Liverpool will find themselves in an unusual position when they travel across Stanley Park to play Everton on Saturday lunch time – facing a Premier League opponent higher than them in the table.
But having suffered an embarrassing 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa before the international break, Jurgen Klopp’s side trail their Merseyside rivals by three points after the opening four games of their title defence, and with questions swirling around about their recent form.
So with the help of former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock, we look at if that reverse in the Midlands was just a one-off that can happen to even the very best teams, or whether the champions should be concerned that an unwanted trend has set in at Anfield?
- Should Trent Alexander-Arnold play in midfield for England?
- Leon Osman: Derby win would show anything is achievable at Everton
- Ten years on: Inside the takeover that saved Liverpool
More than a just bout of travel sickness
When Liverpool arrived in Hertfordshire to take on struggling Watford on February 29, they were already on the cusp of a first top-flight title since 1990 after an incredible run of 18 league wins in a row.
In fact, victory at Vicarage Road that evening would have seen the club make history by registering the longest winning run in English top-flight football, only for the visitors to instead suffer their first league defeat of the season.
“I am not a little bit in doubt about the character of the boys and I would be a real idiot if I would be because they deserve my trust, my faith, and they don’t lose it after a bad game,” was Klopp’s response to that shock 3-0 setback.
Yet since that loss, Liverpool’s away form has relatively nosedived, with further defeats at Manchester City, Arsenal and the aforementioned thrashing at Villa, as well as to Atletico Madrid and Chelsea in the Champions League and FA Cup respectively, indicating perhaps more than just a hiccup.
A brief glance at the recent form table on the road shows Liverpool way down in 11th place, with just three wins from their last eight away contests and seven fewer points than Manchester United have collected over the same period.
Warnock’s Verdict: Teams are gambling more against Liverpool, they are trying to find weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the way they play. Teams do not want to sit back, they want to have a go at them.
If you can beat the press of Liverpool, you have a chance because everyone is always on the front foot and what teams are realising now is if you can get midfield runners in behind, then you stand a chance of breaking that line and then you are through.
- Get Sky Sports
- Transfer Centre LIVE!
No case for the defence
Between early December 2019 and January of this year, Liverpool went seven games and more than 12 hours without conceding a Premier League goal, a remarkable run of shutouts that laid the platform for a first top-flight title in 30 years.
Despite Wolves striker Raul Jimenez finally breaching their back four at Molineux on January 23, three more clean sheets followed as normal service at the back appeared to resume.
However, since losing at Watford, Liverpool have kept only four clean sheets in 15 games, uncharacteristically conceding a league-high 27 goals in the process.
Long gone is the parsimonious defence from winter, which has given way to a leaky back line that has shipped four at the Etihad, three at home to newly-promoted Leeds United and seven at Villa Park against a side that only just managed to avoid relegation on the final day of last season.
And so given Liverpool’s recent struggles both on the road and defensively, the last fixture Klopp would want to get his team back on track would be a trip to face an Everton side they have failed to score against or beat in their last three visits and boasting a 100 per cent start to the season, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin – the joint leading scorer in the Premier League – leading their line.
Warnock’s Verdict: When you talk about the goalkeeper, that is a big thing because Alisson is very front foot and happy to sweep up, he is very quick off his line and is actually over five yards, he is one of the quickest in the squad.
His anticipation of balls in behind and reading of situations is incredible and the defence then realise you have to hit a perfect pass through because his reading of the situations is perfect.
So you can afford then to play a higher line and when you do not have that midfield press, teams find it easier to get through them.
But Alisson’s absence is absolutely massive…
- Liverpool’s high line: Risk or reward?
- Liverpool sign Brazilian goalkeeper
A lasting hangover
Liverpool sealed last season’s title with a record-breaking seven games to spare.
However, their form dropped off after being crowned champions and having won 28, drawn two and lost just one of their 31 fixtures prior to winning the league, they won only four of their final seven games of the campaign.
Andy Robertson claimed the subsequent decline in results were inevitable: “Of course, the end of last season was a unique situation. We were getting a guard of honour for seven games, getting clapped on by your opponents that technically you’re about to go to war with. It’s strange.
“And then everything that went along with it, we had the trophy presentation.”
But there have been signs already this season that the championship hangover – not helped of course by having to play without fans at Anfield – may not have been cured.
As well as a collective drop off, there is no doubt certain individuals are also not playing to the same levels they reached during their record-equalling run last season, especially in defence.
Joe Gomez, who was rightly hooked at Villa Park after a shambolic display, has looked a shadow of the defender he was in the previous two campaigns, while even the normally unflappable Virgil van Dijk has been sloppy since Liverpool won the title, with two uncharacteristic errors leading to goals against Arsenal and Leeds – double the number the centre-back had made in his previous 87 league games for the club.
And the less said about butterfingers Adrian, who has made a series of costly errors since having to deputise again for Alisson in goal this year, the better.
Warnock’s Verdict: It was almost like the concentration levels, until they won the league, were phenomenal and then there was this big release off the shoulders that they had won the league for the first time in 30 years.
And it was like we can relax now and try and enjoy it, but Liverpool need an edge to their game and when they lose that edge, they fall away.
Also, crowds are huge to Jurgen Klopp and the team feed off the crowd, which helps the way he plays and it can often make the opposition struggle. The link between Liverpool and the fans is huge, both home and away, and Liverpool have definitely missed that.
Has Liverpool’s air of invincibility been punctured?
There is also a feeling opponents have started to work Liverpool out now and that their once air of invincibility, built up during a relentless run of one defeat in 65 league games between August 2018 and February 2020, has gone.
Certainly, the 3-0 reverse at Watford exposed their defensive frailties, while subsequent losses have shown that if you stop Liverpool’s full-backs, while at the same time exploiting the space behind Robertson, but especially Trent Alexander-Arnold, there is joy to be had.
There is no doubt Villa manager Dean Smith had specifically worked with his players in training on trying to take advantage of the high defensive line Liverpool like to employ, as surely other teams will also now do.
Although one of the main reasons Klopp brought in Thiago Alcantara – who missed the loss at Villa with coronavirus, but is expected to return this weekend – from Bayern Munich this summer was for the Spain playmaker to change the focus of Liverpool’s attacks from the wings to the middle.
Warnock’s Verdict: Aston Villa played if perfectly – they know the vulnerabilities of Liverpool, full-backs pushing forward, high line defensively, and that has been an issue.
- Adrian loving life with ‘Reds family’
- How Thiago could transform Liverpool
Or is it just a blip…
Of course, the counter argument is this is simply a stumble on Liverpool’s part and we will all look back at the 7-2 thrashing at Villa Park as just one of those freak results teams often suffer on the way to a title.
Kenny Dalglish’s all-conquering side lost 4-1 at Southampton in October 1989 on the way to the league, while Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United suffered a 5-0 hammering at Newcastle United, followed by a 6-3 loss at the Dell in October 1996, only to retain the Premier League that season.
While Klopp denied as much after defeat to Watford, saying: “It was not that the fortunes changed or that destiny wanted to give us a knock,” perhaps things have just been evening themselves out of late as far as Liverpool are concerned, with those “small margins” managers often cite after a slender loss now not falling their way.
During last season’s 18-game winning run, for instance, Liverpool received the rub of the green with tight VAR calls in narrow victories at Crystal Palace and at home to Wolves, while they were also indebted to late winners over Tottenham, Aston Villa – when trailing with just three minutes to go – Wolves (away) and West Ham.
Inevitably, those little breaks and moments of good fortune cannot continue forever, while it is also revealing Jordan Henderson has been absent from three of Liverpool’s four league losses in 2020.
However, the captain is set to return from injury at Goodison on Saturday to provide the leadership and drive the side were so badly missing in their last league outing at Villa before the international break, while also trying to ensure that drubbing was just a one-off rather than a sign of things to come this season.
Warnock’s Verdict: It (a big defeat) almost resets the mind and the focus. It will have hugely hurt the players and their pride, they would not have wanted to go away on international duty, they would have wanted to play the next game immediately and put it right.
There will be Liverpool players chomping at the bit to play Everton and it is almost the worse time to play Liverpool, who will be hugely disappointed with the Villa result, which they will be wanting to put right straight away.
But I do also feel that Liverpool’s midfield perform better with Henderson in the team – he is such an organiser in the way he not only sets the tempo of the game with his tackling, and vocally the way he is by getting players on edge.
LAST CHANCE To Land The £1m!
You read correctly. The £1m Super 6 jackpot is up for grabs for one last time this weekend. Play for free, entries by 3pm Saturday.
Source: Read Full Article