A fair amount has altered since Mohamed Salah steamed through on David de Gea’s goal to seal Liverpool’s 2-0 win against Manchester United almost exactly one year ago. There were 52,916 supporters allowed inside Anfield on that different planet, Alisson could sprint the length of the pitch to embrace the goalscorer without fear of government censure and Liverpool fans finally acknowledged in public that the Premier League title was theirs after a 30-year wait. Of the many changes in Jürgen Klopp’s world since last receiving Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Anfield, it is the dilution of that fierce belief into creeping doubt that will irritate most.
According to Klopp, the perception of Liverpool’s current position and form does not tally with reality. Whereas United arrive on Merseyside on Sunday emboldened by leading the Premier League after as many as 17 matches for the first time since 2013, and optimism abounds at Manchester City following seven successive victories in all competitions, Liverpool are floundering after three league games without a win despite being sandwiched between their two rivals and three points off the summit.
At least that is how Klopp assesses the external mood. The champions, he believes, are being held to last season’s imperious standards and receiving no allowances for the various mitigating factors behind this term’s grind. His team, he insists, have performed poorly twice during the downturn that has offered hope to both sides of the Manchester divide – throughout the 1-1 draw at Fulham on 13 December and in the second half of the 1-1 draw with West Brom a fortnight later.
The Liverpool manager’s views are also open to debate, although perhaps the most misleading theory surrounding the champions’ recent dip is that well-publicised problems in defence are the root cause. The lauded attack that has compensated for defensive holes for much of the campaign is chiefly responsible and Diogo Jota’s absence has been felt more over the past few weeks than even the seismic loss of Virgil van Dijk.
Liverpool’s defensive recovery has been impressive by any standards since the 7-2 aberration at Aston Villa. That is has followed injuries to Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joël Matip, required the inexperienced Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips to partner the midfielder Fabinho in central defence, plus Jordan Henderson, and included the rarity of a struggling Trent Alexander-Arnold underlines the formidable quality of the squad.
Having conceded 11 goals in the first four games of the title defence, up to and including the 11th minute of the Merseyside derby when Van Dijk was forced off, Liverpool have shipped 10 in 13 matches subsequently. Only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals – six – than Liverpool have done since losing their key central defender.
That resilience has kept them in the hunt and given Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Jota the platform for a combined 29 Premier League goals. Between them, Liverpool’s front four are responsible for 78% of the team’s league goals (United’s main four strikers – Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood – account for 34% of their total, 13 goals). With the established front three suffering a collective drop-off, Jota sidelined and the supporting cast ineffective, the problems in the final third have been glaring of late.
Firmino, Mané and Salah need to spark again and they have made a habit of doing so in decisive contests, for Liverpool to dismiss United as a fleeting challenger and respond to the re-emerging threat from City.
The destructive quality that punished Leicester, Wolves and Crystal Palace, when Takumi Minamino started in place of Salah at Selhurst Park, was painfully absent against West Brom, Newcastle and Southampton. Klopp described the performances at St James’ Park and St Mary’s as “good” and “a normal away game” respectively, albeit while criticising a lack of composure in front of goal, poor decision-making and inaccuracy in both.
Liverpool have failed to score in back-to-back Premier League games for the first time since May 2018. Having been at their clinical best in the rout of Palace, scoring seven times from eight shots on target, they have managed seven attempts on target in their past three matches. There was only one at Southampton, from Mané in the 75th minute, their latest for a first shot on target in a league game for more than five years.
It is not being wise after the event to question Klopp’s selection for the dead-rubber with Midtjylland
Jota has been a telling loss. The Portugal international scored nine goals in 17 appearances following his £41m arrival from Wolves, including decisive winners in successive home league games against Sheffield United and West Ham. His seamless introduction put more pressure on the first-choice front three than Divock Origi or Minamino, allowed Klopp to cover the defensive issues with even more firepower and provided a potent alternative to Firmino during what has been a relatively subdued season by the Brazilian.
The striker has yet to resume full team training after sustaining a knee ligament injury in the final Champions League group game at Midtjylland on 9 December. It is not being wise after the event to question Klopp’s selection for that dead-rubber. It was bewildering at the time to see Jota, Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Salah start while their manager was railing against the demands on his players, even though he did make eight changes to the team that dismantled Wolves three days earlier.
With Salah subsequently complaining about not being captain for that game, when he gave a rare interview to Spanish sports daily AS, Midtjylland proved a dead-rubber with several avoidable headaches for Klopp.
A remedy is available at Anfield on Sunday, however, when the two biggest clubs in the land finally meet in a game with title consequences for both sides. An opportunity for Liverpool to restore belief.