The second half of the 2020/21 Premier League season is underway. The Hard Tackle runs the rule over Liverpool and what beckons them for the rest of the season.
The last few years have been extremely memorable for Liverpool to say the least. 2019 saw the return of trophies at Anfield, as the Reds became champions of Europe for an English record-extending 6th time before winning the UEFA Super Cup as well as the Club World Cup. However, it was 2020 that proved to be worth remembering even more.
While many would like to put the year of the coronavirus behind them, Liverpool and their fans will forever cherish 2020 after having seen the agonising wait for a maiden Premier League title end after three decades. No longer were the Merseyside giants the butt of jokes, as they steamrolled past the chasing pack to become 19-time English champions.
The mentality monsters never looked like stopping, especially in moments when they were not at their best, with Jurgen Klopp’s men showing an oft a little seen resolve and grit to seal the deal. The elusive trophy, though, was finally theirs and even though Anfield witnessed the celebrations without the presence of fans, the theatre of the occasion would have given the Liverpool faithfuls much to celebrate in a gloomy year.
However, with the tag of Premier League champions came a new challenge. Liverpool had to defend the title now and that brings with itself a different level of pressure, one that many of the players in Klopp’s squad have never been accustomed to. The gaffer, though, famously proclaimed that his charges will not defend the title but attack it.
The Liverpool boss said, “We will not defend the title next season; we’ll attack the next one. I have learned when you think you have reached the pinnacle, you are already on the way down.” Such an outlook would ideally have a twin-pronged effect on his players.
The claims obviously could help set the tone for a different facet of Mentality Monsters to show to the world. But more importantly, Klopp’s comments would, in principle, lift the pressure off of the Liverpool players’ shoulders as they sought to equal Manchester United’s record of winning 20 top-flight titles.
To boost his team’s chances of “attacking” the title, Klopp also oversaw a decent enough summer transfer business, with Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota being the notable arrivals at Anfield. The 2020/21 season, though, did not start on the best possible note, as Liverpool lost the Community Shield tie to Arsenal ahead of the Premier League season opener.
The title defence, however, began in nervy fashion as newly-promoted Leeds United ran them close before Liverpool eked out a narrow 4-3 win. The Reds followed that up with far more solid displays, beating a much-stronger Chelsea and a more resilient Arsenal to let their rivals know that they meant business. Then came the first slip-up.
Last season, it was not until March that Liverpool were beaten for the first time in the Premier League but this term, the first defeat came less than a month into the new campaign and it was a heavy one at that. Paying Aston Villa a visit at Villa Park, Liverpool had the chance to remain in the upper echelons of the table, but ended up being trounced 7-2 in what was an embarrassing loss.
That was followed by a 2-2 draw with neighbours Everton, in a game that has, in a way, heavily influenced their campaign till date, for it came with an innumerable cost. That is because in the first half of the game, the Toffees’ goalkeeper Jordan Pickford clattered into Virgil van Dijk, who picked up a long-term knee injury that keeps him on the sidelines to this day.
The Dutchman’s injury layoff has indeed proven to be telling, as Liverpool have managed to keep a clean sheet in just four of their 18 subsequent Premier League games. It is, therefore, not surprising that a team that was built on the colossal nature of its defence for the better part of the last two seasons has been struggling to not just keep a lid on their opponents’ output but also get over the line altogether in several games.
That van Dijk’s layoff was quickly followed another potential season-ending injury, affecting Joe Gomez, meant that Klopp’s defensive arsenal became severely limited. That meant that Fabinho has had to be deployed as a makeshift centre-back over the past few months. Coming back to their results on the pitch, and the Reds have been a picture of inconsistency.
In fact, Liverpool have not gone on a three-game winning streak since their run at the onset of the season and as a result, they have already dropped points twice as many times as they did in the entirety of 2019/20. Meanwhile, their second defeat of the season came upon the turn of the year, with Southampton handing them a 1-0 loss at St. Mary’s in their first match of 2021.
Since then, Klopp & co. have been in a rut of sorts, and they have managed to win just two of their last nine Premier League games. More excruciatingly, the Reds’ famed and long-standing unbeaten run at Anfield in the top-flight has come to a grinding halt, with Liverpool losing each of their last home league games. The most recent such defeat was the disastrous 4-1 capitulation at the hands of Manchester City.
That result has left Liverpool ten points adrift of Pep Guardiola’s men, who are perched atop the Premier League table while also having a game in hand. The title, therefore, appears to be slipping from their grasp, with the defending champions currently fourth and just a point ahead of fifth-placed Chelsea. However, despite the recent doom and gloom, there still have been some positives this term.
It goes without saying that in a season that has been characterized collective inconsistencies, there has not been a lot of positive when it comes to Liverpool. Captain Jordan Henderson remains the inspirational leader that he is, but has not been ruthless in his work in midfield. Mohamed Salah leads the Golden Boot race but has shown a tendency of going missing for games at end, whereas his attacking partners have hardly fared any better.
Summer signing Thiago Alcantara has only recently become a regular after overcoming fitness issues and is experiencing teething problems, while full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have lost their aura. Even goalkeeper Alisson Becker is proving to be prone to errors. In all this, though, one player has stood out clear of the rest of his Liverpool teammates. That player is Fabinho.
The Brazilian had already proven to be a domineering figure at the base of the midfield over the past couple of seasons. This season, however, he has hardly featured in the middle of the park, as Jurgen Klopp has chosen to deploy him as a makeshift centre-back in the absence of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and of late, Joel Matip.
While Fabinho’s qualities were never in doubt, what has been pleasantly surprising is how he has donned the leadership hat effortlessly. The 27-year-old evidently has the penchant of organising the defence smartly while having the quality of egging his teammates to raise their levels. Furthermore, his adeptness on the ball has meant that he has been able to initiate moves just as van Dijk would have if he was available.
Therefore, it is no wonder that Liverpool have struggled more often than not when Fabinho has not been stationed at the heart of the defence, with the only exception being their 4-1 defeat to Manchester City. While Klopp will most certainly prefer having van Dijk back at his disposal sooner rather than later, in the meantime, Fabinho’s reinvention has been quite pleasing to say the least.
The Big Challenge
To get their season back on track, of course. Liverpool have already lost more games this season than they did in both the last two campaigns combined. The team appears to be very disjointed and the poor run is threatening to throw their season into a complete disarray.
Things do not improve in the coming ten days or so, as far as their fixture list is concerned. The Reds face a couple of tricky fixtures in the Premier League against Leicester City and Everton coming up, with the two top-flight games sandwiching the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg tie against RB Leipzig, in what will be another difficult match for Liverpool.
Sheffield United and Fulham follow in games that Liverpool just have to win, as the next run could once again put them on a slippery slope, with RB Leipzig, Wolves, Chelsea, Arsenal and the high-flying Aston Villa being their opponents going into the second week of April.
If Liverpool have not found stable footing by then, they will not just be battling for a place in the top four, but European spots altogether. So, it cannot be stressed enough that the Reds need to find their verve again and get back on track, for their atrocious form is threatening to send them tumbling down the table. Jurgen Klopp must get his house back in order.
Predicted Finish in 2020/21 Season: 3rd
Yes, Liverpool are not a team in form at the moment. Yes, the likes of Chelsea, West Ham United, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur are lurking behind them, whereas Leicester City are threatening to run away. Jurgen Klopp, being the experienced manager that he is, will aim to take his team forward one step at a time instead of looking too far ahead.
The Reds do have the quality to get back on top of their games, individually and collectively. And, as Leicester City showed last season, they can slip-up owing to the lack of quality beyond the first-choice options. With the Foxes also set to play the grueling Thursday-Sunday routine when the UEFA Europa League knockout rounds begin, there should be an invariable slip-up.
That is when Liverpool are likely to pounce, although they appear to be unlikely to catch the two Manchester clubs, who are expected to be vying for the Premier League title come May. The Hard Tackle predicts Liverpool to recover to some extent come May, but they will surely relinquish their title to one of the current top two sides.