Fortress Anfield crumbled on Saturday as Liverpool crashed to a 3-2 defeat to relegation candidates Swansea City, suffering their first home defeat in the Premier League for an entire year – since Manchester United edged out the Reds with a 1-0 victory.
It means Liverpool’s only win in 2017 remains a scrappy 1-0 win over Plymouth Argyle in a third-round FA Cup replay. This slump in form has left Jurgen Klopp’s side ten points adrift of league leaders Chelsea, and the title appears a distant dream now for this season.
A nineteenth league crown would almost certainly be out of reach should Liverpool fail to beat Chelsea at Anfield next Tuesday. However, if Liverpool perform as poorly as against Swansea, then they will be fortunate not to be thrashed by Antonio Conte’s men.
Particularly in defence and midfield, Liverpool struggled. There was little rhythm and accuracy was rare. When Liverpool did wake up after being 2-0 down early in the second half, the attack, especially Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana, saw their promising football converted into precious goals to get back on terms.
Yet, with Liverpool’s worrying and inherent fragility in defence, they quickly fell behind again and could not turn the match around for a second time.
Ragnar Klavan is a useful squad player, but cannot be relied upon for a long-term stretch of fixtures, and it was surprising not to see Joel Matip start, given the eventual success in the frustrating fiasco with FIFA and Cameroon regarding his absence from the African Cup of Nations.
Liverpool also appeared low on energy, which has been a concerning trend for most of their matches in 2017, while vital players such as Jordan Henderson and Nathaniel Clyne were playing through injury, hampering their performance.
All of these issues above underline the lack of depth available to Klopp in the squad. Admittedly Liverpool have experienced a large number of injuries and absences, from Philippe Coutinho to Sadio Mane and even Mamadou Sakho’s disappointing demise.
However, Liverpool lack senior players compared to rivals Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, with a squad comparable to Tottenham in its reliance on youngsters as understudies.
Klopp does enjoy moulding youngsters to his intense style of play but it is hard to rely on them for the first team. Even with no Europe, Liverpool appear to be slowing down in their efforts as a brutal December and January fixture list appears to have got the better of them.
Many Liverpool fans have called for reinforcements through the January transfer window, but Klopp rightly does not want to sign short-term fixes, as Liverpool remain in transition despite their surprising title challenge this season.
For the German, it is about building Liverpool into a side that can compete for trophies for the long-term, perhaps even beyond his tenure as manager.
Furthermore, signing top-class players in January is incredibly difficult, as clubs are in the middle of their seasons and find it hard to sign replacements, so would prefer to wait until the summer unless an astronomical offer is submitted.
Klopp does not like to overspend, as the positive net spend from last summer demonstrates, therefore January additions are unlikely.
Hindsight is a wonderful quality. However, Klopp may feel that he should have brought in a couple of extra players into the squad, as gaps remain.
Whilst Trent Alexander-Arnold is a great prospect for the future, Liverpool require senior cover for both Clyne and James Milner, who had to be converted into a left-back because of Alberto Moreno’s deficiencies.
Moreover, an alternative option is needed in midfield to lessen the load on captain Henderson, again transformed into a defensive midfielder and the club’s only deep-lying playmaker. Another tough-tackling player with quality on the ball would have reduced Liverpool’s reliance on their captain.
Conversely, in Klopp’s defence, he could not have foreseen Emre Can’s injury issues and decline in form in this campaign, with the young German a shadow of his impressive self from last season.
Crucially, with Liverpool’s new and fluid 4-3-3 formation, moving away from the 2015/16 setup of 4-2-3-1 with a main striker has placed extra emphasis on pace and width, yet Mane is the only senior player at Anfield who fits those attributes.
To play this system for the whole season and beyond, Liverpool needed more wingers, yet because of the attacking talent already at the club, it would have meant selling the likes of Daniel Sturridge, which would have been a harsh decision from Klopp going into his first full season as Liverpool boss. Sturridge performed well when fit last season and, despite his issues fitting into a Klopp side, deserved another year at Anfield.
Progression is the key word, and despite all the pessimism of the New Year, Liverpool are on track for a far better league position than in 2015/16.
The team in all likelihood are too stretched for the title, but those final areas of the squad that need addressing will undoubtedly be improved upon by Klopp in the summer.
This season’s spending was with the target of finishing in the Champions League places. If the Reds can achieve a top four (top three would be ideal to avoid a Champions League qualifier) finish and win a long-awaited trophy, that would still constitute a fantastic season for Klopp and Liverpool – and would also mean progress.
Good things come to those who wait – and this will not be the last title challenge for Liverpool under Klopp, regardless of how the rest of this season unfolds.