Mohamed Salah had tossed his shirt away in celebration and Alisson, perhaps particularly eager to mark a rare assist, had sprinted 100 yards to become the first to join him when Anfield erupted into a chorus not heard there for years: “We’re gonna win the league,” declared those previously wary of sounding over-confident.
It was January 2020. Liverpool had taken 91 of 93 points available, were 16 clear at the top of the Premier League, 30 ahead of the defeated Manchester United. The visitors’ No 10 was not Bruno Fernandes, then a Sporting Lisbon player, but Andreas Pereira. The spectre of the unemployed Mauricio Pochettino threatened to haunt Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Fifteen months after one of the last great spectator events in English football, much has changed. Anfield has rarely felt emptier than in this January’s stalemate with United, a great fixture reduced to a form of nothingness. But even that was preferable to what followed: Liverpool’s 68th and last league game unbeaten at home was the prelude to six straight defeats. The reunion with United comes with Liverpool’s reign almost over, kings potentially turned kingmakers. Manchester City are going to win the league and Liverpool could hasten their coronation at Old Trafford on Sunday.
They are 13 points behind United, which reflects well on Solskjær and Jürgen Klopp has shown the generosity of spirit to praise his counterpart; Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benítez rarely traded compliments. These days the withering comments from Old Trafford are supplied by Roy Keane, who called Liverpool “bad champions” even before they had finished supporting his case.
That 43-point turnaround highlights an astonishing collapse at Anfield. The belief Klopp forged, shared by players and supporters, has been battered into submission. Liverpool’s record was so extraordinary it was unsustainable, and has given way to the worst run at home in their history, outscored in 2021 by Burnley and West Brom and Newcastle. They have five games to salvage something. Forget the European Super League, the Europa League may beckon for the 2019 champions of Europe; maybe even the inaugural Conference League.
Should Chelsea win the Champions League and Arsenal the Europa League and they finish fifth or lower, even fourth would not send them back into the Champions League. The permutations appear unlikely but they seemed irrelevant when Liverpool entered January three points clear at the Premier League summit.
“It is not nice if you are fourth and then you get kicked out because of another team winning the Champions League,” Klopp said. “That’s not cool. But these are the rules at the moment so we have to accept them.”
He has had to accept much that has felt unpalatable. Last week’s two late equalisers by Leeds and Newcastle cost Liverpool four points and left their fate outside their hands. Their return of two goals from 39 shots illustrated their lack of ruthlessness. Roberto Firmino has no goal in 14 games, his longest drought for Liverpool and feels a spent force, worn down by his relentless running. Lionel Messi voted for Sadio Mané for the 2019 Ballon d’Or, but the Senegalese now has a lone strike in 11 league matches. Subterranean lows have followed the stratospheric highs.
Liverpool were a potent cocktail of energy, chemistry and solidity. Removing Virgil van Dijk from the equation, followed by injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, altered it. “The last line of Man United played 20 games together and then you can make changes everywhere because you have that basis,” Klopp said. Liverpool have had institutionalised uncertainty in a season of 18 centre-backs partnerships, some involving the valiant Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, in turn disrupting the midfield.
Klopp never wants to rotate like Pep Guardiola. “We need stability; we will make changes from time to time but it’s not like we can make seven or eight,” he said. Strength in depth was an illusion glimpsed in victories last season when fringe figures could supplement a terrific core of regulars. Faultlines in his squad have been exposed. Nat Phillips has come from obscurity to overachieve, Diogo Jota has had an auspicious debut year and Curtis Jones has kicked on, but too many others have proved inadequate alternatives to the out of form, the injured and the overworked.
One summer signing, Thiago Alcântara, was omitted for both legs against Real Madrid. Another, Kostas Tsimikas, has been granted five minutes of Premier League action. The 2019 Super Cup hero Adrián shipped seven goals at Villa Park. Two years ago, Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi were the scourges of Barcelona; now their lone goals have come against Lincoln and the latter is rarely seen. The Klopp formula of midfield workhorses is reliant on Firmino and Mané scoring. When they don’t, his attacking midfielders have to compensate in the way Philippe Coutinho used to, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta are twinned on no goals and a minimal impact.
Keïta has been overlooked since he was ignominiously substituted before half-time in Madrid. Astute recruitment propelled Liverpool to glory but he feels the antithesis of Mané, Salah, Van Dijk and Alisson, the first flagship buy to fail. Replenishing a squad that is starting to age depends either on receiving sizeable sums for underperforming fringe figures in a depressed market or conjuring more from them and Klopp can be a stubborn loyalist. “The long-term future of Naby Keïta from my point of view is here,” he said.
Liverpool may have to find the answers within, and from a £52.75m purchase. “Like a lot of other players, he looks really good in training,” Klopp said – too few have done so consistently on the pitch of late.
Old Trafford offers an example of how the marginalised can make a difference. It was the only place where Liverpool dropped points in their first 28 games last season, but they were spared defeat by the substitute Adam Lallana.
It is one of four draws Klopp has secured on United territory. He is never too concerned about facts but harked back to a 2016 Europa League draw that sealed an aggregate triumph. “It felt like a win,” he said. “The longer you don’t win there, the more likely it is that at one point you will win there.”
Extend a counterintuitive argument and the more Liverpool have lost in 2021, the likelier they are to win. But that was scarcely their mantra when they were winning at an unprecedented rate and powering to the title they will soon relinquish.