THERE’S no getting away from it — this weekend was a horrible if you’re a Liverpool fan. Losing for the first time in over a year at Anfield against the side bottom of the table. Then to see Manchester United score a stoppage time equaliser at Stoke, Arsenal scoring a 98th minute winner from a dubious penalty decision against Burnley and Chelsea continuing their relentless form at the top.
And yet, I took it upon myself to watch Match Of The Day on Saturday night. I’m not quite sure why — I never usually put myself through the pain if Liverpool haven’t won. Perhaps it was purely to take pleasure in Roberto Firmino’s second goal again to somewhat numb the considerable pain of the result. What a strike that was. Luis Suarez-esque in every sense.
Now, Match Of The Day is not usually a programme for detailed and sophisticated analysis. Most of us watch it to see the goals and not much else — you usually cannot get an accurate sense of an entire football match from a 10-minute highlight package. If I want to get detailed and insightful analysis on Liverpool games I listen to fan-media — such as TAW, or The Redmen TV — people who know this club best and watch us on a weekly basis.
One comment in particular from Alan Shearer stood out, however, when discussing the Liverpool v Swansea game. His suggestion was that Liverpool have problems with attitude and application, guilty of complacency against so-called lesser sides, thinking they can simply turn up and win without trying.
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) January 21, 2017
It’s a very easy conclusion to come to when you look at Liverpool’s results. Not a single defeat against the top six sides, with wins against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Yet the Reds have lost to Burnley, Bournemouth and Swansea and drawn against Southampton, West Ham and Sunderland.
Yet Shearer’s accusation is one I wholeheartedly disagree with for a number of reasons. There are plenty of problems with Liverpool at the moment, but I’m fairly certain that attitude and complacency isn’t one of them. That simply isn’t something Jürgen Klopp would permit.
The current issues are:
1. Liverpool miss Sadio Mane’s pace, creativity, direct forward runs and constant goal threat.
2. Liverpool do not have another player in Mane’s mould to fill the void in his absence and there appears to be no chance of a new signing arriving this month. The likes of Sheyi Ojo and Ben Woodburn are not ready to make a regular contribution in the Premier League.
3. To compensate for Mane’s absence, Klopp has moved Adam Lallana out of midfield and into the front three, lessening Lallana’s impact and simultaneously sacrificing the midfield.
4. The midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can lacks fluidity and creativity and struggles to break down sides Liverpool are expected to beat.
5. Liverpool have not lost a single game when Joel Matip has played. Ragnar Klavan has played well at times but struggled in recent weeks and Liverpool’s defence is conceding far too many goals in Matip’s absence.
That’s a very brief and simplistic synopsis of the situation, but all these five points were brutally evident and exposed against Swansea. Some of this comes down to questionable selection decisions from the manager, while injuries to key players throughout this season have undoubtedly stretched Klopp’s resources, limiting his options and disrupting the team’s rhythm and balance.
Shearer also fails to acknowledge that for a side like Liverpool, it is often the case that it is more difficult to break down defensive opposition who look to frustrate, than it is to go toe-to-toe with sides closer to their skill-level. Against Swansea, Liverpool had much less opportunity to counter-attack than they did, say, against Arsenal at the Emirates. They also had less opportunity to press, because Swansea had relatively little of the ball. That’s got nothing to do with complacency and everything to do with style of opposition and what suits Liverpool best.
It’s important to remember that while Liverpool’s recent form is, of course, a major cause for concern, Klopp has been without Coutinho, arguably Liverpool’s best player, for two months of this season. Matip has been out of action for over a month himself, while Henderson, Lallana and Sturridge have all picked up injuries at various points.
Any chances of a 19th league title now look very slim indeed, but the fact remains that Chelsea’s form is almost impossible to keep up with — they’ve won 18 out of 22 matches. It clouds over everything else and makes our own achievements look comparatively inadequate, even though Liverpool’s points total at this stage in the season has only been bettered once by the club in the Premier League era.
Antonio Conte has been able to field virtually the exact same starting 11 every week this season, with not a single first team player picking up any kind of serious injury. Chelsea are undoubtedly deserving of their place at the top of the table, but luck does play a significant part and so far they have been highly fortunate in terms of injuries. Leicester had a similar situation last season as their key players remained fit for all 38 games.
While much of Liverpool’s downturn in form can be put down to a combination of injuries, the loss of Mane to AFCON (the subsequent disruption to the team’s balance) and tired legs, there are also other factors which have played their part and are beyond the control of Klopp and the players.
Think back to White Hart Lane at the beginning of the season where Mane was denied what would’ve been a winning goal for offside, given against Lallana. It was borderline, but Lallana looked to be level with the last defender and had that goal stood, Liverpool would be two points better off — and Spurs a point worse off.
Think back to New Year’s Day away at Sunderland. Liverpool concede a late penalty as Mane handles the ball in the box and Jermain Defoe scores the equaliser. It was a handball, but the free-kick from which the incident occurred was quite clearly not a foul from Lucas Leiva. That’s another two points dropped from a dubious refereeing decision.
More recently, take the game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Liverpool have a 1-0 lead on 84 minutes and look to be closing in on a huge three points, before Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores the equaliser. The cross from which the goal was scored came from Antonio Valencia who was, again, stood quite clearly offside. The linesman was nowhere near in line with the last defender and did not do a simple job. Again, two points dropped and one gained for United.
That’s without mentioning Paul #Pogba’s ridiculous chokeslam on Henderson in the first half, which was quite blatantly a red card but somehow escaped any kind of punishment whatsoever. It was, in fact, the most notable contribution from the world’s most expensive footballer who appeared unaware of the concept of marking from corners and more interested in his own “emoji” doing the rounds on the advertising boards, also painted on to his head in toxic thunder green. I digress.
From my reckoning, Mourinho’s side have been awarded six goals which should have been ruled out for offside this season. That’s huge. Of course, they’ve had some decisions go against them but six goals is quite incredible.
Look at Arsenal this weekend, as well. The beat Burnley with a 98th minute penalty. It was a foul, as Laurent Koscielny was kicked in the head, but the Frenchman was quite obviously stood in an offside position. Earlier in the season, Koscielny scored a last-minute winner against Burnley using his elbow. That’s four points gained from incorrect decisions.
I’m not trying to use referees as an excuse for Liverpool’s predicament — we have ourselves, mostly, to blame for dropping too many points against sides we should be more than capable of beating. Our defence simply hasn’t been good enough for a side with title aspirations.
The fact is, however, that football is a game often defined by fine margins and the notion that “these things balance themselves out across the course of the season” is, frankly, nonsense. It’s human nature to feel like your team is hard done by more than the rest, and we, as fans, are more likely to remember the decisions that went against us than those times we got lucky.
I had a think about this, though, and I genuinely cannot recall a single goal Liverpool have scored this season where we benefited from a poor refereeing decision. In fact, after consulting with Twitter, it appears the last time it happened was Christian Benteke’s goal against Bournemouth in August 2015 — 17 months ago. Feel free to tell me if I’m wrong.
To be clear, I’m not advocating any kind of weird FA conspiracy or agenda against Liverpool in the style of Mourinho, who seems to be convinced that the world is out to get at him and his team. It’s merely to point out that there are several key moments this season where decisions haven’t gone our way and the table would look very different if they had.
I’m prepared to accept that this is simply a part of the game and that, without video replays, referees will get things wrong from time to time. It’s more than just the occasional error this season, though. Not just for Liverpool, but almost every game seems to have one or two ludicrously wrong calls. It’s just hard to take when it happens multiple times against you and rarely, if ever, to your benefit.
Anyway, we are where we are. The next 10 days will go a long way to defining Liverpool’s season and the focus must now be shifted towards securing a top-four spot and getting our hands on silverware. If we’re being honest and pragmatic about things, the title is all but a very distant dream now. Not impossible, but highly improbable.
Don’t let anyone tell you that top four isn’t important, because it is. Liverpool need to be playing Champions League football next season. It’s part of the club’s heritage, and it will be a necessary requirement in order to keep the likes of Coutinho away from Barcelona’s clutches, and also to attract a higher calibre of player in the summer transfer window.
Liverpool have a job to do and this season can still be a great one, but performances and results must pick up very quickly in order for that to happen. Klopp will know that and so will the players.
If there’s one thing Liverpool can be accused of, however, it most definitely isn’t a lack of attitude or effort. Not under this manager. Try telling that to Henderson, James Milner or Lallana.
At the moment, things aren’t quite clicking for the Reds, but that doesn’t mean these players aren’t giving their all. You can claim defensive deficiencies and a lack of creativity in forward areas in Liverpool’s recent performances. A desire to succeed and a hunger to win games of football, however, isn’t the problem here.