After a very strong first half of the 2016/17 season, Liverpool finished the campaign by barely achieving their goal of qualifying for this season’s Champions League. That meant that after finishing fourth they had to beat Hoffenheim over two legs in the final round of qualifiers.
However, the goal was achieved and the season was therefore deemed successful. Over the summer they faced a hard task of keeping Philippe Coutinho following strong interest from Barcelona and improving the squad further.
Liverpool’s Season – Is it too late?
What Went Wrong?
Coutinho stayed put despite handing in a transfer request. The acquisition of Mohamed Salah from AS Roma for less than £40 million seems like a deal of the century at the moment. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is starting to find his feet as well, however Andy Robertson so far has not been used much due to the sudden resurgence of Alberto Moreno. 20-year old Dominic Solanke currently sits on the bench, patiently waiting for his chance and using whatever game-time he is given to make his contribution.
On the other hand, their attempt to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton has remained fruitless so far, and having sold Lucas Leiva to Lazio, Jurgen Klopp was left with just three senior centre-backs and young Joe Gomez.
A heavy injury crisis can sometimes hamper the efforts of best equipped squads, let alone an incomplete one like the Liverpool one. And the troubles began before the season did.
Coutinho handed in his transfer request one day before the opening Premier League match at Watford, with reports soon emerging the Brazilian had some back issues as well. Nathaniel Clyne and Adam Lallana were struck by long term injuries and remain out of match involvement to this day, though Klopp announced a few days ago that he’s expecting Lallana back in the team after the upcoming international break.
In terms of results, the season started well enough with a draw and two wins from the first three games. After that though, Sadio Mane got sent off at the Etihad, and the game ended with a disastrous 5-0 defeat. Lots of things went downhill from there.
The overall level of play remained at a reasonably high level. Liverpool dominated their games, limiting the opposition view of their goal nicely while creating a fair number of chances at the other end. However the lack of ruthless finishing and a few inexplicable defensive mistakes resulted in the club going out of the Carabao Cup to Leicester City, and points being dropped in the Premier League at home to Burnley and away to Newcastle. As well as this, the home against Sevilla and in Moscow against Spartak in the Champions League finished in draws.
Given the form Manchester United had shown early in the season nobody truly expected Liverpool to beat them and with Mourinho’s tradition of a defensive approach to Anfield games. That encounter had a 0-0 draw written all over it.
But things absolutely boiled over after the unexpectedly comprehensive defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. Harry Kane opened and closed the scoring, with an assist to Son Heung-min and a terrific Dele Alli volley in between, so whatever hope Mohamed Salah had given finishing off a fantastic pass from Jordan Henderson was short-lived.
Again the same question – what went wrong?
Dejan Lovren was marked by the public as the guilty party, and for that he received plenty of abuse, culminating in an online death threat to his family. Lovren was indeed culpable for a lot that went wrong for the Reds in that game, but as Klopp rightly pointed out, the fact remains Liverpool conceded twice more after the Croatian centre-back left the pitch in the 31st minute. Simon Mignolet in goal also got a fair share of deserved criticism, but the problems in the game didn’t begin and end with those two.
The pressing was ineffective. In order to make it so, Mauricio Pochettino’s men played out quickly, easily going past their opponents and latching on to passes in a way that shows they were well prepared. Also, Klopp twice tried to improve the situation with formational changes, but they only seemed to confuse his players further.
Their recent win against Real Madrid in the Champions League is a very good indicator that they have managed to break through the “Curse of Wembley” and that the venue is by no means a light excursion for anybody. But the fact remains – Liverpool have mostly brought about their own demise with a poor performance against a highly motivated opponent.
A Solid Response
They needed a strong response, and they needed it quick. Two Anfield games followed, against the so-called “lesser” teams this time. The Reds have been known to struggle against such opposition before, so it was imperative to play their football well, staying focused at the back and showing no mercy in attack. The games unfolded in similar fashion and ended with identical results. After struggling to break down well-organised defences in the first halves, they made the most of any concentration lapse in the second ones and nailed two 3-0 victories against Huddersfield Town in the Premier League and NK Maribor in the Champions League.
Having previously hammered the Slovenian side 7-0 at the stadium of Ljudski Vrt in Maribor, with two wins and two draws Liverpool top their group in Europe’s elite competition. A win away to Sevilla in the next round would secure first place with a game to spare.
Domestically, things are far more complicated, even though the Reds continued the good run by beating West Ham 1-4 at the London Stadium and put what seems to be the final nail in the coffin of Slaven Bilic’s tenure as the Hammers’ manager. They sit sixth at the moment, with all of their top-four rivals ahead of them and Burnley in seventh with the same number of points.
In order to keep their hopes of another successful season alive, they will have to roll up their sleeves and work hard to achieve consistency in their results. The next game they play is against Southampton at Anfield, and while the Saints have not started the season as well as they would have hoped, Liverpool must show no mercy, but exploit any weakness they may find and win the game. Sadio Mane is back, and by the time the international break is over they will probably be able to count on Coutinho and Lallana as well. Emre Can, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Daniel Sturridge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner have all stepped up recently, and so they should continue.
The much-maligned Lovren reportedly got injured in the warm-up before the Huddersfield game, and for him it was probably a blessing in disguise, allowing for him to be taken out of the spot-light for a while and regroup. Ragnar Klavan took his place and has performed at a decent level alongside Joel Matip. Therefore it’s hard to see the Estonian making way for Lovren’s return to the starting XI at the moment.
But Liverpool’s defensive problems weren’t due to Lovren’s poor form alone, and a lot of work will have to be done to sort a few basic issues – positioning, maintaining as straight back-four line in order for offside traps to be efficient, and the often criticized set-piece defending.
One goal conceded in the last three games looks promising, but too many promises have already been broken this season. Nothing is guaranteed. Is it too late? No. But whether Liverpool can fight back and reclaim a spot in the top four remains to be seen.