his failure to resort to a plan B in recent weeks has left his team exposed. He has shown an unwillingness to adapt, even without two players so crucial to the way they play.
A top four finish would be a success for Liverpool. The targets were adjusted after looking so impressive during the opening months of the season, but even so, Klopp has taken his Liverpool team a long way. His relative success, though, should not mean that he goes unquestioned.
Defenders can be made scapegoats, and Daniel Sturridge can be bemoaned for missing chances, but Klopp is as accountable as anyone for Liverpool’s recent demise. He must find a way to cope, or at least sign players capable of performing like Mane and Matip. Otherwise the form of late 2016 won’t come back in a hurry.