Football isn’t an exact science, success comes and goes and it is important to savour the good times when they come your way.
The last three years have been an incredible journey for Liverpool FC; bouncing back from the painful defeat in a Champions League final to win it the following season, followed up with a first league title in 30 years and the European Super and World Club Cups. An incredible 197 points in the Premier League over 24 months which at any other time would have secured back to back titles.
The consistency has been incredible. This team really have been mentality monsters.
But at some point there was always going to be a dip, it is incredibly hard to keep up that level year-on-year. But it is important to look at the context of a drop-off, what are the reasons? Are they signs of deeper issues at the club or are they just a moment in time?
Although this is a tough moment for Liverpool, there are plenty of reasons to believe that a multitude of factors have combined to derail a team that at its best has proven its credentials as one of the worlds best.
There are a number of things to think about with a cool head; even if we don’t reach our heights and expectations this season, logic points to this poor run being a moment in time and not a sharp decline.
The strangest of times
The pandemic has affected football in so many ways, both financially and emotionally. But both of those things are being very keenly felt at Anfield.
Let’s start with the finances. One of the key strengths of FSG has been financial discipline and one of the reasons they have achieved that is by building a recruitment team that has become one of the world’s best at player trading.
The FSG model is all about smart trading: selling players at a peak price and bringing in new replacements with a high ceiling at a better value. The investment in the playing squad has more of a focus on reward. Once players become great, they are rewarded very well which is reflected in our wage bill being £310 million and one of the highest in the world.
Our current squad has a paper value that is probably circa £1 billion. It has been brilliantly constructed and put together without the need to spend heavily on marquee signings year on year.
The financial impact of the pandemic on football has been severe, at Liverpool the loss of matchday revenue leaves £100 million black hole in the club’s finances. To put that into context, the wage-to-revenue ratio pre-Covid was around 55% – so out of every pound the club earns 55p goes on wages.
Take away matchday revenue that squeezes that ratio even further leaving less flex for transfer fees.
Under FSG the club has always looked long terms and strategically. The £50 million investment in a new training complex at Kirkby is a commitment to the club growing its own talent.
In usual circumstances, the club would be able to better react to things that happen in a season, like injuries. But these are not usual circumstances, and decisions need to be pragmatic.
A broken system
Any club that loses both of its first choice centre backs to serious injury is going to struggle at times. When you take into account that the ‘Klopp system’ heavily relies on a high line and pace at centre back, and the quarterback-esque passing of Van Dijk, it is clear that the game plan has had to change.
One of the factors that Klopp and the owners need to consider when thinking about any new signing is that both of those players will be back, and first choice next season. As good a player as Joel Matip is, his injury record makes him a fourth choice. Fabinho has been an absolute revelation at centre back and has been as good as anyone in the league in that role this season. Trying to find a player with the right profile isn’t easy in this market.
One of the consequences of Fabinho dropping back is that we’ve lost a huge part of our midfield. In the past three years Fabinho has been easily one of the best in the world in his position, and has been a key part of Liverpool’s system.
With injuries to key players, Klopp has had to try and improvise. It isn’t just Gomez and Van Dijk we’ve lost: Allisson, Thiago, Diogo Jota, Naby Keita, Matip, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have all had prolonged periods out of the team and some are still working way back to full form and fitness.
Under Klopp the system has always been the star in the team. It is a well-oiled machine. But this has been a freak period where injuries have broken it. But there is absolutely no reason to believe once key players are back to full fitness, the system will lift us back to the level we have come to expect.
Another factor to consider is the emotional impact of the pandemic and its effect on our mentality. There are few people in football that feed off the emotion more than Jurgen Klopp, and he will be feeling the lack of supporters more than anybody. Strangely some teams are benefitting from the lack of fans in grounds, as away results are showing. But, not at Liverpool.
Klopp’s entire game plan is built around intensity and emotion. And without fans in the ground the game is almost soulless. It is almost impossible to generate that high energy and levels of intensity without the crowd.
Since the restart the players have looked mentally fatigued. The high press of the front three has dropped off a cliff. It is no coincidence that Roberto Firmino’s best form this season came in December when fans were allowed back for a brief period.
Our rivals will say this is just an excuse, but its more than that. It is clear that we are collectively suffering from the lack of emotion in games. And until fans return, we need to find a way to generate that intensity and energy in a different way.
A moment in time
When you look at all of the factors in play, it is clear that this poor run is a moment in time and that’s all. It isn’t a sign of a club in decline or deep-rooted issues. All of the things that got Liverpool back to the very top of world football are still there. They’ve just been disrupted by a global pandemic and some hideous luck.
There is no doubt that signing a centre-back in January would help this season. The lack of options is causing the team to lack balance and confidence, and the lack of experience is leading to too many mistakes. When something is so obvious it becomes very difficult to understand or justify why the owners do not act.
But there are a huge amount of unknowns; nobody knows if we’ve tried to sign a defender, if we can find anybody available at the right price or profile, what the plan for the summer is or the impact of COVID on the club’s ability to spend. The easiest thing in the world is to shout about signing a player – the hardest thing is executing it whilst balancing lots of different factors.
The leadership at the club aren’t stupid, they will see the same issues and risks we all see right now. It is not in FSG’s interests for the club to take a step backwards. But only they see the bigger picture at the club, and have to make decisions based on that, however odd they might seem to all of us.
It isn’t just injuries that have impacted Liverpool this season, it feels as though every single 50/50 decision and VAR call has gone against us. The old wives tale that decisions even themselves out over the course of a season will hopefully reverse that trend in the next few months.
Over the past ten years, FSG have rebuilt Liverpool on solid foundations. There is a world-class infrastructure at the club from the training ground, stadium and structure. In Michael Edwards, Jurgen Klopp and Mike Gordon we have the three architects of one of the greatest teams we’ve ever seen at Anfield.
There will be challenges in the short term without question. And Edwards is going to need to focus on some of those as early as the summer with big decisions needed around trading some key players as they reach 30. I fully expect our front three to look different next season.
But when you look at everything the club has achieved over the past three years, there should be plenty of credit in the bank that the right decisions will be made.
You can’t control results or luck in football, but what you can do is make sure you have the right foundations in play to deliver success. And at Liverpool, those foundations remain rock solid.
Coming back stronger
The immediate priority for everybody at Liverpool is to emerge from this period as quickly as possible. There is too much quality in the team for it to become a slump. The players need to lift themselves and get back to enjoying football again. The difficulty when you are the best is you play with a level of expectation weighing you down.
In this strangest of seasons there will be a lot of twists and turns yet. The season is only halfway through and a good run can transform the feeling and outlook in three or four games.
Right now players and fans need to take things game by game. Talk of the title or top four needs to be parked and just focus on one game at a time. That’s what won us the title last season.
The key thing, whatever happens, this season is to keep a cool head, this is a season like no other in history, it is important to stay united.
I’ll shamelessly quote Joe Biden who said ‘There is nothing we can’t achieve when we do it together’ – that’s what got us back on our perch and it’ll be what keeps us there.