Liverpool’s 2021/22 campaign was one for the history books. Jurgen Klopp’s side were a heroic Man City comeback and career-best Thibaut Courtois performance away from becoming the first team in English football history to sweep up all four major trophies; the supporters able to dream that absolutely everything was possible deep into May.
It was a journey Liverpool fans will never forget. Despite ultimately falling short in pursuit of the two big ones – the Premier League and Champions League – the consistency displayed both domestically and across the continent has arguably never been seen before on these shores.
At the time of writing Liverpool sit in 8th place, nine points off the summit, and in the blink of an eye their 2022/23 campaign is at risk of getting away from them before it has really had a chance to begin. What happened in the ten weeks between the Champions League final in Paris and the season-opener at Craven Cottage that could initiate such a slide, and what do Liverpool need to do to turn it around?
The modern football fan has a palpable infatuation with transfers, Liverpool supporters perhaps more so than most. In an era of FIFA Ultimate Team and Fantasy Premier League, the notion of a shiny new toy acquired in the transfer market can preoccupy this generation as much as what happens on the pitch.
The shiny new toy that many of a Liverpool persuasion had on their lips this time around was a midfielder; the average age and injury records of Klopp’s favoured men in the middle being the catalyst. Those concerns were compounded by injuries to a number of senior midfielders within the first few weeks of August, and the calls were eventually answered with an eleventh hour loan move for Juventus’ Arthur Melo.
There was also to be a significant move in the opposite direction, as Sadio Mane ended a glorious six-year spell for pastures new in Munich. It raised eyebrows, and plenty in the media and online raced to the conclusion that the Senegalese forward’s departure was a leading cause for the Reds’ stuttering start.
While on the face of it losing a star of the most successful stint in Liverpool’s modern history can theoretically leave an insurmountable hole, the fact is that it is a baseless premise. Neither Jude Bellingham nor Sadio Mane can realistically be assumed as the sticking plaster Liverpool’s season needed, and even if that were the case, those voices are now futile. Liverpool must turn their attention to the controllables.
Sadio Mane has himself suffered a relatively slow start to life in the Bundesliga, and the man touted as his long-term replacement, Luis Diaz, has been one of the few shining lights in Liverpool’s season thus far.
While there may have been dissenting voices about Liverpool’s perceived lack of activity in the window, plenty of it levelled at Fenway Sports Group, a squad capable of reaching every possible final and taking the title down to the wire does not simply become insufficient overnight.
A key parallel between this season and Liverpool’s turbulent 2020/21 is the list of casualties in a fixed area of the pitch. Liverpool’s Covid-hit title defence two years ago was plagued by injuries to their centre-backs, causing the likes of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho to step in as cover and leaving the side vulnerable in other areas. As outlined above, on this occasion it has been the midfield that has been depleted and left the manager with the biggest headaches.
19-year-old Harvey Elliott has displayed maturity and composure beyond his years, and is clearly one of the most talented young prospects the club has seen in years, but the sheer volume of minutes he has been required to play at a developing age emphasises the lack of experienced options at Klopp’s disposal, particularly at such an early stage of the season.
James Milner has also played a more significant role than the management, and perhaps even himself, will have anticipated when he signed his contract extension in June. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Elliott, the 36-year-old has been the subject of somewhat unfair criticism from his own supporters given that the situation hasn’t been caused by him and his role has been far greater than would typically be expected of a Klopp midfielder in his twilight years.
Should the club have foreseen that these fears were likely to emanate given the fitness history of Thiago, Henderson, Naby Keita and others? There is certainly an argument to suggest so and, although the signing of Arthur will in theory ease the burden on those carrying the biggest load, it does demonstrate a lack of forward planning that wouldn’t typically be associated with the club’s recruitment team.
It has been quite the few years for this group of players. Since Klopp’s first full season there has always been something to play for right up until the 38th game of the league campaign, and there has been the small matter of four European finals during that period. Sprinkle in AFCON and European Championship summers and it is perhaps no surprise that so many of the key figures have succumbed to injury.
In that time there have, of course, been crushing setbacks. Liverpool became the first side in history to amass 97 points without capturing the league title, but were able to follow it up by blowing the competition away with 26 wins from the first 27 and ending a 30 year drought to finally lift the Premier League trophy.
It was a similar story in Europe, where the reds bounced back from defeat in Kiev at the hands of Real Madrid by sealing a sixth European crown with a 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at the Wanda Metropolitano.
The ability to continually pick yourself up from disappointment requires an enormous level of character and self-belief. Even in their most triumphant hour, Liverpool’s reward for lifting a 19th league title was constricted celebrations in a brand new Covid setting, then simply being asked to go out and do it again. There was no city centre parade as there had been 12 months earlier, only a brief layoff and a subsequent season in front of empty stadia.
A bit of perspective: we’re still in September. Liverpool have got 32 league games left to play and will find themselves five points behind Manchester City should they win their game in hand.
They should, in theory, return from the international break with a much broader set of options than they have had to this point, and the key will be their ability to put a run together and leave themselves within sight of the leaders by the time the World Cup rolls around. A number of key players failing to qualify for Qatar affords a decent portion of the squad an opportunity for a rest that simply hasn’t presented itself in recent years.
It is by no means a time to be throwing in any towels, but in an era in which sub-90 points simply won’t suffice Liverpool have left themselves with little wiggle room and must act quickly if they want to get anywhere close to the standards they have set themselves in recent times.
Performances have fallen far below the level we have come to expect from this Liverpool team, with meek showings at Old Trafford and Goodison Park encapsulating the difficulties they have encountered so far.
If there is a man to put things right, it is Jurgen Klopp. The German rightly has an almost infinite amount of credit in the bank with the club and its supporters, highlighted by trailing Chelsea in the league table but facing absolutely zero murmurings that he could suffer the same fate as Thomas Tuchel.
The phase between the international break and the World Cup will be crucial to Liverpool’s season, and in that time we’ll see exactly how justified the scrutiny was.