The sensationalist headlines on Thursday morning, after Southampton knocked Liverpool out of the EFL Cup at the semi-final stage, would have you believe that the Anfield club’s season lies in tatters. Having won only once since the turn of the year, and that being a 1-0 victory at lowly Plymouth Argyle of the fourth tier, has led many to suggest that Liverpool’s start to 2017 is now becoming a major concern.
In this age of instant, 24-hours a day, 7 days a week football news, there seems to be an apparent need to sensationalise every story; teams can no longer just be in a run of poor form or having some bad or indifferent results; now they must be in crisis, on the brink, whenever results don’t go their way.
In the cold light of analysis, out of those seven games, Liverpool lost both legs of the semi-final of the League Cup, a competition which the majority of Premier League managers treat as being at a slightly higher level than a reserve competition; got through in the FA Cup, albeit after a replay, after fielding a very young side; whilst in the league they were held to a draw away at Sunderland after a hectic festive period, got a point at top-4 rivals Manchester United and were surprised at home by Swansea who upped their performance after Paul Clement took the reins. In isolation none of those individual narratives are complete disasters. The problem that Liverpool face, as all the chasing pack do, is that Chelsea are proving relentless in the league; after slipping up at Tottenham they returned to form with victories at Leicester and at home to Hull; 16 wins out of 17 games is title-winning form in anyone’s estimation.
Even though it is still very early in the race for the championship, it feels like we are approaching a crucial run of fixtures in the next week or so, both for Antonio Conte’s pacesetters and those chasing behind. Currently Chelsea sit eight points clear at the top but their next two league fixtures are intriguingly away at Liverpool and at home to Arsenal; dropped points in either or both of those games would narrow the gap and rein the leaders in, and suddenly it would feel like the race would be on again. It is therefore probably too early to rule Liverpool out of the title race, as if things really go their way they could find themselves just four points behind with 14 games still to play; although if Chelsea were to win at Anfield things would look very different.
With no European distractions this time around, it may be that Liverpool increase their focus on the FA Cup starting with the visit of Wolves on Saturday lunchtime. Having won only one trophy in a decade, the club and their charismatic manager will be keen to put silverware in the boardroom as soon as possible.
While the potential is still there for Klopp to achieve success in his first full season in charge, the poor run of recent form, as happened at a similar stage last season when the new approach was blamed for a whole series of hamstring injuries, will continue to raise questions over whether the German’s genegpressing style is sustainable over the course of a full English season? None other than Sir Alex Ferguson, who knew a thing or two about football in this country(!) went on record in the wake of the Europa League Final last season saying: ‘I never had a team who could press a ball all season.’
Unsurprisingly, only this week, in a repeat of the criticisms he made last year, Raymond Verheijen, specialist fitness and conditioning coach and long-standing critic of the German’s methods has been reaffirming his prediction in the autumn that ‘Because of Klopp’s intense training and playing style, it’s very likely the Liverpool players will struggle in the last months of this season,’ by saying ‘Why are so many people surprised about Liverpool fading in second half of season? It was predicted over and over again during pre-season. Fantastic coach. Great in developing a playing style. But does not have a clue about the principles of periodisation.’
Without insight into the training sessions and the dressing room at Liverpool it will never be possible to either confirm or refute these criticisms; however the evidence so far would continue to raise questions. Equally for me though, the recent injury to the mercurial Coutinho, from which he is only just recovering and beginning to find his form again, coupled with the absence of the brilliant Mane at the African Cup of Nations and the subsequent rejigging of the first choice line-up, might also go a long way to explaining this recent dip in form. It is however inescapable that how the team performs over the next month or so will go a long way to determining how the success of their season is judged.