Liverpool registered their first Premier League victory of 2017 against Tottenham Hotspur last Saturday, earning a comfortable 2-0 win. They remain outside the top four in fifth, eleven points adrift of leaders Chelsea, but the Reds have that winning feeling once again.
While their rivals around them prepare for fixtures in the Champions League and FA Cup, Jurgen Klopp has taken his squad out to Spain for a miniature pre-season ahead of their next Premier League game at struggling champions Leicester City.
Liverpool play Claudio Ranieri’s side on Monday 27th February, more than two weeks after the Tottenham encounter, giving the Liverpool players the perfect opportunity to reset themselves and concentrate on their final thirteen games of the season, using the Tottenham victory as a springboard.
The Reds only have the league to focus on, and a top four finish must be in their sights.
Indeed, it was not that long ago that Liverpool were thinking they could possibly win their first Premier League title for 27 years, as they trailed Chelsea by only six points going into 2017, following a New Year’s Eve victory over Manchester City.
Sadly, the reason why Liverpool now find themselves outside the top four, and with their title dreams in tatters, is because of their rotten form in the New Year.
Going out of both cup competitions, suffering three successive home defeats and with their only win against Plymouth Argyle in a FA Cup third round replay, January was without question a month to forget for Liverpool.
January rarely is a kind month for the Reds but this was unprecedented, and means the Reds are in a serious fight for Champions League football next season.
December and January is known for its heavy fixture list, especially if you have additional cup commitments – as Liverpool did with the League Cup. Liverpool played nine times in January – the same amount as October and November combined.
Unfortunately, with Liverpool’s light squad depth and intense style of play, the fixtures caught up with them, causing huge damage to their season.
Since late November, Klopp has been unable to regularly field a consistent starting line-up, with members of his strongest eleven either injured or unavailable for various reasons. Particularly given the form and fluidity of the front four at the time, this was a tough blow for Liverpool, who have discovered this season just how important their first-choice players are in the squad.
Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi have struggled to replace Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, while Roberto Firmino wore himself into the ground as Klopp could not afford to rest the Brazilian.
Emre Can has been hugely inconsistent this season, and is better competing for Jordan Henderson’s deeper position than replacing Lallana or Georginio Wijnaldum.
In defence, Liverpool are dependent on a fully-fit Joel Matip, with the likes of Ragnar Klavan and Lucas Leiva capable of filling in for a couple of games, but not over the long-term.
These issues with squad depth will undoubtedly be addressed by Klopp in the summer, ideally with the money and allure that Champions League football offers, regardless of the German’s dismissal of the competition’s importance to his transfer strategy.
Liverpool were back to their old selves against Tottenham, maintaining their high-tempo, high-pressing levels for the first time in 2017. They have continued to perform against the big teams since the turn of the year, picking up draws against Manchester United and Chelsea.
However, the Tottenham victory was especially encouraging because the ‘Fab Four’ were back in attack and the Reds have now returned, for the most part, to a one game a week schedule for the rest of the season.
Moreover, the fixture list itself on paper is promising, with more than half of the remaining matches at Anfield. Despite the January losses, Liverpool would still back themselves more at home than away.
Furthermore, Arsenal, Manchester City and Everton are in Liverpool’s next five fixtures, which appears daunting. Yet given Liverpool actually perform better against the bigger teams, if they can pick up some positive results in these fixtures, that momentum and confidence will hopefully carry over against the likes of Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace.
The Liverpool players will be eager after the last couple of months to show they can perform against the lesser lights of the Premier League, away from the spotlight of the huge matches.
Chelsea are over the hills and far away for the league title, but there is very little to choose between the five teams underneath as they scrap for a top four finish.
All bar Liverpool are engaged in other competitions however – for instance Manchester United could still have another 28 games left. By contrast, Liverpool have only one front to focus on and have to make that fixture advantage count.
With weekly rest between games, the Reds should be able to resurrect their ‘gegenpressing’ best from now until May, and if they can stay away from injuries, the Champions League is in reach.
Then Klopp can strengthen the squad for next season so they will not have to recover from another mid-season collapse.