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DIFFICULT AUTUMN AHEAD! – But This Is How Liverpool Can Turn Season Around
A look at how adversity may become favourable to Klopp and his team in the longer term
Here's the rub: in amongst some self-inflicted wounds, Liverpool have had a tough start to the season in various ways. Yet the toughness of the start could, in time, lead to various advantages, that I will go on to detail.
The Reds have already gone to the two most ramped-up rivals, in addition to a well-drilled, adrenaline-fuelled promoted team on the opening day (something Alan Shearer noted that he never found easy, and it seems an honest opinion from a tough old pro).
Of course, Bournemouth at home was a near total ‘gimme’, given that, in stark contrast to Fulham, they had already had the joy of promotion pummelled out of them. Even so, 9-0 was a staggering scoreline – albeit one where most of the Reds’ shots went in, whereas other days, some much better shots have stayed out.
Indeed, see the latest example: hitting the woodwork three times at Everton and the weird little keeper having a worldie. (So, not a sign of slipping up, just one of those days.)
Days earlier, Liverpool had also hit the woodwork, but that time it went in. Fine margins, again. (Yes, Everton had a goal disallowed on Saturday, but hardly by fine margins, given the lines drawn by the VAR.)
Yet it won't get any easier, in terms of fixtures, for the time being; but it should in terms of player fitness.
By the time the league breaks for the World Cup, Liverpool will have played 16 league games – and all six Champions League group matches – and in the Premier League, will have gone to Man United, Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs, with Man City thrown in too, albeit at Anfield.
Indeed, those games will all be amongst the first 15, which is just over a third of a season (which is roughly 13 games, if my maths is correct).
This guarantees tough league away games after tough European games. That’s often a killer.
Therefore, this is not a ‘table tells the truth’ kind of fixture list. It cannot be even close.
Obviously the teams in Europe play each other in the Premier League during the group stages, to bring some kind of fairness, but to have these games almost all be away is seriously skewing.
(And weirdly, Liverpool play neither of the current strugglers, Leicester and Aston Villa, until after the World Cup; albeit this is just a quirk of the fixture list, unlike the way games are chosen to occur during a certain period of the season, which seems a bit iffy to me, as if to suit broadcasters rather than objective, random computer outputs.)
On average, teams are clearly less likely to win away at close rivals than to win at home, and to have to away to four of the Big Six, plus Everton, with 23 games of the season still to follow, is a clear distortion, whether random or not.
While other Big Six clubs (all of whom are in the Champions League or the Europa League – they finished 1st to 6th, after all) will also play each other during this period, the split for Liverpool is 1:4 in terms of home and away, and 1:5 if you include the additional heated local rivalry, which not all Big Six clubs have to cope with.
To be fair, Man United have now played Liverpool and Arsenal, but both at home. As an aside, United also look far more impressive now that they've dealt with the big problems as I saw them and even detailed in my new book: Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo, and Harry Maguire, with a bit of Paul Pogba thrown in, to rid the team of egotists and slow players, to return to where they were before Ronaldo re-signed (and then resigned). I do admit that Leandro Martinez looks a good old-school, dark-arts defender, but his lack of height hasn't been tested in recent games against Roberto Firmino, Jamie Vardy, Che Adams and Gabriel Jesus. Many ultra big-bastard tests await (there are at least ten giant forwards in the league now), and the fact that he's only contested eight aerial duels all season suggests he can be a weak link, even if he did win some against Southampton (but has not won a single aerial duel in the other five games). Maybe he’s been well protected, but isolate him in the air, and teams can prosper, as Brentford showed.
On paper, Liverpool have had a tough start, especially as, apart from last season, the Reds rarely win at Old Trafford and Goodison, let alone win big like they did against those rivals who were in utter turmoil last season (when both managers were under serious pressure, and the vibe was dreadful).
Then there's Man City's start: two promoted clubs already, both at home. Their six games so far have been:
Interestingly, as sensational as Erling Haaland has been – and he is a freak of nature (who cost a fortune in combined transfer fee, agent fees, family fees and wages) – City have dropped more points pro-rata than they did last season, despite playing mostly cannon fodder so far, and having a mostly fully fit squad, bar one centre-back.
(They were also totally outplayed by Liverpool in the Community Shield, as City now deploy fewer midfielders to control games – but do have more firepower if they get into good areas.)
City also have Fulham at home before the World Cup, to mean all three promoted teams will have been at the Etihad by game 16 (whereas Liverpool have two of the three promoted teams away early season, which is clearly much tougher. Lord knows what kind of state Forest will be in, with their 79 new players).
City's season obviously had to get tougher soon, and they face Spurs at the weekend, albeit at the Etihad. October looks tough for them – but then again, everyone is playing the domestic European teams before the break for the nonsense in Qatar (that I’ll gladly be avoiding); and City only play four of the Big Six before the tournament, twice home, twice away.
Chelsea and City have the luxury of their head-to-heads being in 2023, away from the madness of the midweek European energy-sapping cycle. (They play early in 2023, and then late May, when it's likely that both will be out of Europe, if not a given.)
Optimism or Pessimism?
Of course, this means that Liverpool, by having a much harder start to the season on paper, have what looks an easier 22 games after the World Cup. Much, much easier.
Yet ideally you'd want an even distribution of difficulty, and not to be behind the proverbial eight-ball by November.
It's clearly bad to have such an imbalance in the kind of fixtures each team will face given the weirdness of this unique season, and it could be that Liverpool are cut adrift by match-week 15, when the Reds face Spurs away.
That's the danger, especially with a foreshortened preseason (following an extended, emotionally and physically draining 2021/22) and an injury crisis.
However, for all the abuse I get for being an optimist (which is in itself weird, to be hated for being positive, even if I understand the instinct to a degree), I feel I'm always aiming for realism. I don't see myself as positive, just aiming for balance (albeit with a clear interest in Liverpool doing well).
Maybe everyone does the same, and others label them depending on their own place on the glass-fullness spectrum, but remember, while I may have pointed out shoots of hope to cling to in the spring of 2021, I seriously didn't really believe the Reds could move up from 7th into the top four with games running out, including a trip to Old Trafford (where the Reds never seemed to win), with the 7th and 8th choice centre-backs in the team, neither of whom had played in the top flight before a few weeks earlier.
I didn't see a last-gasp winner at West Brom, when Alisson began running up the pitch.
So many of the issues from that season are limiting the club now: not enough of a preseason, too many injuries, and a difficulty in balancing the side’s qualities (pace, power, height, skill, passing range) with who is fit, while seeking short-term signings to cover gaps until the next window. (As happened with Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, as the Reds waited, wisely in hindsight, for Ibrahima Konaté. At least Arthur Melo is a much better player than either Kabak or Davies.)
I also very publicly called Liverpool's title race as over after the defeat at Leicester back in January of this year, even before the deficit to City duly increased to double-digits.
And while the Reds did still fall short by a single point on the final day, the chasm was narrowed to that barest of margins. I loved nearly being proved wrong.
I also wouldn't have bet on Liverpool winning both domestic cups and also reaching the Champions League final (to lose, unluckily, to a truly sublime goalkeeping display) whilst winning almost every league game, at that point in January when the team looked lost, knackered, and at times, clueless.
Confidence was gone, after being ‘cheated’ out of points at Spurs by some truly terrible officiating (far worse than any of the VAR controversies this weekend), followed by an alarmingly limp display in losing at Leicester. The draw at Chelsea that followed was fine in isolation, but it left Liverpool 11 points behind City.
To write off a Jürgen Klopp team is always foolish. Being cut adrift with Liverpool is never necessarily the end of things.
Even when his Dortmund team crashed to the bottom of the league at the halfway point in his final season in 2014/15, with injuries and a disease of missing big chances (sound familiar?), they rallied to have a superb second half of the campaign. They just needed a midwinter reset (now, if only there was one of those this season…)
In every season since Klopp was fully established at Anfield, the seasons have ended incredibly strongly; often against all odds. It's really been some of the best final 10-or-so league games on a consistent basis that I can recall, often with huge Champions League games thrown into that same mix, to reach three finals.
I certainly wouldn't judge his Liverpool team minus so many of the key players who make the team tick, as well as the depth, due to those injuries, to rotate, freshen up, and tweak tactics. It's been a case of "if you're fit, you're starting", even if you're nearing 40.
Players coming back from injury will not be sharp for a while yet, but anyone who is fit will be a bonus. While the season is a transition of sorts, you also can't judge any team when 10 or 11 are out injured. That's just a fact of football life.
[EDIT: I forgot to mention this, so I’ll drop it in here, but while you can’t rely on Thiago for fitness, clubs do still normally get 25-30 league games out of him on a consistent basis. He’s not the quickest runner, but no one moves the ball more sharply into the final third than him. Other midfielders who can pass at that pace seem vital if he’s not around, and having him back – and staying fit – could make a huge difference. Arthur seems to have some similar skills, albeit there are differences too.]
So it feels like it's going to be a very, very difficult period up until the World Cup, so brace yourselves.
And Yet ...
What I would say is that those players who won't be at the World Cup will have the chance to reset, and refocus, and sharpen up. The World Cup will likely give Klopp a lot to work with, and the Reds, unlike many rivals, don't have too many players who will be in Qatar.
Burnout in the second half of the season will be a real threat for many teams, but, I'd guess, less so for Liverpool.
For a start, several superb players are not currently being overworked, as they're injured (Thiago, Ibrahima Konaté, Joël Matip; and Diogo Jota is only now just back, as is Darwin Núñez from suspension, saving himself 3.5 games of additional effort).
Calvin Ramsay has yet to feature, and as such, has yet to be able to allow Trent Alexander-Arnold more competition (James Milner at right-back is not ideal), as well as more rest through rotation. At the worst, we can expect more energy from the right-back berth when both are fit.
And of course, Arthur Melo has yet to play.
Naby Keïta seems like he can finally be written off (barring various miracles), but anything from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after the World Cup will be a bonus, however small. He looked in great shape in the summer, only to suffer yet another terribly unlucky serious injury. He'll doubtless leave in 2023, but you have to think of what he could offer if fit, even if you can’t rely on it, and even if he's not going to suddenly be peak Lionel Messi.
(Just as Milner shouldn't be starting so many games aged 36, but at times he's been the only fit midfielder. Ideally you want to bring him on as the 5th sub, to shut up shop.)
By my reckoning, the following players definitely won't be at the World Cup: Mo Salah, Matip, Luis Díaz, Andy Robertson, Milner, Keïta, Ramsay, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Curtis Jones, Nat Phillips, Caoimhín Kelleher and Kostas Tsimikas.
In that group are maybe four key first-team Liverpool players, and a few who'd definitely be on the bench, all being well, if not in the XI on a reasonable number of occasions. But that's only part of the equation.
The following are either not key parts of their nation's setup at the moment (and time is running out), and perhaps only outsiders to go, at best:
Joe Gomez, Fabio Carvalho, Harvey Elliott, Konaté (just two caps so far, and while a contender for France, his injury allows others to leap ahead in the pecking order, especially with Wesley Fofana’s return to fitness and prominence); while Roberto Firmino and Arthur are not definitely part of Brazil’s plans, and have little time to change that.
The last of Firmino's 55 caps was in 2021, and Arthur has played just once in 2022, and once in 2020, since he was a key part of the team that won the Copa America with Firmino and Alisson as fellow regulars (and along with Fabinho, will help to provide a core of familiarity amongst those players at Liverpool, to help Arthur settle).
This summer, Liverpool sold or lost players from Senegal, Japan, Belgium and Wales, all likely to be heading to Qatar (even if only Sadio Mané was a starter at Liverpool, and Origi had got back into the Belgium squad without being a regular).
Others look set to go to Qatar, but a small injury before the World Cup could see them left behind.
Remember, with no month-long buildup, it will likely take just a minor two-week hamstring strain for players to be omitted; unless vital to their national team (like van Dijk), they could be left behind in favour of someone who can start all the group games, especially if not confident of making it to the knockouts.
While almost sure to be going, Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson also seem very unlikely to start games. And while just going can be a drain, to not have additional high-pressure, high-intensity 90s in the legs can surely help.
Indeed, strange as it seems, maybe only Virgil van Dijk and Darwin Núñez look like definite starters in Qatar at this point, with Alisson, Thiago, Jota and Fabinho often in and out of their national teams' starting XIs.
(And even if Alisson plays the whole tournament, he's a keeper, so unlikely to be exhausted by the process.)
As such, at the AXA and at the warm-weather training camps, Klopp could easily be working with Salah, Matip, Díaz, Robertson, Milner, Keïta, Ramsay, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones, Phillips, Kelleher, Tsimikas, Gomez, Carvalho, Elliott, Konaté, Firmino and Arthur.
That's 18 senior players.
Then there are the precocious youngsters, who could use that time as a launchpad. Stefan Bajcetic, and if he gets over growing pains, Kaide Gordon, would be joined by some other lads on tour.
Both these kids are real thoroughbreds, but it's not quite their time yet. (I also think Ben Doak – who briefly played for Celtic’s first team last season – is a potential superstar, aged 16, but may need a bit more time. He has the build for the men’s game already, but maybe needs to work on a few technical things. But this could be a chance for him and others to show Klopp what he can do, and to bond with the senior players. Doak has pace and skill to burn, and a lovely solid physique. In terms of individual talent and looking like he’s far too good to be there, he’s the best I’ve seen in the Reds U18s in eons.)
Add any surprise omissions from Qatar due to injuries or just a coach's whim, and it could be an ideal time to get that sharpness back, and get stamina into the legs for the second half of the season, while big-name, rival Big Six regulars for Belgium, England, Spain, France, Brazil, Portugal, Germany and other countries could find themselves somewhat run into the ground, as we saw with Salah after this year's AFCON.
(Ironically, Mané actually found his form and sharpness after AFCON, but had been below par for the first half of last season. People who say Liverpool are missing Mané are also missing the point that he’s in his 30s now, and spent the past few seasons only finding his top form in fits and starts, as great as he was overall. His timing of asking to leave, on the eve of the Champions League final, was also really unhelpful.)
Maybe the only worry at the World Cup will be how many games van Dijk plays, as he’s 31 now, but as a wily centre-back who only sprints when absolutely necessary, he’s on the low-end of in-game running. Núñez could be back after only three games, with Uruguay not amongst the 10 favourites.
Another plus is that Liverpool also didn't quite do all their planned transfer business, with – it seems – a lack of consensus on who to buy, and with some top-class targets elusive (one went to Real Madrid, one may have to wait until next summer).
That ‘failure’ could become a positive.
(Note: not that getting in Núñez and Carvalho, after bringing in Díaz – originally earmarked for this summer – was a disaster! And while a last minute pick, Arthur is a Brazilian international who has impressed and won big things with his country, and at Barcelona and Juventus, without yet reaching his full immense potential; and as such, a £4m loan for a guy who just turned 26 seems like a no-brainer. And again, if young Ramsay impresses now that he's fit after some genuine growing pains, that will add further context to the window; just as it will if Núñez – who so far still looks like a chaos-creating machine – fails to score the goals expected of him, or fails to learn from the Palace red card.)
Again, this is no normal season.
Normally the majority of games are played before the start of the January transfer window; this year, only 18 league games will take place before January 1st. If still need, then if Liverpool can secure an early signing and integrate them as quickly as they did Díaz (albeit that's never easy), that leaves 20 league games.
Remember, Díaz's debut was the Reds' 23rd league game of 2021/22, in mid-February, with just 15 remaining. An early signing – if anyone who was missed this summer gets tied up – would be possible to play on January 2nd (game 19), or January 14th (game 20). If Liverpool had missed the boat, this is a chance to catch up with it. Again, it might depend on injuries, as well as form, in the meantime; as well as whether or not any targets are at clubs still in the Champions League, and how that might affect their eagerness to sell.
Otherwise, I just think there can be a general realigning of attitudes, desires, in addition to the sharpening of fitness.
I don't think it was the plan to field such ageing XIs this season, where a lack of pace, especially in midfield (and centre-forward), was due to absentees. So, to get a better balanced team seems vital, and that will happen naturally, as players return.
Re-bonding and Reviving
Teams do start to fray at the edges. But it can be gaffer-taped back together. Last season was gruelling, as we could tell as fans, let alone players. It just takes a few to be off form, or to be jaded, or lacking fitness, or to be complacent, or dejected, and a team can lose its way.
I would suspect one or two haven't quite got the same hunger; and may need to rediscover it (these things can come and go – motivations waxes and wanes).
One or two more may have got a bit caught up in their own hype and need a reminding to be a bit more humble – the hard work never stops, even when you've made it. Even a drop of a few percent can be remedied by a quick hauling off.
One or two (maybe five or six, or even more) might not be as ultra-fit as they need to be right now, due to a truncated preseason; with one having played so much high-pressure football in 2022 that he's probably still trying to get his head straight. (Mo Salah – at AFCON, in the World Cup qualifiers, and in various finals for Liverpool, as well as the run-in – including something like seven periods of big-game extra-time in 2022, and a ton of disappointment, including thinking he'd scored the title-winning goal, and been denied by some remarkable keeping in Paris.)
One or two wanted out; one went, another may need to follow.
One or two have probably physically melted a bit, and as such, can still be of use, but not as regulars.
One or two are still settling in, and only likely to get better with time spent training with teammates.
One or two are still kids, with real talent, but learning about consistency, and building up physical strength and stamina.
Plus, at times, up to eleven have been out injured at the same time.
And so on. Every little (and big) issue with each set of one or two players adds up. But with every issue fixed, and every player fit again after injury, and every new signing settling in and growing stronger, things can quickly change.
They did in March 2021, after all. And they did in January 2022, after all. It's not like you have to go too far back for examples, is it?
Equally, you can’t ignore than almost all these players were a whisker away from the best season in club football history just a few months ago. Only one key player has left, so it would be daft to write off all those who remain. They just need to get fit again, and rediscover that form.
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