Liverpool are top of the EPL in January 2021, so what’s the trouble? The last time they failed to win for three games in the league, the poor trot was kickstarted by a 2-2 draw against West Brom after taking the lead (see West Brom, December 27) followed by a dire goalless draw against Stoke (see Newcastle, December 30) and then a 1-0 loss away to Chelsea (see Southampton, January 4). Spot the spooky similarities?
Klopp’s squad was as thin as a rake back then in April 2018, partially because of the midfield injury crisis and consequently having to protect what was left of the first team due to the forthcoming Champions League semi-final and final against Real Madrid. Things were so bad when Mo Salah left the pitch in Kiev, a half-fit, perenially crocked Adam Lallana had to come on.
However, January seems to always be a month that challenges Liverpool more than most, given their high pressing game and the sheer industry that is required to even be considered for the first team. Back at the start of 2017, halfway through the German’s first full season, the heavy metal machine was in desperate need of being supercharged as the squad struggled to keep pace with the brutality of covering 117 km plus every game over Christmas. As James Milner once famously said: ““To see one of the young lads throwing up on the side of the training field in one of his first training sessions, that sets the tone, you know what you’re in for.”
When Liverpool beat Manchester City 1-0 on New Year’s Eve 2016, Klopp was warming to the prospect of his first title race. Although Chelsea, whom Liverpool had beaten at Stamford Bridge in September, had collected an astonishing 39 straight points in a row, Klopp’s team were in their slipstream: The former Dortmund boss mused: “They won 13 games in a row. Not bad. Can you imagine how annoying it is when you win 13 games in a row and there is still one team only six points behind?” he said. There was reason to be optimistic with a strong hint of caution amid the gluhwein grin.
While Salah was banging in goals for Roma, Sadio Mane, a £34million signing from Southampton in June, had become the go to man upfront, He had unveiled himself with a storming introduction against Arsenal on the first day of the season. Such electricity boosted Liverpool’s X factor but the downside was an almost manic addiction to what Jamie Carragher called “basketball” games.. After the City win, Klopp said “I know everyone talks about our defence. It’s not about avoiding goals – that’s the end product – it’s about how we work together. I think we have the smallest number of shots on our goal in the league.”
The smallest amount of shots indeed, but that still caused enough problems with the newly arrived Loris Karius, who had grabbed the number one jersey from Simon Mignolet, but then had promptly – and literally – dropped the ball in the horrible 4-3 defeat at Bournemouth in December. If nothing else, that was the game which showed that Liverpool still had much to learn in game management as they were caught on the counter leading 3-1. The Cherries needed no second invitation to crash through Karius’ hands and a defence that had Lucas Leiva alongside Devan Loren with James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne the full-backs.
It was New Year where the optimism really began to wane and the mileage in the legs burnt the ground troops. Two days after the City win, the Reds rocked up at relegation threatened Sunderland, covered almost 119km but lost the lead twice, coughing up two penalties which Jermain Defoe converted.
Klopp made just one change to his starting IX that day with Daniel Sturridge coming in for injured Jordan Henderson. “I told the players if nobody wanted to play I would never speak about it and not tell anyone, but nobody came. That was a good thing,” said Klopp. Some might beg to differ.
It was a tired performance which raised alarm bells for the fights ahead, especially as their Senegalese went off to the African Nations Cup, leaving the team to try to navigate crucial league games as well as FA Cup and EFL cup semi-finals against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton respectively. For the latter, Liverpool fielded a young team and were totally benign, losing 2-1 to Paul Lambert’s side. Likewise, their 1-0 defeat in the first leg against Southampton was generally considered their worst performance under Klopp.at the time They lost the second leg at Anfield too with an insipid display.
The real problem was that such form continued to infect their Premier League charge. A draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford was a decent return with a credible first league start by one 18 year-old called Trent Alexander-Arnold. Again, Liverpool conceded late. They backed this up with a dead dodo of a performance against Swansea to the backdrop of a ghostly quiet Saturday lunchtime crowd. Fernando Llorente again exposed Liverpool’s brittle defence as they slid two goals down. Despite 75 per cent possession, the Reds were reliant on two moments of brilliance by Roberto Firmino to raise hopes only for those to be flattened as they conceded a third. The manager bemoaned: “One player was alone in our box, which is completely senseless.” The Anfield crowd had been silenced by the collapse in form too.
It was only when Mane, came back into the team in February, especially for the game against Tottenham that Liverpool began to storm opponent ramparts again, the African scoring a brace and causing havoc in Mauricio Pochettino’s defence.
Fast forward four years and the team has made monumental progress with key squad additions. Manchester United await. It’s not a bad time to get out of the January funk. Shades of 2017 must really stay in the past.