Liverpool have been imperious all season, but with two losses in their last three, the Reds have started to stutter ever so slightly. Ben Webb looks at the situation and examines what’s going wrong.
It was a shock to the footballing world as Watford pulled the plug on Liverpool’s Premier League invincibility aspirations. I sat in utter disbelief at the unrelenting chaos that Watford – and particularly, Sarr – unleashed on Liverpool.
I found myself pondering afterwards, attempting to justify or comprehend, how such an all-conquering team had fallen short against a team fighting relegation. Fatigue, maybe? Pressure? Perhaps the break in our rhythm with the winter break has caused a temporary detrimental effect?
I’ve seen a few on social media mention complacency, which could be a factor, but this team doesn't make a habit of underestimating anyone, hence the formidable unbeaten record. Or, it could be as simple as a team missing their industrious captain. I’ll look at the different factors and explain why I believe this loss could be a blessing in disguise…hear me out.
A Break in Rhythm
I’m going to start with the reasoning that the break in regular play has hindered Liverpool’s form of late. Which, in fairness, may have some validity – look at the games post-winter break, and there’s an obvious difference in fluidity and ferocity.
That said, we’re still showing the mentality of champions and finding a way – returning with a tight victory over Norwich. Then came the monumental European clash with Atlético Madrid, which saw Liverpool concede an early, out of character goal from a set-piece.
Liverpool went on to dominate possession, passing stats (450 more passes than Atlético), and exceeded their shots at goal – but, to no avail. Which I didn’t see as a particularly bad result, considering the opposition and with the second leg at Anfield in mind.
Gini Wijnaldum nods home an early goal against West Ham and I had my feet up, thinking order had been restored. A nice routine win on a Monday night. The Hammers had other ideas. From being all square at half-time, to trailing, in what felt like a blink of an eye.
The twelfth man went up a notch and the Reds responded, finishing up 3-2 victors. We were far from firing on all cylinders, but grinded the game out. Then, the Watford game. Not a given, but I doubt many would have predicted the outcome.
Again, Liverpool completely dominated possession (73%) and had well over 400 passes in their favour, but somehow only managed half the shots Watford created (seven to Watford’s 14).
This is perhaps a signal that fatigue isn’t the problem, but finding that killer move, or pass, is – such things come with regularity and rhythm – second nature when consistently performing. It’s no surprise, really, when you consider how fast Liverpool play, then expect them to stop practising daily and continue at the same level of intensity and accuracy.
It takes time for that same telepathic movement and connection to revive, which is a short-term constraint from having a winter break, but not something I deem a bad thing for longevity of fitness.
The Missing Captain
Then we have the Jordan Henderson factor – to downplay his absence or influence on this squad of players would be obscene, so I wont even attempt it.
I’m not suggesting there aren’t leaders beyond Henderson, as there are many candidates who meet the criteria – van Dijk, Robertson and Alisson, to name a few – but I feel Liverpool are missing his communicational skills and ability to set the tempo, every game.
I think he benefits so many individuals, from communicating with the backline to tirelessly grafting in midfield, and, more recently, assisting the attackers. Although, I still think we’d have lost that Watford game regardless; they were phenomenal and bullied us into submission.
In the grand scheme of things, though, Henderson’s importance was significantly highlighted on Saturday evening.
I think the immense pressure this team face is often understated – not only are they likely to end the 30-year wait for the Premier League title, but they’re expected to do it by with a perfect points return.
Add in the high expectation (that they’ve set for themselves) to perform in Europe again, and that’s potentially a factor which could weigh heavy on their shoulders. Klopp said: “Now we can play free football again and don’t have to try to get a record. We just have to try to win football games again, and that’s what we will do.”
This signifies there might be a slight relief that the never-ending discussion of invincibility has been eradicated, and our focus can now be purely on performance.
Here’s the thing, and it’s no bad thing, either. These lads in red – the champions of Europe, Super Cup winners, FIFA World Club Cup winners – who currently sit 22-points clear at the top of the Premier League, are waltzing around with targets on their backs, simply because they’re a massive scalp to any opponent who can bloody their nose.
It’s not dissimilar to heavyweight boxing; everyone aspires to beat the champion and, motivationally speaking, it’s going to give the challenger that extra bit of fight. Sometimes, and I very much expect it to be a rarity, getting caught cold isn’t the worst thing to happen.
I’m not insinuating that complacency is at work, but sometimes getting knocked down a peg or two can help keep your feet grounded, and provide a stark reminder of what’s required to stay at the summit – for us, that came via the humbling result at Vicarage Road.
Jürgen Klopp’s man management and motivational skills have been proven beyond doubt, so this minuscule blip will only feed his unremitting charge towards greatness. Look what happened after the 4-1 pummelling at Tottenham – the Reds lost only 4 times in 94 Premier League games. That’s spectacular in anyone’s books.
I believe the mentality of this group will feel they have it all to prove following the loss, and will go on a similar run of form. Our pride momentarily dented, it’s now time to bounce back – after all, there’s still a highest points record to be surpassed, and a Champions League Trophy to be retained.