Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 May 2019

Jurgen Klopp has reliability issues as Liverpool's go-to-guys lose mojo

Stalwarts such as Alisson, Milner, Van Dijk, Firmino and Salah have looked out of sorts as Premier League leaders have lost momentum

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk, left, in action with West Ham's Aaron Cresswell at the London Stadium. Reuters
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk, left, in action with West Ham's Aaron Cresswell at the London Stadium. Reuters

WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW. The run could not go on and, in the end, it did not. Liverpool had won 17 consecutive league games against opponents outside the big six. Now they have dropped points in two in a row. First Leicester City and then West Ham United frustrated them.

It can seem the equivalent of luck evening itself out over a season, a necessary correctional to results. Or it could feel inevitable. Jurgen Klopp’s annual January slump always extends into the first few days of February. The German’s Liverpool record in the first 37 days of calendar years is W10 D11 L12. He has a 60 per cent win rate in the rest of his time at Anfield.

If the statistics suggest the last week has been an anomaly, the cause for concern should lie in the manner of the setbacks. Liverpool could lose the Premier League lead to Manchester City on Wednesday. More than a position in the table, they could do with recapturing the elements that allowed them to assemble such a formidable record.

A side who, at one stage, were on course to set defensive records, have a solitary clean sheet since Boxing Day. A team who were ruthless have lost leads four times in that time, even though they went on to win two of those games. It has hardly helped that a watertight defence has been broken up. Klopp said James Milner and Virgil van Dijk had been ill in the days before the West Ham game, but injuries have taken a greater toll.

The importance of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez, like that of midfielder Gini Wijnaldum, has been illustrated in their absence. Liverpool’s right-backs in their last three games have been Milner, (briefly) striker Roberto Firmino, (briefly) rookie Rafa Camacho, Jordan Henderson and Milner again. Allowing the specialist Nathaniel Clyne to join Bournemouth on loan was understandable at the time. It now looks an error.

The ongoing struggles of Naby Keita, the £52 million (Dh249m) addition, remain a theme. While Fabinho has improved after a slow start, arguably Keita’s finest display was his first: West Ham were beaten 4-0 in August. He was rather worse in the rematch. The altogether less heralded Wijnaldum missed the 4-3 win over Crystal Palace and the draws with Leicester and West Ham and Liverpool missed his work rate, tactical awareness and capacity to knit a team together. Henderson, too, would have helped in midfield, even if the one benefit of injuries was that Adam Lallana was afforded a rare start and showed his capacity to keep the ball in close quarters to help fashion Sadio Mane’s opener.

The Senegalese has scored in his last three games, but he is a rarity, one of Liverpool’s star performers excelling now. For all the focus on underperforming squad players, part of the issue is that five of Klopp’s six bankers have looked less reliable of late. Alisson’s passing was far too risky against Leicester. The usually flawless Van Dijk played Harry Maguire onside to score after Andrew Robertson, outstanding this season, needlessly conceded a free kick.

Further forward, Firmino’s decidedly mixed campaign continued with a poor display at the London Stadium. Mohamed Salah was quieter than usual. Meanwhile, some of the off-field focus has been on the fans. Anfield was anxious last Wednesday. The prospect of ending a 29-year wait for the elusive 19th league title threatens to make this a more fraught run-in, at least off the pitch.

And the tendency to swing between emotional extremes should be resisted. Liverpool host Bournemouth, who have lost their last eight away games, on Saturday. On paper, at least, they – and minus the ineligible Clyne – are ideal opponents. Henderson, Wijnaldum and Alexander-Arnold may be back. The following league game, against Manchester United at Old Trafford, may loom large, but their run-in is reasonably favourable. Leicester and West Ham represented two of the most dangerous of the mid-table pack. Liverpool do not have to play them again.

Updated: February 5, 2019 05:35 PM

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