Liverpool defensive woes have been discussed at length, but it is their struggles at the other end which have really cost them this season
Liverpool started this week dreaming of an eternal, money-spinning future among Europe’s elite. They finished it wondering if they’ll even have a place alongside the continent’s minnows next season.
That could well be that, as far as their hopes of Champions League football are concerned. The Europa League – or worse, the Europa Conference League – beckons for Jurgen Klopp’s broken, dysfunctional team, who saw more Premier League points go up in smoke courtesy of a 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle on Saturday.
This was a week for the Reds to make progress in the race for a top-four finish, a week to set aside the recriminations and backlash from the failed European Super League coup and focus on what they used to be good at – playing football.
They blew it.
Two games, two draws, two late equalisers conceded. Four points squandered, and yet more questions for Klopp and his side to answer.
Their campaign from hell continues.
A ‘surprise’ result rarely felt less surprising. Newcastle’s stoppage-time leveller may have ruined a few coupons, but it came as little shock to anyone who witnessed another frustrating, error-strewn 90 minutes unfold at Anfield.
Somehow you just knew, as chance after chance went begging, as Martin Dubravka made saves and as Sadio Mane and Mo Salah looked to the heavens, that Liverpool would pay the price. Even a late VAR reprieve was wasted, with Magpies substitute Joe Willock breaking Red hearts with pretty much the last kick of the contest.
“There is nobody else to blame but ourselves,” Klopp told his post-match press conference, and who could argue?
Liverpool created enough here to have won four games, never mind one, but the mood has changed at Anfield since last season’s momentous, historic title triumph. There is almost an acceptance now that if something can go wrong, there’s every chance it will.
After slaying opponents, big or small, for the best part of three years, Liverpool’s machine has malfunctioned badly. Mentality monsters, Klopp used to call them, but they have looked anything but this season. They look exhausted, worn down by the pressure and the misfortune and the spotlight.
Their record against the league’s lesser lights says it all. In 10 matches against the Premier League’s bottom seven sides, Liverpool have won just two. Newcastle have taken four points off them, Fulham and Brighton five, Burnley and Southampton three and West Brom two. Sheffield United, already relegated, are the only team they have beaten from that group of strugglers.
It has been like Groundhog Day, Liverpool playing the same game over and over again. Rinse, repeat, regret.
We talk a lot about Liverpool’s defensive woes, and how injuries have undermined their title defence, but the grim truth is that it is at the other end of the pitch that the real problems lie. The Reds simply haven’t been clinical enough.
They had 22 shots against Newcastle but scored only once. On Monday at Leeds it was one goal from 17 attempts, and against Aston Villa, a game they eventually won, it was two from 23.
The theme has been there since December, when things started to really unravel. Liverpool scored seven times from eight shots on target at Crystal Palace just before Christmas, but their cutting edge has been missing since. Only in London, curiously, do they seem to find their killer instinct.
They got the early goal on Saturday, Mo Salah firing them in front with aplomb after just three minutes. Incredibly, it was the first time the Reds had scored a first-half goal at Anfield since December 27.
Salah now has 20 Premier League goals, the Egyptian becoming the first Liverpool player to achieve that feat in three separate seasons, but he was as guilty as anyone for what followed on Saturday. Wasteful barely covers it.
Liverpool should have been four up by half-time, but Salah shot straight at Dubravka when clean through. Diogo Jota scuffed two presentable chances in the penalty area and Mane, woefully out-of-form at present, inexplicably took four touches when only one was required.
These are big issues for Liverpool. Mane has eight league goals from 30 appearances, and Roberto Firmino has six in 43 in all competitions. Salah has maintained his numbers and Jota has done well, but too many chances go begging at Liverpool, even when they are playing well and winning matches.
That needs rectifying quickly if they are to challenge next season. Liverpool need to find a goalscoring centre-forward in the summer, both to compete with Firmino but, more pertinently, to replace him. The team has to move forward, and that means making some uncomfortable decisions about players who have delivered incredible success for the club.
It won’t be easy, especially if, as it looks, they do finish outside the top four. This is not a good time to miss out on that Champions League windfall.
But, as Klopp said, if they do, then they only have themselves to blame.