Can Liverpool Turn It Around?
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At the start of the season, Liverpool fans were filled a sense of cautious optimism. If it weren't for the fact that the club is in the midst of a 26-year drought since its last league title, the fan base may have actually dared to say that this would be their year to end what has been an agonize quarter century for the club with the second-most league titles in England.
It would have been hard to fault their confidence, as the stars seemed to align for something special to happen at Anfield this term.
The Reds had finished in 8th place last season, a disappointing result that left the club sitting outside of both the Champions League and Europa league places, as only the top 6 teams in England qualify to play in Europe. A club of Liverpool’s stature was naturally upset to not feature in Europe this season, but there was of course a silver lining.
Being free from the burden of the extra games, travel and stress that comes with playing in Europe allowed Liverpool to focus their energy and resources on England’s domestic competitions – the Premier League, FA Cup and EFL Cup. This is a massive advantage over their rivals who all have to cope with European excursions, aside from Chelsea.
While playing fewer games was a strength for Liverpool this year, they also saw signs of weaknesses from their competitors. Leicester was almost certain to struggle defending its title now that it had a target on its back. United, City and Chelsea all had to deal with the uncertainty of integrating new managers.
Arsenal and Tottenham, meanwhile, still looked to be a ways away from getting over their mental blocks to truly compete for a title. There was certainly a sense of optimism at Liverpool that this could be their season to win the Prem, a feeling that was perpetuated by their extremely optimistic coach.
Jürgen Klopp had been deemed a “wonder-coach” by some and had taken over the reins halfway through last season. He not only improved the team's results, but had them playing much more attractive football as well.
The 2016-17 season was his first full campaign at the club in which he would have had time to use transfer windows to mold the squad to his liking. He sent away stars such as Martin Skrtel, Mario Balotelli, Christian Benteke and Joe Allen, who he deemed to not mesh well with his physically demanding style of play, and brought in Georginio Wijnaldum, Sadio Mane and Joel Matip amongst, others. Klopp had a squad built in his image as the season began in August.
His vision was to build a pacey, technical and tenacious side that pressed opponents high up the field, looking to force turnovers in dangerous areas. It was clear that the team's strength would be its attacking triumvirate of Mane, Coutinho and Firmino, while the back four was the weakness on paper. "If you score three, we'll score four" seemed to be the Reds' approach.
That was exactly how Liverpool’s campaign began, as they travelled to London and beat Arsenal by scoring four goals in 20 minute span and running out 4-3 winners. A shock loss to Burnley followed, but it appeared to be an anomaly. A 15-match unbeaten streak came next that lasted over three months.
The team scored at least 3 goals during six of those games. By the time the busy holiday period was finished, Liverpool sat in second, five points behind Chelsea. Aside from Chelsea's improbable 13-match win streak keeping Liverpool off of the top of the table, the season had gone exactly according to plan for Klopp's men. Chants of "You'll Never Walk Alone" could be heard from Liverpool to Boston (or at least seen on social media feeds).
Then the calendar switched to 2017.
Of the 12 games Liverpool have played in 2017, they have won only two. One of those was an FA cup 3rd round replay against League Two side Plymouth Argyle. The Reds then promptly crashed out of the tournament in the next round against Wolverhampton, a side sitting in 20th place in the Championship.
Exiting the FA Cup allowed Liverpool the luxury of 16 days off between games after they impressively vanquished Tottenham 2-0 on February 11th. Klopp took the team to Spain to enjoy some warmer weather and a "second pre-season" hoping to rejuvenate his side and build on the momentum created by their victory over Spurs before they returned to action at Leicester on February 27th.
Whatever the opposite of rejuvenated is, Liverpool were against Leicester. They either had too much Paella or never awoke from their siesta as they were humiliated by a Leicester side playing so poorly that they had recently fired the manager that had guided them to the most unlikely league title in Premier League history only nine months prior. Leicester proceeded to score more goals in the first half against Liverpool than they had in their previous 8 games combined.
At the final whistle fans could even be heard calling for Klopp to be sacked.
Firing the manager of course would be a gross overreaction to a bad patch of form, but the reasons behind Liverpool's miserable 2017 that have brought the Klopp honeymoon period to an abrupt end warrant examination. First and foremost, the defense deserves blame.
They are joint-top scorers in the league but have conceded 33 goals, the most of any club in the top-8. Klopp's decision to move James Milner from central midfield to left back looked to be a stroke of genius early on, but relying on the aging Milner to overcome his lack of speed with his footballing brain for an extended period is not fair to the 31-year-old.
Similarly, fielding another central midfielder, Lucas, at center back for several games this year has predictably lead to problems, most notably when he was exposed by Jamie Vardy in their recent loss at Leicester. Klopp was able to bring in center back Joel Matip on a free transfer over the summer, but has otherwise been unable to address the defensive issues via the transfer window.
Injuries and absences are of course another excuse Klopp could point to. Arguably the team's two best players, Coutinho and Mane, have both missed time in 2017. Sadio Mane missed several weeks at the start of 2017 due to his international duties at the African Cup of Nations. Coutinho suffered an ankle injury in November and didn't return until January.
Both have taken time to recapture their best form since returning. First-choice center back Dejan Lovren has been injured four times this season, including missing all of February with a knee injury. Clearly, injuries have not helped Liverpool's cause in 2017 and the club doesn't possess enough depth to overcome the absence of their key men.
The "Geggenpressing" or "heavy metal" football championed by Jürgen Klopp may also deserve blame. Klopp is famous for demanding his team be ultra-fit so that they can run maximum distances and pressure opponents all over the field. Skeptics of Klopp were quick to point out that this wouldn't be sustainable in England, as the league doesn't feature a month-long winter break like the Bundesliga does in Klopp's native Germany.
Predictably, the team seems to have run out of steam as the winter progressed without having a significant break to recharge, with their recent holiday in Spain appearing to not be a sufficient substitute. Klopp has been unwilling to adapt his approach and without his team being at their peak physically, opponents have been able to sit back and absorb Liverpool's pressure before launching devastating counter attacks that expose the reds' tired legs and defensive frailties.
Finally, Liverpool simply might not have spent enough money during the transfer windows to bring in fresh talent. Klopp has made Liverpool more money from player sales than they've spent on player purchases since his arrival. The problem apparently isn’t with the notoriously stingy Fenway Sports Group ownership either.
Klopp said, "It’s not because we were blind, it’s because the players were not available. We tried different things, it was not a money issue, there were different reasons." The fact of the matter is Liverpool knew of their deficiencies heading into the January transfer window but were unable to address them, despite having a prestigious manager at the helm and boasting one of the richest traditions of any club in the world.
Liverpool currently sit in fifth place, as their title challenge has melted into a scrap for the top four. All is not lost, as Liverpool has the advantage of playing fewer games during their run-in than any of the teams they are jostling with for Champions League qualification.
Furthermore, they host 4th place Arsenal on March 4th with a chance to leapfrog them in the table with a win, yet the Gunners have a game in hand. While some glimmers of hope remain for the season, the feeling around Anfield is that Klopp might not be able to deliver Premier League glory to Liverpool.