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22nd February 2021

Top of the table clash leaves champions gasping for air

How Liverpool’s title defence fell – and what they can do to reverse the rot
Top of the table clash leaves champions gasping for air
Photo: Yurification @Wikimedia

Ultimately, everything that went wrong for Liverpool on Sunday was a culmination of long standing problems for Jurgen Klopp’s team. Most of the current malaise undoubtedly comes from the injury crisis. This isn’t an excuse, it’s a fact. Since November Liverpool have been without their two world class centre backs; their third choice is injury prone and is now out for the season too.

Recently their two best midfielders, who specialise in shutting down opposition attacks, boundless energy and covering for the marauding full backs, have had to step into the centre of the defence to fix the issue. Until recently, the only alternatives to Jordan Henderson and Fabinho were two youngsters who before the start of this season had not played a single premier league game between them. 16 different centre back pairings have been tried this season. 

A general air of bad luck with injuries plagues Liverpool, with long spells on the side-lines for Diogo Jota (who had scored 9 goals in 17 appearances), Thiago (a Champions League winning midfielder) and Alisson missing several games. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that this was going to be severely detrimental to the team’s overall performance. 

The Game

Manchester City away at Liverpool was a game with two top class teams in very different forms. After losing two home games on the trot, Liverpool had hoped to regain their home supremacy, so important in previous title challenges. City on the other hand were aiming to blitz one of their strongest rivals to defend their spot at the top of the table.

The danger of playing without a recognised centre back was evident with Fabinho’s clumsy challenge on Raheem Sterling which led to the penalty.

37th minute: An uncontentious foul in the box followed by an uninspired penalty miss by City’s in-form midfielder İlkay Gündoğan made for a boring first half.

However, by the beginning of the second half, momentum was firmly in City’s favour, and their exploitation of this weakened and unfocused Liverpool side was swift and brutal.

49th minute: Gündoğan redeemed himself after a missed penalty in the first half, opening the second half scoring with a tidy finish after a stunning Alisson save off of a Foden shot. 

Over the course of this season, players who have been in poor form and in need of a rest – Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Wijnaldum and Firmino to name a few – have been run into the ground. Understandably, Klopp has been unwilling to add further disruption to a team with a makeshift centre back pairing. Liverpool’s attacking play was so off pace they needed a soft penalty to remain competitive in the game.

63rd minute: Mo Salah converted the second penalty of the game for the home side after a soft foul by City’s stalwart defender Rúben Dias .

Klopp must take a share of the blame, given his bizarre use of substitutions in recent weeks (Curtis Jones, who looked like Liverpool’s most creative player on Sunday, was the first to be taken off). He has become too cautious, putting all his trust into certain players rather than utilising the entire squad.

This caution has translated to the players available. This team won the Champions League and Premier League based on intense, brave football along with supreme confidence. It’s no coincidence that this team has become known for late winners and overturning seemingly insurmountable deficits. 

73rd minute: Foden and Gündoğan link up again for the second goal off of an Alisson mistake.

On Sunday, there was no sign of this confidence or intensity. Players dawdled on the ball, choosing the safe option over taking a Man City player on. Off the ball, too few were making runs beyond to receive it. Liverpool’s superb record against Guardiola’s side has been based on fast transitions from defence to attack; on Sunday, counter attacks were non-existent.

With the exception of Jones and Firmino in spells, no Liverpool player showed any of the self-assurance that have made them one of the greats. Numerous mistakes by the typically top quality Alisson are symptomatic of the team as a whole not functioning properly.

76th minute: A second missed pass allows City to score their third moments later, making this a day to forget for the two time FIFA World XI goalkeeper.

Liverpool looked exhausted and constantly fearful of what might happen at the back. To beat City, you have to play bravely and trust each other. The reds possessed none of that last Sunday, and were duly punished for it.

83rd minute: Foden added a fourth from a tight angle in the 82nd minute, well and truly putting the game out of reach for the Champions.

So what’s next? 

Looking to the summer, it is clear that this squad needs an overhaul. Great teams have a very short cycle before things go stale. Klopp must replicate the likes of Alex Ferguson and Bill Shankly in building a second great team. Some must be moved on due to age; others because they are simply not good enough.

In the short term, if they haven’t realised already, Liverpool must drop any lasting ambitions of defending their title. Their focus should be on securing a place in the top 4 and going far in the Champions League. The two new centre backs – Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak – must be integrated quickly to restore solidity to the midfield. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. This is not the first team to fail to defend their title. Man City last year are one just example. This is still a very good team with one of the world’s best managers. This season has shown more than any other how quickly fortunes in football can change. In mid-December, Liverpool had a comfortable lead at the top of the table; they now sit 10 points behind in 4th.

It’s not inconceivable that a collection of great players and a great man motivator could salvage something from what threatens to be a barren season. If Liverpool can regain a fraction of their self-belief, they could well come back from this stronger. 

The message that Klopp should give to his squad is simple: they are down but not out.

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