Getting Back on the Trail to Greatness
It’s not often I choose to do something else on a Liverpool match day over watching the Reds. Sometimes you do and life reminds you that there are other things to be enjoyed.
Last Saturday was one of those times. At the time of kickoff, I was working my way back down a trail crisscrossing a creek bed in the mountains of Georgia. It was a sight far more beautiful than what I witnessed on Monday when I finally sat down to watch a match I already knew the result of.
It’s probably best I didn’t see it live. That display, like so many others this season, is the kind of thing that can ruin an entire Saturday. The ending was all too predictable once that header from Bobby Firmino flew straight into the keeper’s hands. Somehow, you just knew it wasn’t going to be our day. You also knew Leeds would likely find a winner that was equally as ugly and frustrating as their opener.
READ MORE: The International Break We Actually Want by Adam Beattie
SUBSCRIBE & FOLLOW: YouTube / Twitter / Instagram / TikTok
The entirety of a weekend can become less enjoyable as the frustration over something we as fans have no control over goes aggravating to overwhelming. Personally, it leads to me timing out social media and searching for anything unrelated to football to immerse myself in.
But watching two days later with no inkling as to how the match unfolded gifted me a different perspective. It felt like a match I’ve watched a hundred times this season and yet it was unique. Unique not so much in the result, nor the performance, but in what it told me about this Reds team this season.
No Corners to Be Turned
What I saw in that match with Leeds was not just a team still stuck in a malaise or a group of players who simply have aged past their prime. They continue to be out of sync with one another and are stuck in a situation where the manager doesn’t have the bodies he needs to play the way he wants the team to play.
Remember the depths of the despair we felt in that 2020/21 season? As injury after injury piled up and the results steadily slipped away? It felt like there was no corner Liverpool could turn to find their way back into the top four. The title race didn’t even cross our minds. Well into the spring, it appeared we were facing the prospect of playing Europa League footy at best.
It took some huge performances and minor miracles. In the end, though, the lads pulled a rabbit out of a hat and managed to finish third.
This season has begun to feel eerily similar. Not least because of the injuries, but also an array of other factors that have not just yielded poor results on the pitch, but have the club staring down the barrel of its most significant crisis under Jurgen Klopp.
Thoughts of “Being Back”
The first time you thought they’d turned a corner was following the 9-0 thrashing of Bournemouth. Following that with an injury-time winner against Newcastle and a point away at Everton was crucial. It seemed the season was about to get back on track. But the embarrassment at Napoli, in which the Reds had one of their worst performances of Klopp’s time at the club, led to more questions and an admission from the manager that things needed to change.
The usual talk about fixture congestion was eased as the Queen’s death provided the players with a month off following a victory over Ajax at Anfield. It was a desperately needed break as anyone with two functional eyes could see the funk that had set in. A burnout that was pervasive amongst every player in the squad could not be denied.
But the Reds came back from that break looking no better than when they went in and following a draw against Brighton in that first game, more questions began to pop up.
Victories over Rangers in the Champions League saw the manager change the shape with success, only to see the team play well but fall short at Arsenal.
At that point, you figure anything less than a catastrophe against City will do, but alas, the Reds turn up and not only avoid said catastrophe but convincingly win the match. The atmosphere was back at Anfield! This is surely what turning the corner looks like.
The momentum, however, simply was unsustainable in the way we’ve seen in years past. The question now is simple; why?
A Team Looking for Answers
It feels like a long time ago that we saw a Liverpool team that was this lost. From the manager on down, something hasn’t quite been right all season. For the squad, it’s undoubtedly an issue exacerbated by burnout from last season’s run toward every trophy possible. The aforementioned fixture congestion hasn’t helped either.
Losing the title on the final day by one point again took a psychological toll on them. That toll was even more visible as they boarded the bus for the parade following failure in the UCL final. There were bound to be some after-effects and continuation of issues seen toward the tail end of last season.
Nobody would have expected though that the hangover would doom us to hoping for a top-four race in November. Yet, here we are.
As we struggled to fire on all cylinders to start this season, I begged and pleaded with the football gods to get a message to Jurgen Klopp to alter his setup. The tactical picture at the time felt as grim as the news coming out of the treatment room each week.
A Formation In Flux
Klopp has tried variations of 4-4-2, 4-2-4, and 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks with varying levels of success. Those formations at different times make something resembling sense for the players we have available. They haven’t exactly delivered a steady stream of improved results.
At this point, even I’m hoping the experimentation slows following this week’s battle against Napoli.
What makes the defeat to Leeds United so frustrating is the fact that at times, the Reds played quite well. The shape looked to be doing what you’d ask of it, albeit with gaping holes in certain areas. Despite that, one sees moments when Mo Salah is getting the ball in dangerous positions as is Darwin Nunez. The creativity in their play seemed to be coming along, but the goals simply weren’t there.
Then there is the rest of the time. It’s a horror show of inconsistencies and confusion that leads to crippling errors. Cue the Benny Hill music.
The Vibe Around the Team
What is clear in each screaming exchange between players is a lack of understanding of where to be. There is a miscommunication about where to go and what to do next. Even in the moments it appears to be going well on the surface, there’s a tension among them that simply that wasn’t there before.
Given that fact, the coaching staff needs to seek out the simplest path forward. Strip the game down to its basics and let the footballers shine for a bit. Unfortunately, the game plan oscillating between a midfield diamond, our normal 4-3-3, and something resembling a 4-2-4 or 4-4-2 appears to be placing the players under additional pressure. And despite all the changes, it hasn’t changed the tactical plan or effectiveness of Liverpool’s opponents a great deal.
Finding Form, Healing Wounds, & Organizing Talent
A handful of players have been unusually bad in all of this. Virgil van Dijk has been a shadow of himself. Joe Gomez appears at times to be a reboot of Dejan Lovren. A high-profile mistake seems to be just around the corner at all times. Fabinho looks as if he’s on his last legs even on the rare occasion when he’s relevant to the outcome of a match. Trent Alexander-Arnold has had as rough a go of it as anyone. With pundits and supporters roasting him for even minuscule errors, Trent can’t win. Jurgen Klopp’s management of minutes is doing little to build any of these players’ confidence.
At the moment, the managing of Jordan Henderson’s minutes is hurting the team in matches where it turns to graft. Virgil is viewed by many as Hendo’s successor for the armband. But the fact is, his organization of the team hasn’t been quite as effective as Henderson’s. Against Leeds, the Reds looked better almost immediately when Henderson comes on. This isn’t down to his playmaking and skill, but his ability to communicate and organize his teammates. As van Dijk has struggled himself this season, his communication seems to be lacking.
Thiago Alcantara appears every bit a luxury player as he is a world-class talent. While we love his skills, if he isn’t controlling gameflow he doesn’t have the necessary work rate to defend intelligently. That is something that Liverpool desperately needs in the middle of the park.
And in attack, injuries to Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota have been somewhat crippling at times. The Jota injury after seemingly settling him into a groove was particularly bad as it leaves Klopp unable to pick the 4-2-4 he might prefer.
All of this has added up to a recipe for disaster and by God, now we’ve got one brewing. I have full faith that they will turn up on Sunday and beat Tottenham in a match that will feel important. And yet, I also feel almost no doubt that they will struggle in the following match against Southampton just before the World Cup break.
The Road Home
A top-four finish is now the only salvageable goal for the team in terms of the league this season. This will be a devastating blow to a group of players whose days playing together at the peak of their powers are certainly numbered.
With progression to the next round of the European Cup secured, there isn’t much to worry about on that front. When the competition resumes in February it’s quite likely that Liverpool will be an entirely different proposition by then. For any side that we may draw, the prospect of facing the Reds then instead of now is daunting.
Between now and then, a few things have to happen. For one, the system needs settling. Personally, I don’t care at this point which one it is, as long as the spacing is worked on, everyone understands where to be, we stop leaking stupid goals and Salah and Nunez keep touching the ball in dangerous areas.
There are two league matches and one league cup game remaining between now and the break. A strong finish to the pre-World Cup period will see many of them go into a 3-4 week timeframe where they can train, rest, and work on what’s gone wrong.
When they get back, there are two matches before the transfer window opens and I would hope that this is a transfer window where Julian Ward and the club’s recruitment team are ready to make some substantial moves to overhaul weak spots in the squad and help provide Klopp with the pieces he needs to steer us towards success. What or who are those pieces and what is the system we’ll be asking them to play in? Whatever it is, we’ll need it decided soon.
Getting them on the same page with some fresh blood back in the squad may be exactly what this group needs given the fact that their preseason malaise has turned out to be more of a tale of never-ending woe.
Coming Back From Qatar
On the other side of the World Cup, Diaz and Jota will return. I do believe this team will rattle off five to seven wins in a row when players distracted by their aspirations of lifting a World Cup refocus on their Liverpool objectives. But the truth is, we are in much more of a rebuilding phase than anyone realized, players and staff included.
Challenging for big things will come again, but it will not be the Premier League for us this season. That is okay. We simply aren’t built to do it every year and run it back the way Manchester City is. There will be down years and this flukey, disjointed season is one of them. Despite it all, we’ve got two trophies to defend. There is a seventh European Cup title to pursue. Finishing in the top 4 for the seventh consecutive season is still a realistic expectation.
Let’s face it, even when things aren’t looking up for the Reds, they’re still pretty good. But I understand, logic in the age of social media isn’t pervasive among the fans of any club. The doomsayers are everywhere right now. If you need a break from it once in a while, I understand. Perhaps I’ll see you back on the trail.