What’s behind the crisis at Liverpool?

Our identity is intensity’ was a key quote from Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders in his recently published diary titled ‘Intensity’. Released on the 4th of August 2022, the book recounts the 2021/22 season, in which the Reds played an astonishing 63 competitive games, picking up both domestic cups along the way. However, they narrowly missed out on the Premier League title to Manchester City on the final day of the campaign, followed soon after by a 1-0 loss in the Champions League Final to Real Madrid.

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Jurgen Klopp’s men have struggled in search for any signs of last seasons form, currently sitting at 6th in the table, 7 points adrift of the top 4. There could be a multitude of reasons behind this reverse in fortunes for the club, but how much of it is under control?

The Engine Room – Issues the heart of the squad?

A lot has been made in the media of the Liverpool midfield and the lack of investment in this area by LFC chairman and head of Fenway Sports Group (FSG), John W. Henry. The Anfield outfit, once lauded for being a shrewd operator in the transfer market, are now in the spotlight for their activity (or lack thereof) in the summer and winter windows. Much of this praise was given to former Liverpool Sporting Director Michael Edwards, who was given the position in 2016 after 5 years in the club’s analytics department. In the subsequent five years, Edwards oversaw 21 acquisitions at the club, of which only five have been midfield enforcements – in the form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, Fabinho Tavares, Thiago Alcantara and Arthur Melo.

The majority of names previously mentioned have gone on to be part of title winning squads, however all have had their separate issues in a red shirt. Naby Keita, having moved from RB Leipzig in 2018, has only managed to rack up 122 appearances in 5 years due to frequent stints on the sidelines due to injury, and similar can be said for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who has missed 90 games since signing in 2017. Recent loanee Arthur Melo has also only completed 12 minutes of competitive football donning the famous red shirt, with the Brazilian undergoing surgery at the tail end of 2022. Thiago and Fabinho have been, at their peak, world class under Jurgen Klopp – yet Thiago, 31, is now picking up more frequent muscle issues and Fabinho, usually ‘the lighthouse’ and the single pivot at the base of Klopp’s midfield, has never been more out of form.

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With mixed success in the recruitment department, compounded by the departure of midfield mainstay Gini Wijnaldum, the ageing duo of James Milner and Jordan Henderson in addition to the inexperience of Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Fabio Carvalho, Liverpool seem to be in dire need of midfield reinforcements, whether these come in January or in the summer, fans and players alike would revel in the arrival of fresh legs.

Fatigue – Tired legs or tired minds?

Liverpool played a record 63 competitive games in 2021/22, culminating in 2 out of 4 trophies, which clearly took its toll on the fitness levels across the squad, with Klopp having to not only change personnel, but at times this season, also having to change shape and system altogether.

Since arriving on Merseyside in October 2015, Jurgen Klopp has deployed various tactical set ups, but has always favoured the 4-3-3, however this season fitness issues have forced the German’s hand, leading to a more flexible approach. 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-4 have all been used in an effort to shift the form of the team and get the red arrows flying once again. This has also seen the out of possession behaviours altered, with Klopp’s ‘heavy metal football’ being more alike to a passive piano melody in comparison to previous years. In the 2018/19 season Liverpool led the league in sprinting metrics, and were second in distance covered, fast forward to the current day and the comparative numbers are staggering. In 2022/23 Liverpool are now 14th and 16th for distance and sprints respectively (stats via Paul Joyce, Daily Mail).

These stats may be a contrast to the belief that the midfield is the department in flux, but instead perhaps the entire squad are feeling the consequences of so much grass covered at such high intensity, Jurgen Klopp himself has stated in a recent interview following Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat to Brentford in match week 17 of the Premier League season, that “it’s a general problem, not a midfield problem”. This may be the truth of the matter or a tactic used to deflect focus, whichever it is, it is evident that the team cannot function at the pace of previous years.

Previously dubbed the ‘mentality monsters’ by Klopp, Liverpool have proven this nickname fitting at multiple points under Klopp’s reign, most notably the 4-0 win over Barcelona in the Champions League Semi-Final at Anfield in May 2019. But after so many ‘nearly seasons’ having missed out on the league title by 1 point on two separate occasions, as well as losing 2 champions league finals in the past 4 seasons, you’ve got to wonder if the players are worn down in their heads at the bitter disappointment of these events.

“Only midfield? It’s a general problem not a midfield problem. Defending starts up front. If you don’t defend from there, then the midfield have no chance. Balance might be a problem now.”

A disappointed Jurgen Klopp when asked about midfield issues following loss to Brentford on January 2nd 2023

So what now, where do Liverpool go from here?

It is clear to many that the on-field issues at Liverpool Football Club are a result of a combination of factors, some of which have already been mentioned, but how do the club officials go about finding solutions?

Well the obvious answer is to throw money at the problem right? Buy younger, hungrier and fitter players in areas in which they are needed, if only football were that simple. In a sport where money is abundant, a club like Liverpool have an ethos and a culture in which they tend to adhere to, so money may not always be the answer. But whether it be recruitment, development, tactics or investment, there is one thing for certain, things need to change, and they need to change fast if Liverpool are to keep their top 4 hopes alive this season.

One thing Liverpool fans can be hopeful about is that Jurgen Klopp is the man for the job, since coming to the North West of England, the self-proclaimed ‘normal-one’ has turned doubters into believers, perhaps 7 years on, he has a similar task on his hands.

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