SOME fans are talking about a Liverpool decline, claiming Jürgen Klopp’s side are not making a very good job of defending the title they won so impressively in 2019-20. That’s a little of an over-reaction, Liverpool may have lost some of their momentum, but the long-awaited triumph – accompanied by premature and over-zealous claims the all-conquering reds team was the best-ever team from the Premier era – may have been a case of a team reaching its peak. Once a team has scaled the summit, it is possible they come down the other side unless fresh impetus is added. Furthermore, human nature shows that after monumental, energy-sapping and over-emotional achievement, life has a habit of being a bit of an anti-climax, does it not?
Yet Liverpool became quite good at retaining their titles in the 1970s and 1980s – they did it in 1976-77, 1979-80, 1982-83 and 1983-84. They also managed it in 1922-23 season. Other titles have not been defended well, such as in 1901-02, 1906-07, 1947-48 when the champions finished in very average positions following a successful campaign. Manchester United under Ferguson also kept hold of their silverware well, retaining the title in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2008 and 2009.
If you consider the current Liverpool team has been built over four years, it could be time for some natural reconstruction. Certainly, the front line of Mohammed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané has been the driving force of the team, along with the defensive strength of Virgil Van Dijk and leadership of Jordan Henderson. Klopp was on a mission, but that initial quest is over. Liverpool are back and that mission was accomplished. Next.
Liverpool’s performances in 2020-21 have not been as fluid or effective as they have been over the past two years, but some of the data doesn’t really show a team in major decline. For example, their possession stats are almost identical (64%) and they have averaged 15.68 shots per game in 2020-21 versus 15.53 in 2019-20. As for shots on target, Liverpool have averaged 5.64 per game this season as opposed to 6.08 in 2019-20. They have had more shots on target against them this term, 3.45 versus 2.87 a year ago.
Liverpool have scored seven less goals this season, after 22 games last season they had reached the 50 mark and had conceded 14 goals. The goal tally is different this time around: 43-25. The absence of Van Dijk has obviously played its part in this under performance, especially when you consider how he changed Liverpool when he was signed from Southampton.
The forwards have scored 28 goals in the Premier League in 2020-21, representing 65% of Liverpool’s total. This does not indicate a drastic fall in output from the strikers, indeed at the current rate, the front three (if its stays intact), should still get over 40. Over the three previous years, the holy trinity of Salah – Firmino – Mané has scored less with each season that has passed – 57 in 2017-18, 56 in 2018-19, 46 in 2019-20. However, the percentage of 54% in 2019-20 demonstrates that goals came from elsewhere in the club’s title winning season. This season, the midfield appears to be less productive as far as scoring is concerned and Van Dijk, whose injury has meant Klopp has had to improvise, has not been around to weigh-in with his contribution.
There are surely other underlying reasons why Liverpool have stuttered this season: opponents’ familiarity with their system; fatigue due to their intensive style of play; lack of depth in the squad; fixture congestion; a lack of a passionate audience at fortress Anfield; and more motivated opponents. Manchester City are clearly still smarting from losing their title so emphatically in 2019-20, hence they are now on an impressive run, Manchester United are currently enjoying a renaissance of a sort and other teams, such as Leicester and Aston Villa, are showing no fear of the elite group of clubs. It has got tougher.
Bad defence? Not necessarily. Just consider how some champions have fared after their glorious seasons. In recent years, Leicester (12th) and Chelsea (10th) have fallen from their perch, while back in time, the worst defences were staged by Ipswich Town (17th) in 1962-63, Leeds United in 1992-93 (17th), Chelsea in 1955-56 (16th) and Everton in 1970-71 (14th). The average follow-up season for champion clubs has been around 4.5 even in this polarised age.
Liverpool are not out of the title race by any means but the way Manchester City are performing, it won’t take much for Pep Guardiola’s side to sprint away from the pack. Players like Salah, Firmino and Mané are all over 28, so they are in the peak zone. Liverpool may yet decide to sell one or two of their assets in order to fund a rebuild, but the fact is, they will, naturally, be less effective as they age. Only icons like Messi and CR7 are able to maintain peak performance into the autumn of their playing days.
When Liverpool won the Champions League and Premier League, it seemed as though a new era was unfolding. This era has actually been in progress since the all-grinning Jürgen Klopp joined the club in 2015-16 and the highlights have included four finals (two Champions League, one Europa League and one Football League Cup) and the Premier. It has been a five year period, a long spell by any club’s standards. They can still be enthralling to watch and there could be a reaction when Liverpool host Manchester City on February 7, but perhaps it is time to rebuild?
Photo: PA Images