For all of the talk of Liverpool turning a corner with the midweek draw against Chelsea, they seemed to turn another one and do a 180 against Hull on Saturday.
The ponderous predictability had returned once again, and despite the return of Sadio Mané, Jürgen Klopp’s side were unable to use their possessional advantage to any sort of benefit.
How they have been losing in this barren run (which now stands at one win in ten in all competitions) has become something of a running pattern, and the 2-0 loss at the KCOM had all the hallmarks of that.
Defensive mix-up from a set piece? Check.
Goalkeeping error from either Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius? Check.
Move forward in search of an equaliser and get punished on the counter attack? Check.
It’s become predictable, and yet it’s the same every week. Hull knew full well that they could give up the majority of possession (70% – 30% in the visitors’ favour), they knew that they could give away corners safe in the knowledge that James Milner’s delivery was off-form, they knew that they could invite pressure onto their box because if they stayed somewhat organised it would go no further, and they knew that they could score on the break at a moment’s notice.
Sitting back against Liverpool yields results, and opposing managers have figured that out. Bournemouth did it. Swansea did it. Southampton did it. Wolves did it. And now Hull have done it.
While the players look horribly devoid of confidence and thus seem robbed of the swagger of the autumn, Klopp himself should not be immune to criticism. Make no mistake, the club are in a far better place than they have been since the Rafa Benítez years, but that doesn’t mean that he is incapable of errors.
His selection policy in recent games has to be called into question. In particular, his use of Emre Can when the German international simply hasn’t been performing to an acceptable standard. The midfield of Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Gini Wijnaldum looked incredibly efficient for large parts of the season’s first half – replacing the latter with Can disrupts so much of that, and Wijnaldum could consider himself especially unlucky to lose his place after his goal in midweek.
Can and Klopp were quoted in the media this week insisting that Liverpool could play against the weaker teams in the Premier League, and yet those teams have consistently proved to be this side’s biggest downfall. They are unbeaten against every other side in the top six right now (three wins and four draws so far) and yet they have lost to two teams in the bottom four in the space of a fortnight.
That they can raise their game to beat (or at the very least, draw with) the teams around them shows that they have quality in their ranks, but their patchy record against the weaker teams in the division exposes their lack of ruthlessness.
Can they turn this around? Absolutely they can, and that is the one thing that should stop the alarm bells from drowning everything else out. The danger that they could drop out of the top four, that Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City and Man United could leave them behind – none of that has actually happened yet, and it won’t if they can somehow snap themselves out of it and restore some of their belief, if Klopp can devise a way of dispatching the teams that this side should be dispatching.
Man United’s season was “over” in October, Man City’s apparently was three weeks ago. Tottenham went through a wretched run in October. Arsenal fans had the white flags out in August after one point in their first two games.
All have recovered sufficiently to expect to be in the top four in May, and now Liverpool must do likewise.
But it is, of course, easier said than done. In their next three games, they play against Tottenham, Leicester and Arsenal and based on the odd run of form they are on now and the results they got against Chelsea and Man United, they would probably be less confident about that trip to the King Power than the other two.
Points against Spurs and Arsenal would be handy, not least because it would stop them extending the points difference, but Liverpool’s season now depends on Klopp’s ability to reteach them how to unlock stubborn defences and stop being so prone to lapses of concentration.
How he does that remains to be seen, but it’s patently obvious that what’s being reproduced right now is not working.
Should the dissenting voices start to turn on Klopp himself? Absolutely not, and anybody that says otherwise should be met with the same disgusted looks that are normally reserved for anyone that says they liked Batman vs. Superman, but there’s a marked difference between questioning some of his decisions and sharpening the knives and calling for his head.
Klopp was the best manager Liverpool could possibly have hoped for when he was appointed 16 months ago, and that position has not changed. The title talk of October might have been exposed in a brutal and somewhat humiliating fashion, but the positives far, far outweigh the negatives of Klopp’s tenure at Anfield thus far.
They had enough in the tank to tear teams apart in the first half in the first half of the season – but with his side in serious danger of succumbing to freefall, Klopp’s task now is to figure out what to do from here on in.
Liverpool’s season now hinges on the next fourteen games. They have to quality to stay in the top four race, but while the mantle of “crisis club” has been passed around each of the top six at some point this season, whoever it lands on last won’t be playing in the Champions League next season.