THERE are days when football makes you wonder why you bother with it all. The pain, the fury, the anguish, the sheer and utter, sickening disappointment. Liverpool have produced several of those days of late.
In football, there are blips and there are crises. While January could be regarded as something of a prolonged blip, I’d argue we’re heading towards crisis point. That’s zero league wins in 2017 — still just the one victory in all competitions, an FA Cup replay against Plymouth.
Southampton away was woeful. Swansea at home nightmarish. Southampton at home agonizing. Wolves at home shambolic. Hull away, though. That tops the lot. The very predictability of it was concerning, but Tuesday night’s spirited performance against Chelsea at Anfield conjured hopes of Liverpool stopping the rot and kicking on from there. But no, we’ve slumped to our lowest point of the season so far.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so dejected in my 15-odd years watching Liverpool. There have been plenty of crushing blows. Athens 2007 hurt a lot. The Chelsea game in 2013-14 was a sickener. Basel 2016 wasn’t nice either. I was at Selhurst Park for the infamous 3-3 draw in 2014, for Christ’s sake. The Hodgson era, although relatively brief, was bleak in the extreme.
This hurts a hell of a lot, though. It’s the feeling of what might have been. I look back to the moment when Bobby Firmino chips in the fourth goal against Crystal Palace away in October, whipping his shirt off in celebration before the ball even crossed the line. At that moment, I thought this could well be the best Liverpool side I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
I believed we had a genuine shot at achieving something special this season. The 6-1 thrashing of Watford at Anfield a week later confirmed that feeling. Liverpool irresistible. Ruthless. Rampant. The football on display among some of the most entertaining I’ve seen.
There are other moments, too. The comeback against Swansea away. Sadio Mane’s 94th minute winner at Goodison. The defeat of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on New Year’s Eve. These displays or grit and determination felt like the hallmarks of potential champions elect.
In hindsight, it was probably wishful thinking. Liverpool’s squad was never adequately equipped to be competing on all three domestic fronts. To expect Jürgen Klopp to deliver title number 19 in his first full season in charge was, on reflection, unreasonable. We had dared to dream. Those dreams have now been shattered.
I cannot recall a season quite like this where the wheels have fallen off in such spectacular fashion. The Liverpool side who lost to Hull were unrecognisable from the irrepressible machine of the early months of this season. All the zip, the creativity, the almost arrogant swagger, gone. What was a perfect jigsaw now seems to have been totally deconstructed.
It was difficult to watch. I feel like I’ve seen that exact football match played out a million times over. Liverpool dominant, but not creating chances. Sides don’t have to create anything to score against Liverpool these days. Sling it into the box enough times and they know a mistake will come. All they have to do is sit deep, stay patient and take advantage when the chance presents itself.
These Liverpool players look devoid of all confidence. They don’t look like a team who believe they can win football matches, which is mad when you consider what they have already done to so many sides this season. Phil Coutinho looks like he’s never seen a football before. Adam Lallana misplacing two-yard passes. Emre Can taking five touches when one or two would suffice. James Milner looking on his last legs, as he has done for several weeks now.
What is most worrying about this current predicament of ours is that nothing in the Hull game was a surprise. Virtually every team sets up according to an identical template against Liverpool. We should be used to this by now, yet every game it’s the same problems showing up time and time again. Lessons not learned, the same mistakes repeating themselves. No-mark players constantly being made to look exceptional by our dysfunctional back line. We can’t buy a goal at the moment, either.
The players themselves must take some responsibility, but Klopp too has plenty of questions to answer in his most challenging period at the club so far. He chose not to go out and bolster his squad in January, despite a glaring need for reinforcements at both ends of the pitch. Klopp would argue he did try for Julian Draxler, Christian Pulisic and Julian Brandt, but clearly he (or FSG) wasn’t prepared to pay the premium it would take to secure their signature. Were those the only three players out there, available, who could have improved Liverpool’s squad, though? I doubt it.
The argument that January isn’t a good time to buy also doesn’t hold when you look at the list of players Liverpool have recruited in the January window in past seasons: Javier Mascherano, Daniel Agger, Maxi Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, to name a few. Sound business can be done if it is planned for.
Klopp also chose to persist with the same 4-3-3 system which seems to have lost all functionality for a while now. Where is the alternative? Is he too stubborn? Does Klopp have too much faith in his ability to improve average footballers? Why is Can starting ahead of Gini Wijnaldum? These are all legitimate worries.
I’m no fan of blaming the owners after every defeat, but we’ve reached a point here where a discussion needs to be had. Liverpool have finished in the top four just once in the past seven seasons, which simply isn’t good enough. As it stands, top four is still an achievable goal this season but only if Liverpool buck their ideas up immediately, because if this current form continues much longer, that too will become quickly out of reach.
It’s difficult not to ask questions about the wider strategy of FSG’s ownership. They have done plenty of good in their time, starting with saving the club from administration in the first place. They’ve paid for the new Main Stand, bought some excellent players (and plenty of dreadful ones too) and appointed a proven top class manager in Klopp.
Yet when you look at the current situation, having made a net profit in the summer transfer window, fans are bound to get frustrated when the squad remains obviously lacking in several key areas. In Klopp, FSG appointed a manager who fits their philosophy of buying value and potential rather than splashing out on experienced pros.
There’s a danger, though, that such a relationship could hinder Liverpool’s prospects of success if the same transfer policy continues. Can Liverpool really afford to keep buying potential, for Klopp to improve the players he has at his disposal, in the aim that eventually this masterplan will all come together and deliver long-term success?
When rival clubs are investing vastly superior amounts of money into their squads, it is difficult to see how Liverpool compete without compromising on the established transfer policy. A heavy dose of pragmatism is undoubtedly required this summer — the modern game won’t wait for all the pieces to fall into place as FSG might hope.
Liverpool’s squad needs more depth and more quality and while Klopp has made his fair share of mistakes recently, there is only so much he can get out of the current crop of players. The blunt reality of it is that too many of them aren’t good enough for what we want Liverpool to achieve.
A reliable goalkeeper is an obvious place to start — neither Loris Karius or Simon Mignolet should be starting in goal for Liverpool next season if they want to challenge for the title. A premium quality centre-back to partner Joel Matip is needed, so that Dejan Lovren becomes the third choice, rather than Lucas Leiva or Ragnar Klavan.
The experiment of playing Milner at left-back began well but has run its course, and an actual left-footed left-back who isn’t Alberto Moreno would seem another obvious area for improvement in the summer. Central midfield could certainly do with at least one more body, while a wide forward and an established goalscorer should also be on the wish list.
In short, almost every position could do with strengthening, especially if Liverpool are to be playing European football next season — hopefully in the Champions League. For that to happen, Klopp must recognise and address the key areas for improvement and FSG must back him with the funds to do so with the right signings to take Liverpool to the next level.
What makes this such a precarious time for Liverpool fans is that we are all so desperate for Klopp to succeed that the prospect of it not working out is not one we want to contemplate. If it doesn’t work for Klopp under these owners, then the FSG model really would be dead.
Where would we go from there?
It would be very tempting to just say the season is over and decide to pack it all in. It does feel that way, but Liverpool have a job to do and that job is getting into the top four, by hook or by crook. It’s not where we want to be and we will most likely look back on this season as a huge missed opportunity, but right now that’s all there is left to play for.
It feels rubbish, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, top four would still represent significant progress for Liverpool this season. Champions League football will be a crucial factor for both retaining and attracting high-quality players in the summer.
Heads have, quite understandably, fallen off, everywhere, after Hull. It was grim. But one thing history teaches us is that football does change quickly and we absolutely must stay right behind this manager, because he’s shown he’s one of the best in the business.
Any questions over his position in the job are, quite frankly, absurd. If, by the end of his contract, it hasn’t panned out as we would have hoped, so be it. We’re in it for the long haul with Klopp and we’ll have to take the rough with the smooth. Right now, though, we need him, more than ever, to show his mettle and find a solution to drag Liverpool out of this mess, before the season plunges into total oblivion.