Liverpool have hit a bit of a dead-end, needing to find a route forward to unlock the shackles which have kept them grounded, writes Steven Scragg.
We have reached a bit of an impasse.
Goals have dried up, injuries remain an omnipresent issue, we haven’t won in the Premier League for a month, central midfielders are pulling shifts as central defenders and our rampaging full-backs have seemed a bit more muted than we’ve been accustomed to.
Two points accrued from the last possible 12 since crackers were pulled, bad jokes were told, paper hats were worn and too much Christmas dinner was consumed.
Jurgen Klopp has begun to make noises of the importance of a top-four finish and the spectre of handing back the Premier League trophy without being able to publicly celebrate winning it becomes an ever-increasing probability.
Klopp’s words can be quite rightly dissected as him lowering expectations in his bedraggled team, while on the other hand it is just as likely a case of him attempting to relieve what is mounting pressure. Trying to draw the sting of what is still a subtle collection of ponderable situations.
With 18 games navigated in the defence of our Premier League title, Liverpool currently sit in fourth position, while sixth-placed Everton loiters two points behind with a game in hand.
Conversely, we are just three points off the summit and no team has lost fewer games than Klopp’s side nor scored more goals than Liverpool.
There is a certain skill in being able to remain calm at a time when everyone around you declares a crisis is in operation.
At Anfield, on Sunday, if Liverpool were playing to the full capacity of their capabilities then they would have comfortably beaten Manchester United. Liverpool have rarely played to their full capacity this season, however.
Yet, they are still there and thereabouts as the outward-bound half of the campaign gets set to tilt to the inward bound half.
Much is being made of Klopp’s use of central midfielders as central defenders, yet since the loss of Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool have conceded more than once, in any given game, on just one occasion. Nine clean sheets have been attained in the 19 games played since losing our colossus.
Liverpool have had a history of converting central midfielders into central defenders and purchasing central defenders who can confidently operate further up the pitch.
The biggest issue to deploying central midfielders in central defence isn’t that they can’t do the job, it’s more that you lose them as a central midfield option, thus narrowing your scope in the middle of the park. A team can become easier to read if the same players are fielded repetitively together in the more offensive positions.
When Liverpool are in possession of the ball opponents drop deep, Manchester United were no exception to this, and when this occurs it is up to the front-three, allied by the midfield behind them and those rampaging full-backs to pick the lock.
Liverpool’s problem has been nothing to do with defending, it has been their actions in the final third of the pitch despite being the highest-scoring team in the Premier League. It isn’t that we’re missing too many chances, we just aren’t creating enough.
Since the beginning of October, we’ve scored more than two goals in all competitions on only five occasions, while we’ve been shut out by opposition teams five times over the same span of time.
Fewer options to rotate in midfield plays its part in this sudden bluntness in goalscoring intent, as does the lack of Diogo Jota – who was there to put pressure on front-three until his own injury absence.
With transfer activity unlikely to happen, the solutions will need to come from within. Thiago‘s return to fitness will make its influence increasingly felt, as long as we don’t lose him again any time soon. Thiago is the master-key to the tightest of locks.
Joel Matip is gradually working his way back to fitness, although it would be a major miracle if the remainder of his season were to be injury-free. Matip’s presence will free Jordan Henderson back into midfield.
Beyond these hopefully expanding options, we are labouring due to a significant number of players not hitting the heights they know they’re capable of.
Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t quite himself, while none of our usually hypnotic front-three are in anything other than third gear. This makes, what is by and large a functional midfield, seem borderline static.
This impasse will end, but when it will end is open to conjecture. How far do Liverpool slip behind before relocating their mojo?
The fixture list isn’t going to be our friend in this. As an entity that is feeling feeble in the final third of the pitch, the last thing we need is a game against what is tantamount to a strongarm and strict table football formation.
Burnley arrive at Anfield on Thursday night having seen five of their last eight games end with a scoreline of 1-0.
Sean Dyche’s side might be sat in 17th position, but the two teams directly below them and the two teams directly above them have each held Liverpool to a draw this season, and Burnley are going to be in just as stubborn a frame of mind as West Brom, Fulham, Newcastle and Brighton were.