The champion’s title defense is influenced by the difficulties outside, but there are reasons to assume that it will enhance
It must be said, first of all, that what Liverpool is attempting to do is difficult.
Since 2009, only one team has held the title and Liverpool has not done so since 1984. Those were the days when their director was Joe Fagan, their top scorer was Ian Rush, and Duran Duran was at the top of the charts.
It was, in other words, a long time ago.
In view of the ease with which they were champions last season and managed to leave their fans behind this season, it shouldn’t be that hard either, at least not as hard as Liverpool make it look. When they defeated Crystal Palace 7-0 less than three weeks ago, that still seemed to be the case. The team of Jürgen Klopp was invincible that afternoon, but now they are something completely different: vulnerable, inefficient, and beatable, as Southampton demonstrated on Monday.
The St. Mary’s loss leaves Liverpool ahead of Manchester United, who on January 12 have a match against Burnley, just on goal difference. With a victory, until visiting Anfield five days later, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men will take over the top spot in the league. Even if Liverpool holds United at bay, five other teams, most notably Manchester City, have moved to within four points of them, who have really hit their stride if their recent success against Chelsea is anything to go by.
So the question is how, after looking so amazing at Christmas, did the champions come to be so well off? The away record is the most obvious issue.
This season, Liverpool won just twice away from home – against Palace and at Chelsea in September. Five draws and two losses have also occurred.
A real slip-up was the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa, and Klopp’s players did enough to win at Everton and Brighton – and they would have, had it not been for the controversial refereeing decisions.
In the absence of fans, Away form should not really be a concern this season, but given the contrast with their results at Anfield, it is obviously for Liverpool, and if there is a common thread it is ineffectiveness on offense. Liverpool have scored one goal or fewer in their last five away games apart from Palace, and they may have played for 900 minutes without scoring in their last two games against Newcastle and Southampton.
What is most noticeable is that the front three players, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, have fought this season at different times, and they seem to have hit a collective wall after the Palace game. At St. Mary’s, their interplay was practically non-existent and they were all poor individually, with Mané the only one who could be credited for his work rate.
Fatigue is arguably a concern, given the regularity with which Klopp used the trio, and in that regard, the knee injury sustained by Diogo Jota last month is a big blow. After his move from Wolves, the Portuguese was in captivating form and would have been a fresh and potentially vital alternative in the games against Newcastle and Southampton, as well as the December 13 1-1 draw with Fulham.
Focusing too much on Liverpool’s attackers, however, would be unfair as they have scored the team’s most away goals. Other players, especially Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has not been himself after suffering a calf injury and was particularly poor against Southampton, have also underperformed, giving the ball away 38 times before being replaced.
Overall, after the win over Palace, there have been signs of complacency, expressed in the slow start of Liverpool against Newcastle and Southampton, indicating maybe for the first time since Klopp took over that his side feels they don’t have to put in much effort to win.
If so, this is far from the “mentality monsters” of the German, and something that needs to be stamped out.
In other ways, soft variables could also be at hand, namely that the Liverpool teams are more “up for it” to play them because of their champion status, which could be inferred from the emotional reaction of Ralph Hasenhüttl to the victory against Southampton. Or, after their bad home result against West Brom, which came after the trip to Palace and before the games against Newcastle and Southampton, it may be that Liverpool