IF you gave me a choice, I’d rather that Liverpool had made it through to the final of the League Cup at Southampton’s expense. If I was allowed to change scorelines, then we’d be in the hat for the fifth Round of the FA Cup, having overcome Wolves last week. In a perfect world, we’d have beaten Chelsea on Tuesday night and be seven points behind them with 45 still to play for.
Yet here we are.
There’s no point crying over spilt milk, as the old adage goes. Yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions about why it was spilt in the first place and explore ways to avoid spilling any milk in the future. As imperfect as our current situation is it only becomes an outright disaster if the same mistakes are made further down the line.
Jürgen Klopp made mistakes over the past few weeks. People are right when they say the minority of fans calling for his sacking are idiots, but that doesn’t mean he’s exempt from criticism. The oft used line of him knowing more about football than the rest of us will ever know is valid, yet he’s clearly not infallible and supporters know enough to ask questions when he seems to make errors in judgement.
Some of the mistakes the manager made were tactical. Some were to do with his use of substitutions. Mostly though, it’s widely accepted that he got his team selection wrong at times. The Wolves game is the most glaring example. With all due respect to Connor Randall, he shouldn’t have been anywhere near the starting 11 for instance. The manager would doubtless point out that Nathaniel Clyne was struggling for fitness and if he hadn’t recovered for Chelsea and Trent Alexander-Arnold had picked up an injury, then Randall would have ended up having to deal with Eden Hazard and co, which is a fair argument I suppose.
It’s also an argument that reveals the weakness in the current squad. Admittedly, not all teams have depth enough to have three right-backs, but they’ve at least got players who can come in and cover the position if necessary. We have a decent 13 or so players, but our reserves aren’t good enough and we’re then looking to kids to fill in the gaps. If we qualify for the Champions League next season, which is the hope, how many of the current squad members could come in and cover when necessary? Do you think Alberto Moreno is good enough to play against Real Madrid? Would you be happy to see Ragnar Klavan come in against Inter Milan?
The extent to which we seemed to lack any intelligence in attack the second Sadio Mané left to compete in the African Cup of Nations should have set alarm bells ringing behind the scenes at Anfield. That we chose not to go shopping in January is puzzling, yet Klopp is building for the future. There are games going on now, of course, and the manager should have borne that in mind when it came to his transfer thinking. The reality is, however, that he needed to have a look at his squad in a real world scenario before he could make any lasting decisions on their future.
When Liverpool played Wolves we were in a vulnerable position after the losses to Swansea and Southampton. The Midlands club had also been playing well under Paul Lambert and came to Anfield with their tails up; they could almost certainly smell blood. Even bearing all of that in mind, though, if our squad players aren’t good enough to beat a Championship side at home then perhaps they’re not good enough to have a future at Liverpool Football Club.
I’m not talking about the kids there, mind. I thought Ovie Ejaria, Ben Woodburn and Joe Gomez all showed enough to suggest they could have a bright future if they keep going along their current trajectory. I’m talking about the players I’ve already mentioned, the likes of Klavan, Moreno and Lucas Leiva. I thought the senior players really let the kids down that day and I’d be surprised if a few of them haven’t hit the final nail into their own coffin when it comes to the manager’s thoughts on their future.
Looking back on January it feels as though it’s been an absolute disaster. Phil explored it all in detail in his column yesterday so I won’t go over the same ground here. All I’ll say is that if you take out the cup competitions we drew with a Sunderland team fighting relegation (who the greatest Spurs team of all time have just drawn with, by the way) in a game played less than 48 hours after we’d poured everything into the Manchester City game. We left Old Trafford with a point which Liverpool teams of the past have struggled to do — and we probably should have won if the assistant referee had been doing his job — and we had a shock loss at home to Swansea City.
The month was rounded off with a home draw against a Chelsea side that have won 18 out of 23. At the end of 2016 we were five points off the top. We’ve had a mediocre result, a terrible one and two decent ones since then and now we’re 10 away. Would that be the case if we had better squad players? Would Klopp have felt the need to go with virtually the same 11 against Sunderland as he did against Man City if he had a bit more faith in players 12-22? Could we have coped better with the loss of Mané, Philippe Coutinho and even Jordan Henderson if their replacements weren’t, seemingly, Emre Can, Divock Origi and…Emre Can?
Someone, I think it was Neil, said on a podcast a while ago that we’d feel a lot happier if the players were all one position down in terms of importance. At the moment Dejan Lovren is our second choice centre-back, but wouldn’t it be better if he was third? Simon Mignolet proved against Chelsea why he’s too inconsistent to be our ‘keeper long-term, but he’d be a great backup for cup games and the like. Hopefully the manager is thinking along those lines too.
Klopp, his team and the powers that be at Fenway Sports Group need to have a serious think about where we go from here. The season isn’t a complete disaster and I still fancy us to give Chelsea a bit of a panic before the final final whistle is blown on this campaign. Yet, if we’re serious about challenging for the title in the future and getting back to the top of the European summit then it’s vital that we accept the weaknesses of our squad — both in terms of the first-team and the reserves — and do everything we can to mitigate those weaknesses.
Do that and the future is very bright for the Reds. Fail to and a little bit of spilt milk will be the least of our problems.