With Liverpool’s worst form in a long run coinciding with the prolonged lack of fans, the question is worth asking: do the Reds miss their supporters more than most?
A blip has become a malaise.
Liverpool, the champions of England, and for a few weeks more the world, find themselves in crisis.
The two aforementioned titles add more than a bit of context to this unfamiliar and unwelcome scenario. Indeed, as crises go this is hardly Armageddon. Nothing is yet lost and there is no suggestion change is in the offing. Nor should there be.
Nevertheless, a run of form that has seen the Reds score just once in five league games has derailed an already unpredictable season. Despite mustering close to 100 efforts on goal in that time, the truth is opposition goalkeepers have hardly been exerted.
There were shoots of recovery (and goals!) at Old Trafford on Sunday but a record of five wins in 15 paints a worrying picture.
A red machine that had been spluttering appears to have ground to a halt.
There are a host of reasons for this of course. The most obvious is the absence of our defensive totem.
In years to come, Jordan Pickford’s tackle-cum-assault on Virgil van Dijk may be seen as a watershed of sorts.
It was always going to be a tall order for Liverpool to sustain a title challenge without arguably their most important player. To their credit, they battled on in the face of adversity and for a while defied expectations.
Then came the equally disastrous injury to Joe Gomez…
As mentality monsters do, they dug even deeper, displaying the kind of character which helped turned doubters into believers.
This was even more admirable given a host of inexplicable refereeing decisions eating into their points tally. Wounded, Jurgen Klopp appeared to have harnessed an ‘us against the world’ mentality, one his players bought into. The ones he had left, anyway.
Yet there is only so much bad luck a team can endure.
It hasn’t received the same attention of Van Dijk or even Gomez’s injury, but the knock sustained to Diogo Jota has proven decisive.
Hints our famous front three were misfiring came back in the autumn, only for Jota to compensate for their profligacy. His impact, defined not just by goals but incisive play generally, was keeping Liverpool in the hunt.
That he sustained a knee injury in a Champions League dead-rubber still rankles.
Yet Liverpool ploughed on, winning two of the next three to top the table at Christmas. Surprisingly, the straw that broke the camel’s back appears to have come in the festive clash with West Brom.
The moment Joel Matip went down for the umpteenth time this season appeared to bring an air of resignation. The Reds lost control of the game itself and threw away what should have been three routine points. Yet the bigger impact appears to have been psychological.
Pinning your hopes on Matip, a player beset with injuries, is hardly ideal. But having recently negotiated Spurs and the majority of the Fulham game without him, Liverpool will have hoped to have got at least a small run from their only fit senior centre-half.
Instead, they were forced into yet another reshuffle at a time when any hopes of defensive reinforcements were all but extinguished by the more reliable journalists.
Perhaps there are only so many times you can go to the well. Perhaps, for the first time, this incredible squad began to doubt if retaining their title was possible.
Subsequent performances would seem to suggest as much.
As well as they have performed, the harsh reality is Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams are both League One players in waiting. Unwilling to pick either for a sustained period, the manager resorted to using Jordan Henderson in a back two consisting solely of midfielders.
In the meantime, Liverpool lost their way. With neither Henderson nor Fabinho in midfield the team dropped deeper, the passing became laborious and our cutting edge deserted us.
Sadly, a perfect storm has robbed dependable performers of form and confidence at the worst possible time.
Trent Alexander Arnold is enduring the first dip in a career which has only ever known highs. Gini Wijnaldum looks tired, Andy Robertson looks nullified and to compound matters not one, but all three forwards are struggling for consistency. Roberto Firmino in particular looks a shadow of his former self.
Tactical and personnel changes are badly needed.
Persisting with the same approach, defined largely by endless crosses into the box, is getting us nowhere fast, at least not against sides happy to sit in.
We showed flickers of life against Man United only because they loosened the handbrake somewhat. Few opponents will be so expansive. Why would they when a defensive blueprint has been set?
There is an argument to freshen things with new faces – namely Taki Minamino and Curtis Jones – as well as getting back to basics with the continued selection of James Milner.
But however Klopp tackles the situation, you can’t help but feel he’s missing his secret weapon…
Picture the manager in your mind’s eye and the chances are you’ll recall him punching the air in front of a packed Kop. His personality and by extension management style is emotional.
Part of what attracted him to Liverpool was the power of the supporters, something he harnessed from the very outset.
While the world mocked him for parading his players in front of the Kop following a 2015 draw with West Brom, it was very much a deliberate ploy; the German re-establishing a trust eroded in the previous decade.
A reunited and re-energised fanbase has propelled this side to dizzying heights, and proven as instrumental as any one signing.
Fan culture has been borne out not just in the stands but courtesy of colourful, ‘Scouse and proud’ events such as Boss Nights and The Anfield Wrap’s live shows. The scenes in Madrid’s Plaza Felipe II square ahead of the 2019 Champions League final have gone down in history.
Yet while a committed crowd can inspire the players to achieve the impossible – the comeback against Barcelona the most famous example – it can also stun them into action.
It’s not uncommon to see Klopp cajoling the supporters, urging them to give more vocal support in games that are drifting. Last week’s drab draw with United would not have petered out like it did had 54,000 Reds been packed into Anfield – they would not have allowed it.
The coronavirus has emptied stadiums across the country, with no club unaffected. That said, there is a fair argument that no side is more aligned to and reliant upon its supporters as Klopp’s Liverpool.
They inject tempo into the slowest games, crank up the pressure on incompetent referees and intimidate opponents, even those entrenched in a back 11.
The moment a handful filtered back onto the terraces for the games against Wolves and Spurs in particular, it seemed to energise players like Firmino – a showman who clearly thrives on an audience. Before you knew it, we were both locked out and locked down again.
So how big a miss have our supporters been?
Prior to football shutting down in March, Liverpool boasted a 92.9 percent win rate in their previous 28 Premier League games in which fans were present. Admittedly, that’s an extraordinary success rate which may never be repeated by any side again, never mind a Liverpool one.
However, the dropoff in the subsequent 28 games behind closed doors, or with a reduced capacity, tells a story. Our win rate has dropped to exactly 50 percent.
Closer analysis might indicate Liverpool were on the wane prior to lockdown, with defeats to Watford, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid punctuated with indifferent and unconvincing victories over West Ham and Bournemouth.
Regardless, that deterioration is so pronounced there can be no question the lack of fans is harming a side that depends on them.
With no immediate prospect of Anfield filling up again, Klopp and his coaching staff must think long and hard about how they can extract what he himself has called an extra 10 percent.
He must do so quickly.