EVERY defeat comes with a list of extenuating circumstances.
Sometimes, it’s the personnel who are to blame or maybe the system. At others it can be the prospect of an upcoming game which has priority. For example, there were some dire games at the end of Jürgen Klopp’s first season in charge of The Reds, but they came with the caveat of “it’s all about the Europa League now” so were ultimately forgiven.
Liverpool have only lost three times this season and the least hurtful of those encounters was mostly due to the significance of the competition. The League Cup will always be fourth place in our hearts, though it’s always a shame to miss out on what many consider to be a free trophy.
But the league defeats have been totally different – with a definite change in tone between the first and most recent on Sunday and, I’ll admit, I’m a little perplexed by it.
Just over six weeks ago, The Reds went to the Etihad and were warmly presented with their own arses by a rampant Manchester City. The game came just days before our first Champions League group stage game of the season and, with one eye on that, the manager saw fit to take off our only attacking outlet in Mo Salah early in the second half. City helped themselves and we were cuffed accordingly.
Ordinarily you’d expect a 5-0 thumping to be greeted with fury and brickbats from our support, but many were happy to point to the red card for Sadio Mane as an excuse and the need to rest players in the second half in preparation for the big cup a few days later. Not ideal, but not the end of the world either.
I noticed, with both confusion and disdain, that some people on social media lovingly pointed out that the manager was still smiling in his post-match interview despite the heavy defeat. Others noted that this is a team capable of both winning and losing heavily thanks to the “heavy metal football” and our rather gung-ho style of attack coupled with its propensity to leave the back door open, so what else would we expect? It comes with the territory.
Obviously, there was some criticism after that match, but it was largely met with shrugs. City were just better than us, that’s all. It happens. We go again.
The thing is, we didn’t.
Liverpool have played nine times since that day and won only twice – one against Leicester City in the league and again at Maribor last week. This was no crisis. This was just us being us. Maddening, great and a bit shit all at the same time. The usual.
Then the tone changed.
The masochistic hammering The Reds gave themselves on Sunday (with Tottenham Hotspur more or less just playing a supporting role to our defensive ineptitude) seems to have been the crossover point and while the Newcastle game had many of us rushing to either a drinks or medical cabinet, it was the crushing defeat at Wembley which has finally nudged even the most optimistic Reds in the ribs. This one was viewed as a culmination of shittery rather than the usual “let’s put it behind us and start again” reasoning.
Maybe it was that the standard, weekly errors all came at the same time for once rather than meted out as individual mistakes which gave us pause. Usually, if Dejan Lovren has a bad game Joel Matip will take some of edge off it by being alright and vice versa. Salah, say, may have an off day but Phil Coutinho can lash in a 30 yarder to disguise it – that sort of thing. This was not the case on Sunday.
Had this been another day we may have pointed solely at Emre Can’s atrocious concentration, which led to the third goal and effectively ended the game as a contest, but, such were the poor performances around him that he’s more or less escaped whipping. The only fight Lovren, Matip and Simon Mignolet had was between themselves for the accolade of “worst possible performance of the season”. The Croatian, ever confident, declared on 32 minutes.
You can get used to seeing one player have a nightmare – it happens to the greats as well as the average – but to see 80 per cent of the defence go together was quite something.
But the most interesting element of that afternoon came from the touchline where Klopp appeared frozen rather than his buoyant self. Gone was the jack in the box on the sidelines and a more pensive man took over. It was as if he was seeing this side for the first time and realised that this wasn’t a one off – it was now the norm. What’s more, it’s now all on him – the formation, the players and the choice of not adding more to the squad. Birds came home to roost from all quarters.
Maybe it was the dawning realisation that not only was this Liverpool team an uneven ragbag of performers, but that the bar has since been significantly raised since last season. For Liverpool to perform as well as Spurs, or at least have their ability to take advantage from weakness as they do, is not going to be an easy task. We are not as clinical as they are, we are not as quick as they are and, let’s face it, we’re simply not as good as they are. Maybe Jürgen saw that at least eight of his lads were wearing the Emperor’s new clothes where he’d once seen them in finery.
This was evidenced in his post-match comments where, for the first time, he pointed the finger at individuals rather than seeing the sunny side of a weak display. I can’t recall him ever saying that one player was as bad as another. He usually just dwells on the positives. There were none on Sunday other than the fact that game ended.
These are the problems, but as we move into the latter half of the week it’s time to look at what happens next; firstly in the context of Huddersfield Town, Maribor and West Ham United and then in terms of the rest of the season.
What do Liverpool do next?
Rob Gutmann, Paul Senior, Josh Sexton and Steve Graves addressed the former issue on the excellent Overview show on TAW Player this week and ran through the list of possibilities with regards to personnel changes and formations. Is three at the back an option we should look at? Maybe it’s time for the diamond which worked so well against West Ham at the end of last season. Who can come in for whom?
“Last year we had two England internationals playing full back… this year we’re playing Moreno and a kid” 👀
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 25 October 2017
The current situation at Liverpool was discussed at length on our Overview show, which you can listen to if you subscribe to TAW Player.
The problem with all of these scenarios is that, with Sadio Mane and Adam Lallana out, no one setup looks ideal. It’s just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Liverpool’s players just aren’t good enough, but we have to do something. We can’t throw the towel in as we did at City.
But, for me, it’s the second question, that of the shape of the season, which is the more interesting.
The league has gone. City and Spurs have both thrashed Liverpool and shown just how far away we are from even being involved in a conversation about the title. Even the hallowed top four finish looks a tall order given that we have a record of three league wins from nine games and negative goal difference. Had this start just been unfortunate and had the confidence to turn things around then maybe but it hasn’t looked that this season.
The League Cup has gone too.
What represents a good season for us now, given that even the League Cup has been lost?
Despite a shaky start, we are top of our Champions League group so there are at least some avenues open to us and even though we’re on the floor at the moment, we’ve won the bloody thing with worse options so we should never give up on that. Miracles do happen as we know only too well and Liverpool should always try to win any competition we are entered – not just make a decent stab at it.
But maybe the only other remaining cup competition is more feasible.
Liverpool have all but shrugged their shoulders at the FA Cup in recent years. True, we’ve made a semi-final appearance under Brendan Rodgers and were runners up in 2012 under Kenny Dalglish, but we’ve also gone out to lowly Wolves and Oldham in the last five years – games in which we played our second and arguably even our third 11. For this campaign to be worth anything – and, yes, I know it’s barely started – a concerted effort in “the world’s most famous Cup competition” may just rescue it.
This will be Jürgen’s third season in charge and, come the end of it, it will be six since our last trophy if he doesn’t win something and though there is no danger whatsoever of him being pushed out, nothing resets the fan base more than a cup win. Sure, the FA Cup is the second least embarrassing competition to win, but I’m fairly sure he’d snap your hand off for guaranteed silverware at the moment.
So instead of playing more kids than seniors, why not take it seriously this year rather than using it as a training exercise.
There are few positives to take out of that weekend and Reds all over the world are licking their wounds, but maybe it will change something in the manager’s mind. There’s no hiding now. There’s no “he will come good” or “injuries are killing us”. Injuries happen. We’re going to get more of them and have to stop using them as an excuse when things go wrong.
But what it should mean is that these players are expendable. I like Jordan Henderson, I think Can is capable of good moments and, on occasion, Matip can be the steady influence in the back we need so badly, but I’d let them all go in a heartbeat to avoid situations like this. That’s not fury speaking (though it was on Sunday) but a pragmatic view of how we get to the next stage.
Sometimes you have to be the bad guy. Sometimes you have to point out that things aren’t working even though you’ve spent two years telling these lads that they’re great. If they aren’t and we can’t move on we have to be cruel to be kind rather than play favourites. I think Jürgen realised that at the weekend.
True, we don’t exactly have a million options in the squad to change this so we can at least answer our critics and calm our hearts – maybe even get a bit of pride back. I want to see Liverpool fly at Huddersfield and make them pay for all this. Then I want Maribor to be beaten into a puree midweek. If we can do that till January and then make significant changes (there are no excuses this time despite all this “you can’t do business” nonsense) then maybe things can be rescued.
One things for sure though. It’s time that the entire club looked at itself with chastisement rather than through rose-tinted spectacles. We’ll go nowhere through excuses. Maybe Sunday was the start of that process. I certainly hope so.