I WOKE up at 4.30am this morning.
Thoughts tend to be random in the small hours and I didn’t let nocturnal side down. After two hours with my mind racing like Shergar with no sense of direction I came to the following conclusions:
- The sleep hygiene summary on a Fitbit is not only inaccurate but bad for your sleep habits.
- I’ve had ‘Too Good To Be Forgotten’ by Amazulu going round in my head since Southampton last Wednesday.
- I need to check with Rob Gutmann about Hull pit stops so I can prepare appropriate food and drink provisions with one eye on the bladder and the other on being capable of getting on the right train home.
- I’m not quite ready to give up on the league. I hate it when managers concede titles publicly. What’s the point?
- Liverpool’s season is a confusing paradox and the latest of 46 conclusions is that we really need a striker.
At least three of the issues above are treatable by getting a new watch, only drinking in the St Hilda’s pub near Anfield when the jukebox is off, ringing Rob and going to Hull in a positive frame of mind and not getting too drunk.
The Reds’ campaign, though, remains this huge contradiction. All season seemingly in contention, keeping a relentless pace to stay in touch, at the very least Chelsea’s equals over two matches and yet a distance behind in the title race. Since August, what has felt like a breathless, exciting extension of Jürgen Klopp’s honeymoon period and yet the harsh reality that of 23 league games only 13 have been won.
Still the league’s top scorers with 52 goals, though this is a statistic founded in an autumn avalanche. While injuries, enforced absence and loss of form disrupted the early-season Liverpool attacking juggernaut, it is difficult to imagine Phil Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino now picking up the baton and weighing in with the same quota of goals in the final third of 2016-17.
Adam Lallana has also stopped scoring; Emre Can hasn’t netted this year and the Crystal Palace novelty of centre-backs heading in from corners seems to have worn off.
Leaving the cup exits aside, January’s haul of two points from 12 has all but put paid to title talk and yet the performances at Old Trafford and against Chelsea on Tuesday were full of spark and sporadically good attacking football. While enduring a truly painful month, supporters have twice been reminded of the style that carried Liverpool to the top in November.
Even the greatest teams have periods when fluency is at a premium; for much of the 1983-84 Treble season Liverpool spluttered like an engine in need of a good service. The Red machine rarely purred and some of the football was turgid. Two home wins (against Stoke and Birmingham in November and December) were notable only for the fact nothing happened except for Ian Rush getting a second-half winner.
Back in the present day, Firmino is a wonderful footballer; a bundle of energy and no slouch on the ball but he’s a streaky goalscorer. He is a contradiction in a sea of Liverpool inconsistencies; perhaps the truest definition of a “false nine” in that his time spent in the box is at a premium.
Against Swansea, two strikers’ goals from Firmino – one a towering header John Toshack would be proud of, the second Luis Suarez-esque in its ingenuity, balance and execution. Then, on Tuesday two sitters missed; a side-foot and a header (at 0-1 and 1-1) which cost Liverpool three points. If we’re being hypercritical he also missed a good late chance to win the match at Manchester United.
Firmino may occupy the position of centre-forward and be most effective there within our current strongest 11 but he isn’t, to coin a lame phrase, a natural goalscorer in the purest sense.
Mane, creator of space and opportunity for others, and perhaps the key to Klopp’s fully operational and most cutting front three, also has a decent eye for goal with nine league goals in 20 appearances. However, a natural and beneficial inclination to stretch play from the right and regularly drop deep to commit a man precludes him from being labelled an out-and-out striker.
Coutinho and Lallana, as attacking midfielders, will always weigh in with goals and have done so to good effect this season when fitness and form have allowed. As an attacking quartet, Firmino, Mane, Coutinho, Lallana – all purring – is the envy of the league.
The reality is, though, that even title contenders aren’t firing on all cylinders for more than half a campaign. In the midst of Chelsea’s ridiculous winning streak, Diego Costa has regularly broken the deadlock. When Spurs were struggling for momentum and drawing too many games, Harry Kane’s rediscovered knack of putting the ball in the net was their catalyst.
Teams can’t always be at their fluent best; the football won’t always be poetry in motion. That’s when you need a Rush or his modern equivalent. The mind immediately conjures Suarez, back in a red shirt, flanked by the mystery of Firmino and pace of Mane in a devastating trident. Fernando Torres too, although at his best in his Anfield prime as a lone striker, would relish that central role and the responsibility for being the main man when it comes to scoring goals.
For now, the hope is that with only 15 league games to come we can avoid further injury and consistently field our best 11 and preferred front three. Hopes have been dashed that Daniel Sturridge, who appears to have shot his bolt, and Divock Origi, who has struggled all season, are up to the required standard.
Between now and May, Klopp will hope we can reprise the form that saw an energetic Liverpool smother teams to death, create chances aplenty and share out the goals before Christmas. There’s no need to be giving up on anything yet, albeit tempered by the reality that even a near faultless pursuit of Chelsea could bear no title fruit.
Over the coming months however, thoughts will inevitably turn to next season. The manager will already be weighing up how he improves this current crop. On the one hand there are obvious gaps to fill in the squad; in goal, at left-back, at centre-half, perhaps a more dynamic, dominating presence in midfield.
However, when Klopp lies awake at night, perhaps his thoughts are occupied with finding a ruthless forward whose prime instinct is to think “Get out of my way, I’m going to welly it in.”