We may still be in November, and December is stacked. But it is January which has got Liverpool fans most concerned.
Traditionally, the first month of the year has not been especially kind to Jurgen Klopp and his side. It is where title bids have run off course and where cup dreams have evaporated, where injuries have gripped and form has dipped.
Is history set to repeat itself in 2022?
That’s the fear. The Reds may have started the season well enough – they are only four points off the top of the Premier League and have breezed through a tough-looking Champions League group – but big tests lie in wait. Lots of them.
Over the course of the next 12 weeks, from now until February 5, Liverpool will play at least 18 games, with the potential for three more should they beat Leicester in the Carabao Cup quarter-final next month and win their FA Cup third-round tie at the start of January.
Klopp’s squad is already creaking, and it will now be tested like never before, especially with the Africa Cup of Nations set to deny him the services of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita in amongst it all.
Salah’s Egypt and Mane’s Senegal are among the pre-tournament favourites, meaning they could be missing for up to six weeks at the turn of the year. Liverpool still hope they will be available to face both Leicester (December 28) and Chelsea (January 2), but even that is yet to be confirmed, with uncertainty surrounding players’ release dates for the tournament.
What we do know is that there will be no Mane and no Salah, or Keita, against Brentford on January 15, or at Crystal Palace eight days later. They will miss the FA Cup third-round tie, and would be absent for both legs of the Carabao Cup semi, should Liverpool get there.
Sure, it could be worse, but that’s still a significant problem, in a season where Klopp’s side are taking on not one, but two juggernauts in Manchester City and Chelsea at the top of the Premier League.
Liverpool have already dropped 11 points this season, including seven in their last five league fixtures, so they can ill-afford another dry January on top of that.
The lessons of last season must be heeded. Liverpool were top of the table on Christmas Day, but won only three of their next 14 league games to slide out of contention. In the end, only a spirited, at times ugly, late-season surge saw them snatch a Champions League qualification spot.
It was injuries, above everything else, which cost them. “A season like no other,” Klopp called it, as his squad crumbled amid a series of pulls and strains, ruptures and tears.
Liverpool had no luck at all, but they made plenty of mistakes themselves during that period. Klopp’s rotation, particularly during the autumn months, was questionable (remember Diogo Jota in Midtjylland?), while the club’s attempts to stem the bleeding in January came way too late.
They should have signed a defender on the first day of the winter transfer window, but instead waited until the last. By the time Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak – stopgap signings at best – arrived, the Reds were already out of the title race, out of the FA Cup and had lost a third centre-back to a season-ending injury. Their hesitance was costly.
Were the same to happen again, questions would certainly be asked. Liverpool need an attacker in January, and they need one at the start of the month, not the end.
Klopp may argue that, in Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino, he has sufficient cover. The evidence of the past two seasons, however, suggests otherwise.
Minamino has scored three times in the Carabao Cup this season, but he has played 13 minutes of Premier League football for the Reds since last December, while Origi’s late consolation goal at West Ham before the international break was his first in the league for more than 15 months.
Both would have been sold in the summer had a suitable offer been received, but both will be needed in the coming weeks. Both have done well with what little opportunities they have had this season, but come January they could be asked to keep the club’s silverware hopes alive on one, two or even three fronts.
It feels too big a stretch, as does asking a midfielder – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Curtis Jones – or a youngster from the U23 side – Kaide Gordon perhaps – to step up and deliver.
Of course, Liverpool still have Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino – though the latter is currently recovering from a hamstring injury – but to lose one of Salah or Mane, never mind both, will hit them hard.
How they will miss that speed, physicality and goal threat. How they will miss the sense of fear those two can instil in opponents.
Origi and Minamino, even Jota and Firmino to a degree, don’t have that. Liverpool probably needed a forward in the summer anyway, but AFCON means their plans should be brought forward.
If they are not, then it could cost them.
Just like it did last season.