The 2019-20 season was a historic moment for Liverpool, as the Reds ended their 30-year title drought and clinched their first-ever Premier League title. Not only that, but they did it in style: it was the fastest-ever title win (clinched with seven games to spare), they took 61 of 63 points to open the season (the best mark ever in Europe’s big five leagues), and they also won 14 away games, a Premier League record.
This season, though, has seen them making history for all the wrong reasons and a nightmare of a title defense. Not only are they stuck in eighth place, 25 points behind league leaders Manchester City, but they’re setting new lows at Anfield: it’s the first time Liverpool have lost six home matches in a Premier League season, and the first time they’ve succumbed to six home defeats in any campaign since 1953-54. (They were relegated back then, too.)
Our writers attempt to diagnose what’s not clicking for the previously invincible Reds as the injuries and loss of form leave them adrift in mid-table.
What would you do to get Liverpool out of this spiral in the short-term?
Mark Ogden: This is a tough one because Jurgen Klopp has pretty much exhausted all available options. Injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Jordan Henderson have deprived Liverpool of their best defender and midfield organiser (and their captain) and one-by-one, the replacements have fallen short or been injured themselves.
The front three have begun to look jaded, so perhaps it is time to rest Roberto Firmino and go more direct by using Divock Origi, if only to make Liverpool ask more questions of opponents. Firmino is a far better striker than Origi, but sometimes, you just have to try something different.
If Klopp had a reliable alternative at right-back, he could use Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s energy and passing range in central midfield, but trying that would then leave a big hole on the right side of defence and cut off Liverpool’s most productive supply line to the forwards. Any gains would be wiped out by the potential losses.
Julien Laurens: We saw already against Sheffield United [in the 2-0 win on Feb. 28] that Klopp was prepared to adapt his principles a bit. The formation stayed the same, but the build-up play with the ball was a bit different — mostly the positioning of the two full-backs, Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
You cannot be conservative when you are going through such a bad home run. Let’s change, tweak things, adapt, and be creative.
I would not play such a high line anymore and drop off 10 yards. I would drop the 4-3-3 for a 4-2-3-1 formation or even a back three (if I had enough centre backs at my disposal). Liverpool have been so weak defensively, especially in wide areas, that a back three could help.
Diogo Jota is back from injury now, too, and I would start him in every game. I would make him central to my attacking plans, either as a “false 9” or behind Mo Salah. Firmino is injured, but I would have rested him anyway. I would get Sadio Mane more central too, in the half-spaces so he is closer to goal. Finally, I would find a way to get some sort of team-bonding exercise together — just get everyone together somewhere and get the team spirit back into this squad.
Tom Hamilton: There’s no need for Liverpool to drastically change their style of play, nor should Klopp rip up his philosophy. The injury list they’ve endured is frankly ridiculous, with Liverpool using 20 different centre-back partnerships this season.
Liverpool’s game plan is reliant on intensity and pressuring the opposition deep in their own half, but without the likes of Henderson and Fabinho in midfield (both have been out injured or deputising in defence) they lack that bite in the middle, which holds the team together. They have been vulnerable to counterattacks without Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez at the back, meaning Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have not been given the same space to room the flanks which has been detrimental to their attacking prowess.
What they do need to address in the short term is their set pieces. They have scored fewer (just six from 28 games this season, compared to 17 last term) and conceded more (they have let in nine goals resulting from set pieces this season, compared to just six in 2019-20) from set pieces. They also need to rediscover their scoring boots. The 2-0 win over RB Leipzig saw Salah and Mane score, but Firmino’s output of just six goals in 27 league matches this season is a concern.
Above all that, the players need a break. “We don’t have the mentality we are used to,” Klopp admitted after their 1-0 defeat to Fulham on March 7, referring to the mental fatigue the players are enduring, but also the absence of their on-field leaders. The international break may, conversely, come as a blessing to Klopp in that some of the squad can reset.
Bill Connelly: In theory, this one’s already found its answer. Since it’s hard to fix a ridiculously in-flux defensive block on the fly, and since Klopp is never going to want to deviate from his attacking principles — especially since their ball pressure and ability to start possessions far further up the pitch than opponents have remained strong points this year — the best thing Liverpool could hope for at the moment is a bit more life up front to help with the tired legs that Salah, Firmino and (especially) Mane have shown. Jota should provide that.
Jota hasn’t scored yet since his return, but he’s produced 1.2 xG and two chances in 189 minutes. Seven ball recoveries, too! Back in mid-December, when it looked like Liverpool might be surging to a nice lead in the table, he was a primary reason why. His injury may have been as costly as that of any of the central defenders, and his return could be a much-welcomed fix.
How would you approach the summer transfer window?
Ogden: Money is tight at Anfield, as it is at most clubs due to the financial impact of the pandemic, so Liverpool are facing a difficult summer window. In normal times, they might have looked to sell an older player — Salah, perhaps — at a premium and reinvest the money on a younger replacement. But even if Salah would be open to a move, there’s little prospect of a buying club having the funds required to sign him.
Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s highly rated sporting director, has built his reputation by finding relatively low-priced signings who become key players. He’ll need to do that like never before this summer.
ESPN FC’s Steve Nicol waxes lyrical over Fabinho’s performance vs. RB Leipzig.
Laurens: I agree with Klopp when he says that not much will happen in the next transfer window. Of course, a lot depends on how much money is available to him. If there are no funds at all or very little, it will be harder, but still not impossible.
Let’s believe, for a moment, that some money will be made available for transfers. (Honestly, it needs to be.) On my list, I would have a centre-back who could be Ozan Kabak, but could also be someone else like Fiorentina‘s Nikola Milenkovic, or Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig.
I would like to find a midfielder as Wijnaldum will leave. I need someone young who can press with intensity, and also dictate the play when required, too. Someone like Yves Bissouma from Brighton & Hove Albion, for example. Offensively, I would look for a young goal scorer that I can develop. It doesn’t have to be a superstar like Borussia Dortmund‘s Erling Haaland (although it’s a big “yes!” if he wants to come), but someone like Patson Daka (RB Salzburg) or Real Sociedad‘s Alexander Isak.
I would let some players go, and sell others like Xherdan Shaqiri and Origi — maybe even Naby Keita, although I still believe he will find the form fans have been waiting for since his arrival want to believe in him still. If one of my stars wants to leave — i.e., Salah or Mane — I would say no. They are not for sale. No one has enough money right to buy them anyway, and I still believe in them.
Hamilton: It should be a summer of evolution over revolution. Salah’s future needs clarifying, with the forward giving a wonderfully ambiguous interview in December and his agent’s recent tweet both raising question marks over the phenomenal forward’s future. The team does need freshening up, but it’s not a case of starting from scratch.
Liverpool should look to target a new centre-back, cover at right-back, a central midfielder and another attacking player. The likes of Origi and Shaqiri could both leave, while Wijnaldum’s future is up in the air with his contract up in June. The dream for Liverpool would be a Haaland or Kylian Mbappe, but a more cost-effective option would be someone like Norwich’s Emiliano Buendia to help bolster their attack.
In midfield, Klopp should also consider a player like Tyler Adams from RB Leipzig — the U.S. midfielder can play in virtually any spot across the defense and in midfield, while he’s also used to their gegenpressing style — or Borussia Monchengladbach‘s wonderful Florian Neuhaus. And then in defence, they should look for some cover/competition for Alexander-Arnold at right-back.
Finally, there’s the season’s problem position: centre-back. It’ll look very different next season with Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Van Dijk back fit, but Liverpool should still bolster their options. Kabak may join on a permanent deal from Schalke, but if they opt against purchasing him, then expect the likes of S.C. Braga‘s David Carmo and Lille‘s Sven Botman to be linked. Alongside a more youthful signing, a Dejan Lovren clone would also be an astute purchase to stabilise things at the back.
Ale Moreno explains why there’s no chance Mohamed Salah leaves Liverpool for PSG.
Connelly: Stick to the original plan. Short-term troubles have doomed 2020-21 and forced Liverpool to spend more on defenders than it intended to in the winter window, but when this season ends and you shift back toward long-term thinking, you see the same issue that was going to threaten Liverpool regardless of how this season went: age. Henderson and Wijnaldum are 30, Van Dijk and Firmino are 29, Mane and Salah are 28, etc.
The Reds did such an incredible job of nailing the peak age windows for their 2018-20 run, and with these guys aging out of that, the goal moving forward is to slowly supplement the squad with younger players, just as it was before. Acquiring Jota was step one toward that, and it’s fair to assume that a young midfielder and perhaps another attacker will be on the docket soon.
The worst thing the club could do is overreact to what we’ve seen this year. After all, they already had to do that in January.
Is Jurgen Klopp still the man for Liverpool?
Ogden: Yes, Klopp is absolutely still the man. This season will undoubtedly have taken its toll on the German, who has looked tired and drained at times, but he has won the Champions League and Premier League over the past two years and built one of Liverpool’s best-ever teams, so he has plenty of credit in the bank.
Klopp has been let down by two issues beyond his control this season. First of all, the Liverpool owners were too cautious in the transfer market last summer, signing just three first-team players (Thiago Alcantara, Jota and Kostas Tsimikas). The failure to make at least one statement signing allowed a sense of complacency to set in at Anfield.
The second issue has been injuries. The loss of Van Dijk to a knee injury in October has impacted all areas of the team, but other key players have also missed large chunks of the season and Liverpool have been unable to recover.
A lack of depth has hurt Liverpool, but with a fully-fit squad, Klopp remains capable of winning major honours again next season.
Laurens: Of course Klopp is still the right man for Liverpool. We can’t compare this current bad patch with his last season at Dortmund, for example. Klopp is a victim of his own success at the moment and of his style. Of course he has made mistakes this season, on and off the pitch, tactically and in his man-management, but he will take this team forward again, there is no doubt.
Not every season will be hindered by a crazy number of injuries like this one. Van Dijk will be back, and Jordan Henderson and Fabinho will play again in midfield. The intensity will be back and everyone, from Klopp to the players to the top of the club, will learn from this difficult season.
Let’s not forget that Klopp and Liverpool were top of the Premier League table in December! We are not talking here about Chelsea and Jose Mourinho’s 2015-16 season where the Blues imploded and exploded following their Premier League title the year before. They were 16th in the table, just a point above the bottom three, when the Portuguese got sacked. This is not the same, and I would trust Klopp to go again next season with a few new players and get this team back to where it belongs — right at the top.
Hamilton: Klopp is 100% the right man for Liverpool. This is a long-term, evolving project. He’s delivered the Champions League and Premier League in consecutive seasons, and a slump was inevitable. Remember when there were calls for Sir Alex Ferguson to get the sack back in that tumultuous season in 2005-06 when Roy Keane left? He stayed and delivered a Premier League the following term, and then a Champions League in 2008. Teams go through this regeneration process; it’s part of the four-year cycle successful teams talk of.
This campaign has been a freak season for Liverpool. Klopp needs time to breathe this summer, but he will not lose that competitive spirit, nor his excitement for his role at Anfield. Earlier this week, he was again asked about the Germany job, which is now vacant after this summer’s Euros. He responded that he has three years left on his contract.
“You sign a contract, and you try and stick to that contract, don’t you?” Klopp said. While there may be other options like Julian Nagelsmann perhaps, ex-Juventus boss Max Allegri or even Steven Gerrard, Liverpool are far better keeping the faith in Klopp.
Connelly: If you thought he was six months ago, you should still think he is now.
So much of what has happened in 2020-21 can be justifiably understood as regression to the mean striking the club really hard. They were unsustainably successful in close games last year, and for the most part the injury bug was reasonably kind to them over the past couple of seasons. But this term, both of those things have turned around dramatically.
There’s always a concern with players tuning out intense coaches after a particular amount of time — the “after a few years, either the coach or the players have to change” adage bears plenty of truth in sports — but I just haven’t seen a team that has tuned out its manager this year. I see a team that’s not only had to deal with a ton of injuries, but that’s seen most of those injuries target a specific unit on the pitch. That’s really, really hard to overcome, and there’s nothing saying these struggles will last when Van Dijk, Gomez, etc., return to full strength.