Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool struggling to halt alarming slide
Sadio Mane’s return one significant boost ahead of key clash with leaders Chelsea
Jürgen Klopp: his Liverpool team desperately need a result against Chelsea to end a recent worrying run. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
Have Liverpool been found out?
Jürgen Klopp said they required “faith, belief and confidence” to arrest their sudden slump when Chelsea visit Anfield, when a fourth consecutive home defeat would equal an unwanted club record dating back to December 1923.
He and his players must also find solutions for dealing with opponents who rely on disciplined defending and the counterattack as their problems have been repeated on a loop this month.
Swansea City, Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers all adopted similar tactics in their recent victories at Anfield – as did Plymouth Argyle to some extent in the League Two club’s goalless draw in the FA Cup third round – encouraging Liverpool’s future opponents and draining self-belief at Anfield in equal measure.
Klopp may have felt he was back to square one on Saturday when supporters who had answered his call to back Liverpool until the last began heading for the exits before the final whistle.
For once, he did not blame them. There was an appeal for perspective from the Liverpool manager at his pre-Chelsea press conference on Monday but, unsurprisingly, his tone was subdued after a dispiriting run in three competitions.
He issued a reminder that Liverpool can close the gap on the Premier League leaders to seven points with a much-needed victory and that his team remain on course for Champions League qualification. The improvement this season is lost on no one but Liverpool need to allay growing anxieties at Anfield that a fundamental weakness has been exposed.
Energy levelsSadio Mane
His energy levels and his confidence may be down having played 120 minutes against Cameroon and missed the spot-kick that sent his country out of the competition, and he only arrived back on Merseyside late on Monday, but Klopp desperately requires the forward’s pace, movement and intelligence in possession.
All three have been sorely missed since the key summer signing headed for Gabon following the 2-2 draw at Sunderland and, while it is too simplistic to pin Liverpool’s recent downturn on Mane’s absence, it has been a significant factor.
Opposition defences have coped too easily without Mane to occupy them. Liverpool were not always a mesmerising attacking force in the weeks leading up to the Africa Cup of Nations but the Senegal international helped grind out several important victories.
Klopp’s team won one of seven games without the 24-year-old, having had a 71 per cent win rate with him, and the return of the Mane, Firmino, Coutinho forward line – one that last started together on November 26th – is the main reason to suspect that Liverpool’s form can return as quickly as it evaporated.
Not for the first time, Klopp made reference to Antonio Conte’s consistent team selections on Monday when discussing the reasons for Chelsea’s rise to the Premier League summit.
He is qualified to comment, and not only having witnessed Leicester City benefit from something similar last season. Liverpool’s impressive form earlier in the campaign came with his side settled and prospering with their once-a-week duties without European football.
While Chelsea have avoided any serious loss of personnel so far, Klopp has lost Philippe Coutinho, Mane and Joel Matip for long periods, the captain Jordan Henderson is playing on with another heel problem and Nathaniel Clyne could be absent again on Tuesday with an abdominal injury.
Daniel Sturridge, Emre Can and Divock Origi have not grasped first team opportunities and invited accusations that Liverpool’s squad is not the balanced, resourceful unit Klopp publicly claims it to be.
Before the FA Cup defeat by Wolves, a team 18th in the Championship, Liverpool’s manager claimed that poor decision making was responsible for a run of one win in seven games and not the physical toll of his playing style as identified by the serial critic Raymond Verheijen.
The argument had merit and is supported by Liverpool’s statistical analysis of recent matches, but only added to the bewilderment over Klopp’s subsequent team selection for the fourth-round tie on Saturday. It is not a case of being wise after the event.
From the moment the Liverpool team sheet landed, showing an untried and untested back four of Connor Randall, Joe Gomez, Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno, plus nine changes in total from the EFL Cup semi-final defeat by Southampton, it signalled their manager had taken an unnecessary risk.
It proved a misjudgment that has increased pressure on Liverpool to deliver against Chelsea and fuelled the sense of a season suddenly going into reverse. Klopp was fully justified in utilising his resources in the FA Cup last season. The selection on Saturday looks careless and avoidable.
That philosophy suits Liverpool’s owner, Fenway Sports Group, and Klopp’s strategy of developing a side that will ultimately compete for the Premier League title on a regular basis.
It was an approach that drew praise when Liverpool were flying before Christmas having bought wisely – and modestly by last summer’s inflated standards in the Premier League – but prompted accusations of complacency during the January downturn. That would be unfair.
As the transfer deadline has approached Klopp has made it clear that Liverpool tried to land that “right player” but were frustrated by rival clubs or the individual’s preferences/demands. His belief that Liverpool already possessed players who could compensate for Mane’s absence has not been rewarded but Klopp had to offer that opportunity.