Liverpool may have won last weekend against struggling Sheffield United, but let’s be honest, and I am writing this as a Liverpool fan, it has been an overall season to forget, and possibly one of the worst title defences we have seen in a long time from anyone. However, in this short analysis, I will look at just what has gone wrong for Liverpool this season, because there are a number of different reasons – some avoidable, and some that couldn’t have been foreseen, such as the way games are being packed in due to the tight timescale of the season.
The main problem is that Liverpool didn’t sign a new centre-back in the summer. This was something I felt they really needed, even before Virgil van Dijk’s injury, because, whilst Dejan Lovren was not the best defender Anfield has ever seen, he could still play when needed and do a half-decent job. His departure to Zenit St. Petersburg last summer left just Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and van Dijk as senior central defensive options. However, Gomez and Matip had both been struggling with injury at that point, so they needed to bring in another player to help out at the back. They didn’t, and, whilst the injury to van Dijk could not have been predicted at that stage, having another top centre-back in the squad would have perhaps made the loss easier for them to bear. Having just won the Premier League and the Champions League the previous season, added to the fact that they have Jurgen Klopp as their manager, there would have been no shortage of top defenders who would have surely loved the chance to move to Anfield – this is not the Liverpool of ten years ago, when players snubbed them because they perhaps weren’t seen as good enough and weren’t winning trophies.
The lack of centre-back signing has led to Klopp and Liverpool needing to experiment, using a combination of midfielders playing at the back and youngsters coming in to make their debuts, always looking to try and cover the gaps. Fabinho has done well in that position, and captain Jordan Henderson has also slotted in there at times, but both are now likely to miss a significant part of the season with their own injury issues. Again, if Liverpool had brought in another defender, would they have been in this much trouble with injury problems and lack of cover? Hindsight is a great thing, but I mentioned over the summer that they needed cover, and they are now paying the price for not going out and finding it.
However, with or without defenders, Liverpool this season have not defended well. Quite simply, they have left too much space open, and the recent Merseyside derby comes to mind with this. Everton’s first goal came simply when Liverpool played a high back line, leaving too much space open for Richarlison to run in behind them, and a great pass through the defence by James Rodriguez allowed Everton to score a fairly easy goal – one which Liverpool probably wouldn’t have conceded last season. Does this come down to the loss of leadership and control that van Dijk brought to the team? It’s difficult to say definitely if this would have been the case, but his injury has definitely affected them in this aspect. Before van Dijk’s arrival, Liverpool’s defence was their biggest concern, and it seems they have gone back to that this season with the Dutchman out of the team. This has also perhaps led to the lack of confidence Alisson is experiencing in goal, because he doesn’t have the cover in front of him that he had last season. The space between him and the defenders has increased this season, making it easier for opposing attackers to get behind the defence and create more goalscoring opportunities against them.
The third thing is perhaps not something that has been discussed as much, but they have lacked a creative midfield player at times – someone in the mould of Philippe Coutinho. There was some talk of Coutinho coming back to Liverpool on loan from Barcelona last summer, and I feel that that would have been a good signing to make. Since he left, Liverpool’s midfield has looked different, with Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino having to work to create their own chances most of the time. Due to their excellent teamwork, the midfield issue hasn’t been too bad, but, now that Liverpool are struggling to consistently score goals this season, it has become much more noticeable.
They need an attacking midfielder in the team – someone who can link up the midfield and forward lines, but they may not have to go out and sign anyone to fill this role. The nearest player they have to this is in terms of positioning is perhaps Xherdan Shaqiri, but the Switzerland international has blown hot and cold in his time at the club, so can’t really be depended upon to perform that role in every game. Their big midfield buy last summer was Spain international Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich, but he is a little more defensive-minded than attacking, and hasn’t really shown what he can do in a Liverpool shirt yet, thanks to (you guessed it) injury problems. However, academy graduate Curtis Jones played last weekend against Sheffield United, positioning himself alongside the front three, and that allowed one of Salah, Mane or Firmino to drop off and receive the ball behind the forward line without leaving a gap open. It was really clever play from Jones and Liverpool to do this, and it made a massive difference to their attacking play, because they created more and posed more of a threat. Jones’ goal highlighted his excellent spatial awareness, and, if he plays more, Liverpool could begin to ask more questions of opposing defenders again.
In conclusion, I feel that Liverpool have partly created their own problems this season. The injury problems are unlucky, granted, but they could have been avoided with a couple more players coming in. Previously, we wanted Liverpool to prioritise bringing in a new left-back and goalkeeper, and they did eventually sign Scotland captain Andrew Robertson from Hull City and Brazil international Alisson from Roma, both of whom have gone on to be key players in the Liverpool team. Now, we need them to add a new centre-back for definite and possibly another attack-minded midfielder, which should help them regain their confidence at both ends of the pitch. This season has gone, and needs to be considered a write-off as far as they are concerned, but the planning for the summer and next season needs to now begin in earnest so that they can come back stronger.