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Liverpool’s title defence is over – and now is the time for an Anfield reboot

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For all but the most optimistic of Liverpool fans, the 4-1 loss to Man City marked the definitive end to their title defence. Now, a reboot is required in Jurgen Klopp‘s squad.

Mathematically, the Reds can still catch City; if Pep Guardiola’s side win their game in hand, they will be 13 points clear of the champions, but after that there are still 45 to play for.

But such is the gulf between the two modern rivals, and the miserly form Liverpool find themselves in – having picked up nine points from their last nine Premier League games – there is little chance of such a swing occurring by May.

Klopp acknowledged that after his side’s latest humiliation at Anfield, saying that a top-four finish is their “main target,” and that they would “try everything” to achieve that.

Qualifying for next season’s Champions League is perfectly realistic, with this still a squad capable of beating any team, but a dual-priority should be winning this season’s tournament, too.

On the afternoon of the defeat to City, the logistics of Liverpool’s last-16 clash with RB Leipzig were confirmed, with the first leg to be played in Budapest, and the removal of any home advantage for the Bundesliga club could be a big boost to the Reds.

Following up a Champions League triumph with a Premier League triumph and then following that up with another European Cup would be a monumental feat for Klopp, title defence or no title defence.

But the wheels should – and likely are – already be in motion for an evolution in the red half of Merseyside, with this a squad in need of an update.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, October 27, 2020: Liverpool's Diogo Jota (R) celebrates after scoring the first goal during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Liverpool FC and FC Midtjylland at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There was clearly an attempt at doing so over the summer, with the signings of Thiago and Diogo Jota in particular designed to freshen up two key areas and provide competition for the long-serving incumbents in the starting roles.

Jota’s instant impact showed that in effect, but injury to both over the course of the campaign has hampered their momentum and increased pressure on those expected to perform week in, week out in midfield and attack over the past five years.

Ozan Kabak could be the next in the assembly line: a 20-year-old centre-back with vast potential and top-flight experience, if he convinces throughout his loan deal the Turk could provide the spark in a new-look defensive unit.

But more is clearly needed, as the makeup of the first team highlights.

On average, this is the oldest Liverpool squad in the history of the Premier League, and the side Klopp fielded in the 3-1 win over Tottenham last month was the oldest in his time in charge of the club.

Of the 11 players to clock 1,000 or more minutes so far this season, eight are 27 or over, and three of those are 30 or over; only Curtis Jones and Trent Alexander-Arnold have the majority of their careers still ahead of them.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 7, 2021: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) and Thiago Alcantara during the pre-match warm-up before the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC at Anfield. Manchester City won 4-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Thiago, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri will join Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Adrian and James Milner in the over-30s club this year, while Alisson, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane will join them in 2022.

Performances of late may suggest some of those have already reached their peak, with Firmino’s downturn particularly concerning, while the waning fitness of Matip shows that time waits for no man.

Beyond the ageing complexion of the squad, this is likely to be the final season at Anfield for a number of fringe players and at least one first-choice starter, with Wijnaldum expected to lead the exodus.

The Dutchman will be one of the most-coveted free agents in the market if he and Liverpool allow his contract to run out at the end of the season, which despite his 31st birthday coming up in November remains a questionable decision.

Adrian and Nat Phillips also see their terms expire at the end of June, while it is likely that Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi will be up for sale and there are big calls to make over the likes of Milner, Matip and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

In reality, the upcoming summer could be one that saw as many as eight senior players depart the club, and they will need to be replaced shrewdly, whether internally or in the transfer market.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, December 1, 2020: Liverpool's Curtis Jones (R) celebrates with team-mate Neco Williams after scoring the only goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. Liverpool won 1-0 to win the group and progress to the Round of 16. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The circumstances of a campaign plagued by injuries has given less chance to those deemed part of the future, such as Neco Williams, Billy Koumetio, Kostas Tsimikas, Takumi Minamino and even Jones, while fitness issues have dogged two others in Jota and Naby Keita.

But perhaps the loss to City is the kickstart needed for a Liverpool reboot, as while there remains a mountain to climb when it comes to finishing in the top four – with seven other clubs in contention – the end of the title defence could loosen the shackles to an extent.

A soft reboot can begin now, before a heavier emphasis in the summer.

While the core of Klopp’s squad should be retained, with there being no cause to uproot the likes of Alisson, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Fabinho, Thiago, Salah, Mane and Firmino despite being peak age or above, more risks should be taken.

Jones is a prime example, with the 20-year-old arguably the Reds’ standout performer against City, in what was his first Premier League start of the year.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 7, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp bring on substitute James Milner for Curtis Jones during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC at Anfield. Manchester City won 4-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Prior to City’s visit to Anfield, Milner started three consecutive league games in the space of a week while Jones was considered only worthy of a substitutes’ role – a stark portrait of the past overriding the future.

There is no denying Milner’s value to this Liverpool squad and their success under Klopp, but from now on Jones, a player of at least comparable on-pitch influence and a staggering 15 years his junior, should be preferred whenever possible.

Similarly, perhaps now is the chance to gamble with the introduction of Kabak (20), and increased game time for Williams (19) and Tsimikas (24) to allow the tired Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson a rest.

Upon his return, Jota should surely claim a first-choice starting berth, as at 24, he is already able to be a decisive player for the Reds, but with vast scope to improve as he settles in more.

The outstanding form of Harvey Elliott (17) at Blackburn this season is another signal of a brighter future, while the “long-term project” of Minamino (26) at Southampton could see the No. 18 return a revitalised and reliable figure.

Beyond that, an measured gaze will be cast over the loan spells of Sepp van den Berg (19) and perhaps even Taiwo Awoniyi (23), while in the academy there are high hopes for teenagers such as Koumetio, Leighton Clarkson and Jake Cain.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 7, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp reacts during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In many ways it was fitting that City delivered the killer blow in this mutilated title defence, as they themselves were in this position only a year-and-a-half ago.

For Liverpool, the caveat remains that this is a ridiculous season.

No one could have predicted, or even factored in, season-ending injuries to Van Dijk, Matip and Joe Gomez, while myriad other fitness problems have arisen due to the congestion of a shortened schedule in which all four competitions went unchanged in structure.

Pep Guardiola admitted after his side’s 4-1 win that “Anfield with and without [fans] is completely different,” and Klopp’s recent assertion that “now we see they are human beings” alludes to the impact of off-pitch situations in a global pandemic.

But nevertheless, with 15 games to play in the Premier League and a possible seven in the Champions League, Liverpool must push on, roll with the punches and accept it as part of the evolution of a successful side.

Because as dominant as the Reds has been, change is inevitable – and now is the time for change.

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