When Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the campaign, Liverpool’s task of retaining the Premier League title got a great deal harder. The Reds have indeed stuttered in recent weeks and now sit fourth in the table, but their defence has not been the problem. Surprisingly, most of the current issues Liverpool face are in attack, with their famous front three stuttering for form.
Sunday’s scoreless stalemate with Manchester United means Liverpool have failed to find the back of the net in three of their last four league games. They have conceded only two goals in that run, but their lack of potency at the top of the pitch means they have collected only three points from the last 12 available. It is something Jurgen Klopp will have to address if Liverpool are to climb back to the summit of the standings.
It is important not to overstate the problem. Liverpool have scored 37 goals this Premier League season, which is more than any other team in the division. It is only a month since they hammered Crystal Palace 7-0. Almost every manager in world football would swap the Liverpool front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
Yet for all the concern over Liverpool’s defensive absentees, it was again the attack that failed to spark against United. Jordan Henderson and Fabinho performed well at centre-back. The Brazilian has been one of the standout performers of the campaign in that position. United probably created the better chances on the day, but neither Henderson nor Fabinho was at fault for any of them.
At the other end, Firmino, Salah and Mane all showed flashes of quality but David de Gea was not too busy between the sticks. Firmino was the Liverpool player most guilty of some profligate finishing in the first half, but there was not much in the way of link-up play between a front three who have been so incisive and decisive over the last few seasons. With Diogo Jota out injured, Liverpool lack a top-class attacker to provide a goal threat from the bench. Klopp is therefore reluctant to rest any of the trio, and it is perhaps inevitable that fatigue has started to creep in.
None of Firmino, Salah or Mane is playing his best football right now, but Liverpool’s bluntness cannot solely be pinned on those three individuals. In fact, the issue can in part be traced back to the absences of Van Dijk, Gomez and, to a lesser extent, Joel Matip.
For a start, Liverpool have lost Van Dijk’s excellent distribution from deep. The Dutchman is key to the way this team build up from the back, and his long passing often sets Liverpool on the attack.
Equally significant is what the Reds have lost in midfield. Henderson and Fabinho have done well in the backline, but Liverpool do not the same bite in the centre of the park without them. Both players are key to the way Klopp’s side sustain attacks, and we did not see United put under the sort of relentless pressure that opponents are usually subjected to at Anfield.
Chance creation has been more of a problem than chance conversion. Over their last four games, Liverpool have averaged 1.34 expected goals per match. They are not currently fashioning as many clear-cut opportunities as they did throughout their title-winning campaign last time out.
“There is no easy explanation,” Klopp told Sky Sports when asked about Liverpool’s lack of goals.
“You always miss chances. You have to keep going and try to ignore the talk around it. Everyone wants to see goals. You cannot force it. It’s football. These moments happen. You have moments where you can’t explain why you score from all angles. Against Crystal Palace everything ended up in the net. It’s a bit annoying in between these moments. I like the game. I saw a lot of really good individual performances and the team performance was good. Not the result we wanted, but the result we got.”
This drought will not last for too much longer. Liverpool have too much attacking quality in their front three to be contained by most teams, and no one would be surprised to see them register a comprehensive victory over Burnley on Thursday. For now, though, Klopp has plenty to ponder.