With the Reds losing another game and needing a route back to winning ways, Steven Scragg identifies how this season bears some similarities with yesteryear.
It’s all gone a bit 2016/17.
When we beat Manchester City on New Year’s Eve 2016, we were well-positioned in the Premier League, and with a perceived spring in our step.
A week and a half earlier, six days before Christmas, we’d gone to Goodison Park, where Sadio Mane had snatched the only goal of the game, four minutes into injury time, forever interlinking Liverpool’s delirious supporters to the musical works of Shakin’ Stevens.
As 2017 loomed large, it was greeted with bated breath, minds running wild over just what this fast-emerging new Liverpool of Jurgen Klopp’s might be capable of, by May.
Over the course of the first two months of 2017, we won just one league game, and we exited the FA Cup in the fourth round. It wasn’t until early March that we rediscovered our mojo, going on to lose just once in our last 12 games, to secure Champions League football for the following season, by a narrow margin.
The sense of déjà vu is palpable.
Drop-offs and shrugs
If the 16/17 winter switch-off were to be translatable to 20/21, then we’ve another three or four weeks of patchy form to go, before we work it out of our system.
On the plus side, we’d be in imperious form for the last three months of the season. Using these calculations, a seventh European Cup will soon be ours…Ahem.
Losing to Manchester United should never be shrugged off as a non-event, but there are some mitigating circumstances to this one, and I can honestly say that the loss to Burnley last Thursday was a much bigger body blow to absorb.
At Old Trafford, we lost an open game that could just as easily dropped our way at 2-2.
Our shortfalls in central defence were clear to see, with a cluster of free headers allowed to be met. The first goal we conceded was an impressive sucker punch, while Rhys Williams should have cut out the ball that led to the second.
For the third goal, Alisson Becker shouldn’t be beaten on his side by a free-kick which is situated left of centre, whether you agree with that free-kick being given or not.
Added to the yellow card he forced upon Fabinho in the first half, fresh off the back of giving away the penalty that handed Burnley the victory on Thursday night, and our usually impeccable goalkeeper isn’t quite himself at the moment.
This is something you can currently level at several Liverpool players.
On the opposite side of the coin, Mo Salah shouldn’t have been on the losing side and his first goal was magnificent. That feint by James Milner in the build-up to the second would also have been worth the admission fee, had we been allowed to pay one.
Beyond that, we had brief flashes of peak Bobby Firmino, and Curtis Jones was the pick of our midfield. Thiago upping his game time must be a bonus too.
Conjecture obviously raged over the strength of the line-up Klopp fielded. He’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t in this respect. This time, given we need to play ourselves back into form, I felt it was the right thing to do.
At this point in time, for Liverpool, it is all about putting one foot in front of the other; at this point in time, for Liverpool, it is all about rebuilding a confidence that we have allowed to slip through our fingers. You can’t do that, if you take the senior players out of the firing range.
Form and fortunes
Ultimately, it was another loss.
The oddity about this downturn in form is that there was no obvious point of impact. Had it been something borne of Aston Villa putting seven past us in October, or within the immediate slipstream of losing Virgil van Dijk, then it would be a more understandable occurrence.
What can happen, in testing times, is that a collective can temporarily meet the problem head-on, before suffering a delayed dip. A form of post-traumatic disorder can kick in. They defy logic and gravity, then belatedly hit a wall.
An extreme example of this came when our late manager Gerard Houllier was taken ill in 2001. The response of the squad, under the caretaker stewardship of Phil Thompson, was to become the first English team to win away to Dynamo Kyiv, and not lose a league game for two months, before hitting a nine-game wall between December and January where we won just once.
The mind works in mysterious ways, and for a long time this season, between mid-October and mid-December, the psychological stresses that Liverpool were projecting – or lack of them to be more accurate – didn’t really match the body blows that had been received.
It was akin to a boxer being hit repetitively to the ribs, only to smile back at his assailant, and provocatively stick his chin out, as if to suggest none of the punches hurt, and that his opponent needed to hit harder.
Amid this, Jose Mourinho is the last man you want to see, but there he will be on Thursday night, armed with a meticulously calculated plan in order to down us.
In ordinary circumstances, Klopp and his players are more than capable of meeting that challenge and overcoming it. It all just depends upon how we deal in our responses.
On Sunday, we didn’t respond well enough to the setbacks, and interspersed this with flashes of our true self; on Thursday, we need to tilt the balance back towards there being more of our true self, and less in the way of negative responses to setbacks.
We will work our way through this impasse, but it won’t come without battling for it.