Should Liverpool be concerned after suffering their second defeat since winning the Premier League title? Of course not, a drop-off in output is only natural.
In the aftermath of Liverpool’s 2-1 loss to Arsenal, Graeme Souness found himself well-positioned to set the record straight in the Sky Sports studio.
As questions were asked of the Reds’ attitude in the game following their title win, the former captain defended their drop in form as natural, drawing from his own experience.
“We won it with five games to go in Bob Paisley’s last year,” he explained.
“We lost four, last game of the season at home to Aston Villa and we’re saying to each other ‘we’ve got to win this, this is his last game’, and we scraped a draw.
“Don’t ask me to explain it, but it happens and it’s happened to Liverpool.
“It’s only one or two percent [difference] in concentration. You allow yourself to drift, just the focus and the intensity is not there.”
Souness was referring back to the 1982/83 season, midway through a run that saw the club win 11 First Division titles in the space of 17 years, as Paisley made his farewell.
His recollection was not wholly accurate, but the sentiment remains the same.
Liverpool’s last win of that season came with seven games left to play, and it didn’t quite clinch the title—instead, it was won on April 30, with three fixtures remaining.
That stalemate at home to Villa was not, in fact, Paisley’s last game in charge, but his last Anfield; his final game was a 2-1 loss away to second-placed Watford.
The Reds ultimately failed to win any of their last seven fixtures that season, instead picking up the title by virtue of Man United‘s 1-1 draw with Norwich, but the point stands.
Their intensity dropped in the final month of the campaign having established an ultimately unassailable 16-point lead at the top after 35 games; they eventually finished 11 points clear.
While his memory of specific dates and fixtures may be hazy, Souness clearly remembers the unavoidable complacency that comes with an early title win, and this seemingly applies to the current vintage.
This is Liverpool’s first title win since 1990, which came six years after Souness left for Sampdoria and one before he rejoined as manager, but despite the remarkable achievement of Jurgen Klopp‘s side, it didn’t take long for celebrations to turn to a thirst for more.
Not content with a return to the pinnacle after three decades, the focus instead shifted to records: a best-ever points tally; a third consecutive Golden Boot for Mo Salah; a second consecutive Golden Glove for Alisson.
Defeat at the Emirates ensured the 100-point mark can no longer be reached, and therefore Man City‘s all-time record stays intact, and with two games left to play chances of goalscoring honours for Salah and the clean-sheet accolade for Alisson are now slim.
But on Wednesday night, after a clash with Chelsea that will hopefully bring a return to winning ways, Sir Kenny Dalglish—the last manager to bring the top-flight title to Anfield—will present Jordan Henderson with the Premier League trophy.
A stage is being erected on the Kop, with a section of seats removed to accommodate a ceremony the club hopes will meet supporters’ expectations despite their absence from the stadium.
It comes in unfortunate circumstances, but the significance of Liverpool’s triumph cannot be ignored, and therefore to focus on recent results would be unjust.
Since the restart, the Reds have won just three of their seven games, those coming against Crystal Palace, Villa and Brighton; there have been two losses and two draws.
They have picked up 11 of a possible 21 points, or 1.57 per game, when their incredible form prior to football’s suspension saw them win 27, draw one and lose one of their 29 games, averaging 2.83 points per game.
There has been a clear drop-off, but as Souness attests, it can be expected of a side who have already ticked off their biggest objective.
“And Liverpool have had further to travel with their feet up than any team in history,” he continued, perhaps explaining how their average has fallen from 2.77 to 1.4 since Man City‘s 2-1 loss to Chelsea guaranteed the title.
City bucked the trend of a downturn after the trophy was sealed with a drop of just 0.04 after their historic 100-point title win in 2017/18, winning four and drawing one of their final five games, but that was clearly an outlier.
Liverpool won the title earlier than any other side in English football history in terms of games played, and Klopp himself has argued that there is “no book” to explain how to perform after securing silverware so soon.
Souness had already won the title four times with Liverpool prior to that campaign in 1982/83, so it is not as if it was his first rodeo.
It may be a first-time experience for the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Roberto Firmino, but for a player with Souness’ CV the tendency to drift was not due to resting on his laurels.
Elsewhere in Europe, Juventus were held to a 3-3 draw by Sassuolo on Wednesday night, to extend their winless run to three games.
Maurizio Sarri’s side is full of winners, and they currently sit seven points clear of Atalanta with five games left to play, but the title is not even secured and Juve are enduring a drop-off.
The current climate, with games played behind closed doors and three months late, makes this situation all the more understandable, and concerns over a failure to break records when the title is Liverpool’s for the first time in 30 years are almost laughable in this context.
This is clearly not Liverpool at their best—as Pepijn Lijnders coined, their identity is intensity, and as Souness explained, that intensity is now lacking—but nor should they be expected to be.
Van Dijk looks forward to a “well-deserved break” at the end of the month because, as the rest of the squad will surely agree, the big prize is already theirs.
And whether conscious or not, sights will already be set on retaining it next season, rather than winning these final, ultimately meaningless, games of 2019/20.