Making sense of the current LFC freefall

Written on 15 February 2021, 12:12pm

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Here’s my take on the current state of affairs at Liverpool FC. It’s based of an accumulation of thoughts and notes over the last few months. While you could easily say that it comes right after the Leicester collapse, this is not resulting. The lines below are not about a single game, but about a series of strategic decisions taken by the club during the last 8-12 months.

So let’s begin

Back to the summer of 2020, all was looking great for LFC:

  • first league title in 30 years after playing some of the best football (up to the moment when the pandemics stroke)
  • an almost invincible squad, further strengthened with 2 quality signings (Jota and Thiago)
  • the desire to keep fighting and to ‘attack, not defend‘ the title

Fast forward to 13 February 2021, and things are looking quite bad. Out of the PL title race – as Klopp just admitted – and with a only 9 points from the last 10 games, finishing inside the Top 4 is in real doubt. Out of the two domestic cups, Liverpool are still in the Champions League last 16, albeit no one is giving them too many chances against teams like Bayern, City or Atletico.

Where did all go wrong?

Well, it turns out, not everything was great back in the summer. A combination of timing, bad luck, bad refereeing and a bad run of injuries brutally exposed longstanding flaws in a seemingly well-functioning system.

The first flaw is related to defense.Attack wins you games, defense wins you titles” said Sir Alex. Liverpool started the season with a mediocre second keeper (who already made plenty of errors leading to goals, the most important one leading to an unexpected elimination from the CL) and with only 3 defenders: one world class, another one relatively young for the position, and the third one experienced, but very fragile. In the financial context caused by the global pandemic, and having also the exciting academy option to fall back to, it is understandable why the club chose to invest elsewhere in the summer. However, after a few months, it became clear that the only experienced defender left available was the fragile one. Which I called ‘fragile’ for a reason: he soon joined the other two, being sidelined for the rest of the season.
In this situation, not having an emergency solution lined up in the first day of the winter transfer window looks baffling. Two deadline-day signings look more like panic buys rather than quality signings. But worse, by only signing some professional defenders in the last possible moment, a full month was wasted.

The second flaw is about injuries. Something is going terribly wrong in that department at LFC. At the moment, 10 players are missing due to injuries. At some point, the sidelined team was arguably stronger than the one actually playing. And in a bizarre sequence of events, even the makeshift defenders seem to get injured when playing at the back. Either Liverpool has the most injury-prone squad in the league, or something is going terribly wrong in the nutrition, fitness and physical training departments. It’s becoming statistically impossible that all the injuries are caused only by bad luck. Not counting the contact injuries (such as Virgil and Thiago during the Everton game), there is still a worrying number of players dropping out week after week with muscular problems. To make things worse, even the new signings (Jota, Tsimikas and more recently, Ben Davies) seem to be affected.
No matter how you look at it, Liverpool has a real problem with injuries, and the sooner it finds a solution, the better.

On top of all that, Liverpool seem to be way too nice. During the game against Leicester, there was a clear foul on Mane right before conceding the second goal. Nobody complained, everybody accepted their faith. Another team would have spent minutes talking to the referees. Liverpool are the nicest team to play against: in the last 4 seasons Liverpool topped the fair play table where they currently sit second. This is not about being aggressive and I certainly don’t agree with Mourinho saying that “nice boys win nothing” (take last season for instance). It’s also not about looking for contact or being street-wise. It’s simply about making your voice heard when it matters. And playing fair does not equate tolerating unfairness.

What’s next?

Despite the bad run of form and all the problems explained above, there’s still a lot on the table this season. In theory, Liverpool could still finish the season with 82 points and win the CL. But not even the most optimist supporters believe that the 82 points mark can actually be achieved — and even if it will, it surely won’t be enough to win the title. On the European front, winning the CL trophy during a bad season is a once-in-a-century event. Which for Liverpool already happened, back in 2005.

So realistically, all that Liverpool could hope this season is a Top 4 finish and a long run in the CL. The former will ensure that the CL money will keep flowing, and the latter would be a welcome financial bonus during these times. However, missing out the Top 4 would have catastrophic results.

And then?

Moving forward, investing in a quality partner for Van Dijk should be the top priority in the summer. Yes, quality defenders tend to be expensive, but defense is one of the departments where you need experience above all. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think the two recent additions (Davies and Kabak) will have a long future on Anfield. Gomez and Matip will be back and their experience is important; but I’d rather see them as quality substitutes rather than starters.

Then, a solid backup goalkeeper becomes a necessity, especially since the medical problems seem to affect Alisson more and more often. Kelleher is an exciting option for the future but with very little experience he cannot be realistically trusted as a backup GK at this stage.

A third priority should be trimming the squad and selling the injury-prone players. It’s probably time to cut the losses on players like Keita, Ox or Shaqiri. Maybe add Matip to that list if a good alternative is found before the start of the next season.

At the end of the storm…

Yes, Liverpool have had a freakish run of injuries. Yes, almost all of the 50/50 refereeing decisions went against them. Yes, there was a lot of bad luck. But success is not about finding excuses; it’s about the way you react to adversities and how quickly you find solutions to unexpected problems. Or, as a contemporary philosopher said, it’s about being antifragile.

At the moment, Liverpool look very fragile. Fixing the injury problem and having a different attitude on the pitch could stop the current tailspin. Investing in the defensive area and trimming the squad would help moving forward.

Everything’s not lost.

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