The first thing to say is that what Liverpool are trying to do is difficult. Since 2009 only one team have retained the title, and Liverpool have not done so since 1984. Those were the days when Joe Fagan was their manager, Ian Rush was their top scorer and Duran Duran were top of the charts. In other words, it was a long time ago.
Equally, it should probably not be this difficult, or certainly not as difficult as Liverpool are making it look given the ease with which they became champions last season and again looked primed to stay clear of the chasing pack in this campaign. That certainly appeared the case when they thrashed Crystal Palace 7-0 less than three weeks ago. Jürgen Klopp’s side were unstoppable that afternoon yet now they are something else entirely: vulnerable, ineffective and, as Southampton showed on Monday, beatable.
Defeat at St Mary’s leaves Liverpool leading the way on goal difference alone from Manchester United, who have a game in hand, which they will play, against Burnley, on 12 January. Win that and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men go top before their visit to Anfield five days later. Even if Liverpool keep United at bay, there are five other sides within four points of them, most notably Manchester City who – if their recent display against Chelsea is anything to go by – are well and truly clicking into gear.
All of which begs the question, how did it come to this for the champions given how serene things appeared at Christmas? The most glaring issue is the away form. Liverpool have won only twice on their travels all season – against Palace and at Chelsea in September. There have been five draws and two defeats. Across those nine fixtures there are few common faultlines – the 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa was freakish, and Klopp’s players did enough to win at Everton and at Brighton and would have done so were it not for refereeing calls that ranged from the dubious to outright appalling.
Away form should arguably not even be a thing this season in the absence of supporters but it clearly is for Liverpool given the contrast with how they have performed at Anfield, and if there is a running theme it is how ineffectual they have been from an attacking point of view. Palace aside, Liverpool have scored one goal or fewer in their past five away fixtures, and in their two most recent, against Newcastle and Southampton, could have played for 900 minutes and not scored.
What is most obvious is that the front three – Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané – have struggled at different stages this season and since the Palace game they appear to have hit a collective wall. Their link-up play at St Mary’s was practically nonexistent and individually they were also poor, with Mané the only one to come out with credit given his work rate.
Tiredness is arguably an issue given the regularity with which the trio have been selected by Klopp and in that regard the knee injury sustained by Diogo Jota last month is a severe blow. The Portuguese had been in stunning form following his arrival from Wolves and would have provided a fresh and potentially decisive alternative in the games against Newcastle and Southampton, as well as in the 1-1 draw with Fulham on 13 December.
It would be unfair to focus too much attention on Liverpool’s attackers, however, given they have scored the vast majority of the team’s away goals. Others have also been below par, notably Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has not looked himself since a calf injury and was especially poor against Southampton, giving the ball away 38 times before his substitution.
Collectively there have been signs of complacency since the victory over Palace, seen in the slow starts Liverpool made against Newcastle and Southampton and an indication for perhaps the first time since Klopp took charge that his team feel they do not have to put much effort into winning. If so, it is a far cry from the German’s “mentality monsters” and something that needs to be eradicated.
Soft factors may also be at play in another regard, namely the teams Liverpool are travelling to being more “up” for facing them given their status as champions, something that could be taken from Ralph Hasenhüttl’s emotional reaction to Southampton’s win. Or, given the poor home display against West Brom that came after the trip to Palace and before the ones to Newcastle and Southampton, it could simply be that Liverpool are in a spell of poor form, the type alien to them for so long but that eventually strikes all teams.
Whatever the case there is no need for panic. For starters, Liverpool have never been the most stunning of away performers under Klopp and, attacking wise, the only difference this season compared with last is a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal, something that should return given the quality of their forwards and the fact they are regularly getting into their opponents’ area. The build-up play is broadly there – it’s the finishing touches that are missing.
Liverpool have also been strong defensively away this season, which is somewhat remarkable given the injuries they have sustained. Saying that, signing a centre-back this month would make sense, more than anything to prevent Jordan Henderson playing there having done so against Southampton and looking uncomfortable throughout.
Klopp called for a reaction from his players after the defeat to Southampton and there is no doubt Liverpool need to sort out their away form given how tight it is at the top, and in that regard there is no better game than their next in which to turn things around – a trip to Tottenham on 28 January. May the best team win.