Liverpool’s slump in form was inevitable at some stage in a unique season, but now they must call upon their title-winning experience and knowhow to overcome it.
At the end of the day, what use is experience if you aren’t able to call upon it?
Successful teams have ‘big-game experience’. It’s spoken of often in football and, while not quantifiable, it’s clear to see when it is taking hold and playing an active role.
This now, rather patently, is what Liverpool need to call upon.
Nobody need tell Jurgen Klopp and Co. that nine points dropped from the previous six games played isn’t good enough. It’s reckless, and rather naive from a team who so ruthlessly stormed to the title last season and obliterated the division.
Also, however, it happens.
Liverpool have been so good for so long that a slightly prolonged spell of inept performance is greeted with angst and horror.
It’s all fine and well to count up the points Liverpool have let drift away so far this season, or perhaps points which ‘should’ have been banked were it not for some mind-bending refereeing or video assistant decisions; all eyes on Goodison Park.
I’ve done it myself, far more times than I’d care to admit. We should have had two points here, another two points there, add them on to the hypothetical tally.
Yet to do this puts Liverpool in vast open water and a gulf apart from the rest, much like last season. It’s a romantic idea and this current crop of players are more than capable of continuing to boss the division, but a dose of realism must come into play at some stage.
Liverpool have gone from Champions League finalists to Premier League runners-up by a point with a record haul of 97 – and Champions League winners in the same season – to the earliest Premier League winners in English football history. All in the space of three years. Three.
To expect this astonishing level to continue at such a blistering trajectory just isn’t realistic. Something, or things, has to give. And let’s be fair, the most unprecedented period in sporting and indeed modern world history provides the ideal backdrop for this.
This is a season like no other. A time like none of us have really experienced before, and yet in amongst all this, as we desperately look to football to soothe the nerves and deliver a modicum of normality, Liverpool embark on their first sustained run of poor form.
Poor form, it should be noted, which has only provided two defeats all season, with a team pillaged by injuries yet still sitting around the top of the division.
This is not a crisis. It is concerning, but only by the nature of how good this Liverpool squad is and the eye-watering standards it has set for itself.
And this is where we come to experience. ‘Big match experience’, ‘big team experience’, however you wish to package it.
The current crop of Liverpool players represents a group of lads who have forged a path together to become one of the most formidable and well-respected sides in European football. The praise and rave reviews are all well-earned, as much as the criticism is when things go awry.
Liverpool are the team to beat and every man within the squad, starting or reserve, has been in a place over the past 18 months or longer where events on a football pitch have twisted and contorted them into bona fide winners.
There is a real experience running through the Liverpool side for the first time since the fabled ’80s. A squad which has been here and there, high and low, winning matches and seeing the shimmer of silverware and glittered confetti twinkle back in their eyes as a result.
Now the players have something to fall back upon, a reassuring point of reference for myriad situations.
Trent Alexander-Arnold need not dwell on the fact a rough evening inside a freezing cold St Mary’s saw him turn in one of his most fruitless showings in recent years, just like Sadio Mane doesn’t have to lose sleep over having two fortunate defenders clatter him about the touchline for 90 minutes aided and abetted by a short-sighted referee.
Both players have won and lost Champions League finals and had a league title snatched from their outstretched fingertips.
It’s all about experience now, and starting to use it before a worrying stunted segment of the season becomes something a whole lot more troublesome.
As the clock ticked around the 80-minute mark on Monday night, Jordan Henderson saw himself shoved to the ground following a late, and rare, counter-attacking break from the hosts.
A moment of confusion from the Reds skipper saw him stay down and nurse the knock, only to be quickly hauled up by Thiago and ushered to promptly play on.
Perhaps a little red-faced for a moment at the nature of the exchange, Henderson cracked on.
A small and relatively insignificant moment in what was the most forgettable of games, but a brief bit of symbolism of what this Liverpool team have within their ranks.
Two of European football’s most successful midfielders in recent seasons both carrying the weight of expectation on their shoulders and huge personal thirsts to continue achieving.
An injury-hit start to Liverpool life has left Thiago desperate to make a mark, with his early yellow card on the south coast no coincidence. Henderson, likewise, carrying the torch at the heart of yet another makeshift defence as Klopp once again tries to plug a problem area which shows no sign of going away.
Liverpool players have their personal points to prove all over the pitch and yet still sit jointly-top of the pile, despite rivals steadily closing in. It’s not an ideal situation to be in, but it’s ammunition to work with.
United come next in the league. The most unlikely of title rivals. Let us not forget this is a team who started the season unable to win a home game until the fifth time of asking, and within such time were hammered by Tottenham, needed extra-time beyond extra-time to defeat Brighton and were dumped out of the Champions League.
United have lost three times this season, yet are now flavour of the month after a strong run.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have now just recorded defeat number two, while having already played each of Chelsea, Everton and Manchester City away from home. Games against Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal and Wolves have already also been navigated, with maximum points taken.
Mistakes, though, have been made and it is a case of back to the drawing board in some regard, yet Liverpool are no longer a team of players stumbling through the darkness when it comes to patches of ill-form; it’s time to bring trophy-winning experience to the table.
United could well be top of the league when the two sides meet at Anfield, and Liverpool will be presented with a situation they haven’t sampled for quite some time: a ‘must-win’ domestic fixture.
No excuses, no false starts, just pound-for-pound combat and the winner takes their due. This group of players didn’t tear up the record books by chance over the past 18 months – hopefully, in the coming weeks, we’ll be comfortably reminded why.