When Virgil van Dijk was pretty much ruled out of Liverpool’s title defence in mid-October the call was for Jurgen Klopp to sign a centre back in the January transfer window. The imperious Dutch defender was soon joined by Joe Gomez as a long-term absentee and the demand to address what was now a makeshift rearguard was suddenly deafening.
Klopp may well have wondered what he had done to garner such wretched luck, with perceived wisdom demanding defensive reinforcements if the Merseysiders harboured serious hopes of retaining their league title. It seemed January couldn’t come quick enough, but the reality is that the defence has coped admirably given the circumstances, particularly with midfield-enforcer Fabinho masquerading as one of the best centre backs in Europe right now.
That’s not to say Liverpool shouldn’t look to sign a defender in the final weeks of January as they are clearly lacking depth there and are currently missing out on the qualities that Fabinho and skipper, Jordan Henderson bring to the midfield.
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Kopites will still be hopeful their club’s hierarchy can find a way to bring a defender in before the window shuts, despite what Klopp has said to the contrary in public. However, the focus on the injury woes in defence has meant their attack has avoided the scrutiny its profligacy deserves. That’s the area of the team that will be giving Klopp a few sleepless nights right now. His much-lauded triumvirate are not quite clicking as a collective and if he does not find a way to reinvigorate them soon, it may well cost them in their bid to retain the title.
Another Anfield stalemate - this time with rivals Manchester United - again saw Liverpool dominate without really conjuring up enough in the final third to truly put the visitors under major threat. It also ensured the Reds failed to net in three league games in a row for the first time since 2005 and extended a winless run to four matches.
It’s not exactly a moment for hyperbolic panic, but it is a concern, and from wondering about the transfer availability of top defenders and the fitness of the injury-prone Joel Matip, Liverpool supporters are now spending more time counting the days until Diogo Jota is back in action.
The Portuguese forward, who has netted nine goals in 17 appearances since joining from Wolves, was proving to be one of the signings of the season prior to the injury he sustained in a match he could well have been rested for at FC Midtjylland. Klopp’s men had already reached the last 16 of the Champions League as Group winners and that decision in early December may well be haunting him right now.
When Jota arrived at Anfield he was seen as a solid back up to the front three, but he quickly emerged as another, incisive dimension to the forward line. His pace and direct play seem to be sorely lacking at present, with Liverpool slowing down the attack too often and lacking ruthlessness in the opposition penalty area. Rather bizarrely, his stock may even have risen in his absence as Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and most evidently, Roberto Firmino have struggled to hit the heights of old.
If we look at Liverpool's seven league matches since Jota’s injury, the 7-0 rout of Crystal Palace has been something of an anomaly. Indeed, since that win at Selhurst Park the Reds’ conversion rate has been a dreadful 1.6 per cent. It’s not as if they have been playing against big-hitters either, with struggling Newcastle and West Brom managing to dig out surprising draws.
Such results have seen Liverpool go from threatening to pull clear to trying to keep pace at the summit, and it's all down to a shot-shy attack - not the rag-tag defence.
The harsh truth is that Liverpool’s front three haven’t been at their fearsome best as a fluid trio for some time. There have been fleeting glimpses of their individual brilliance, but collectively they haven’t ravaged teams in the manner that saw them emerge as arguably the best attacking trident in world football on a consistent basis.
These strikers have deservedly basked in regular plaudits, but now they have to stand up to some criticism and respond. It could be that teams have finally worked them out, but it’s more likely they are a few gears off where they need to be. The old adage is that form is temporary, but class is permanent. Now it's time for them to prove it.
With a flurry of huge games looming on their horizon, Liverpool need them to brush off the cobwebs with great haste, hit the goal trail and wrestle the club's bid for title number 20 right back on track, before it proves to be too late.
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