What's wrong with Liverpool? Midfield in trouble, Van Dijk struggling and a Mane-shaped hole in attack

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The contrast with last season could hardly have been starker. As the jubilant Manchester United fans made their way, singing and dancing, to the Old Trafford exits, Liverpool’s supporters prepared themselves for a long, painful wait in silence in the away end.

In the press conference room, Jurgen Klopp wore the look of a man who’d been told to expect roadworks on his way home, while Erik ten Hag’s demeanour was that of someone for whom the weight of the world had, temporarily at least, been lifted.

Pitchside, Roy Keane was offering post-match analysis alongside Stormzy, light-hearted and pleased with the night’s work. Gary Neville was smiling and Jamie Carragher was grimacing. 

United were climbing and Liverpool were falling.

Three games into the new season, questions are mounting for the men from Anfield. If Fulham on the opening day was a blip, and Crystal Palace last week was coloured by circumstance, defeat at Old Trafford was something altogether more worrying. 

This is Liverpool’s worst start to a league campaign in a decade, and one which must cast serious doubt over their ability to challenge for the Premier League title as they have done so thrillingly in recent years. It may only be August, but something just isn’t right on Merseyside.

Here, GOAL takes a look at the key issues…

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    THE INJURIES

    Caomhin Kelleher, Calvin Ramsay, Ibrahima Konate, Joel Matip, Curtis Jones, Thiago Alcantara, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, Kaide Gordon, Diogo Jota, Darwin Nunez.

    Not a bad team, is it? Good enough to beat plenty of Premier League sides, you’d say. Yet that is a Liverpool XI made up entirely of players who are currently sidelined. No wonder the squad looks a little bare right now.

    Of course Nunez’s absence is self-inflicted, but it is not surprising that the manager spoke last week about “a witch in the building” at Kirkby. Little more than a fortnight into the campaign, his options have been decimated.

    The absence of Thiago, in particular, has been keenly felt. The Spaniard, when fit, sets the team’s rhythm and tempo, and has the creativity and passing range to open up even the best-organised defence. 

    Jota, too, has been badly missed, with Nunez suspended and Roberto Firmino struggling. Liverpool had only the teenager Fabio Carvalho, in an attacking sense, to turn to off the bench at Old Trafford, where the likes of Sepp van den Berg, Nat Phillips, Bobby Clark, Harvey Davies and Stefan Bajcetic were among the substitutes.

    Jota and Jones may be back in training by the end of the month, but Keita was the latest to fall on Sunday and is now set for a spell on the sidelines, Thiago, Matip and Konate are out until at least mid-September and Oxlade-Chamberlain even longer. 

    In the meantime, Klopp must cross his fingers and hope nobody else pulls up. 

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    THE MIDFIELD

    “You tell me, what kind of player are we missing? One who is offensive, 1.95m and arrives into the box to head balls in? What do you want? This ‘golden cow’ that is producing absolutely everything, milk as well?!”

    That was Klopp speaking at the start of July, when asked by a group of journalists whether he felt Liverpool needed to bring in a new midfielder.

    He was unequivocal then. No need for a signing, he said. The last thing that would have crossed his mind was strengthening in that area.

    Six weeks on, one wonders whether his stance has changed at all. Four of the nine options he listed are injured, and of the five that are fit, two are out of form, two are 19 and have played as much in the forward line as they have midfield, while one is 36 and signed a one-year contract in the summer with the understanding that his role in the team, certainly as a starter, would be significantly diminished.

    Liverpool take pride in the fact that they don’t sign players for the sake of it, and they can point to past success in terms of waiting for the right man to become available. They may stick to their guns this time around too, but it would be a huge risk if they did. If the club aren’t at least asking the question of some of their long-identified midfield targets, then quite frankly they’re not doing their job.

    Liverpool’s midfield, short and long term, is an issue that has been bubbling for more than just a couple of weeks.

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    THE SLOW STARTS

    It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you want to win football matches, then giving the opposition a one-goal head start is not a great idea. 

    Yet that is essentially what Liverpool have been doing, conceding first in each of their last seven league games and then having to fight their way back into the contest.

    Their sluggish starts are alarming, especially away from home. Klopp criticised the “attitude” of his players after the draw at Fulham, and while he insisted there were no such worries after the United game, there were certainly similarities in the way in which his side struggled to cope with the home side’s intensity, physicality and intent. 

    Just as at Craven Cottage, it took Liverpool half an hour to find any kind of composure and rhythm. Just as at Craven Cottage, they were a goal down by then and it might have been worse.

    Whether it’s complacency, fitness or a collective lack of confidence - maybe it’s all of those things - it needs fixing soon. The first goal against Bournemouth on Saturday is vital.

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    THE KEY MEN

    For all the talk of an injury crisis and the need for a new signing, it should not be ignored that several of Liverpool’s star players have looked well short of their best so far this season.

    Virgil van Dijk, for example, has not been anything like his normal self. Rattled by Aleksandar Mitrovic at Fulham, he struggled again against United. His decision to stand off Jadon Sancho for the opening goal, rather than closing the forward down, was bizarre, and perhaps emblematic of Liverpool’s issues. Things that have been second nature for so long are, for whatever reason, not quite that at the moment.

    The Dutchman isn’t the only one out of sorts. Trent Alexander-Arnold was terrorised by Anthony Elanga and Marcus Rashford, Jordan Henderson has been poor in both games he’s started, Alisson Becker is allowing goals to go past him too easily and Roberto Firmino has looked a shadow of the player we know he can be. Fabinho was left on the bench against United, and even Andy Robertson’s energy levels look to have dipped.

    There’s no question that a new arrival would help things - regardless of the injury situation - but first and foremost, Klopp needs his key men to rediscover their form.

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    THE MISSING MAN(E)

    When so much of your success has been built around the brilliant, unique skills of a group of core players, it must be extremely difficult to recalibrate when one of that group is not there.

    That certainly looks to be the case with Liverpool following the departure of Sadio Mane this summer, and the Senegal star’s fine start for new club Bayern Munich will not make that fact any easier to swallow.

    Mane’s blend of dynamism, physicality and mentality made him nigh-on impossible to replace directly, hence why Liverpool chose to go down a different route with the signing of Darwin Nunez, a No.9 who would, in theory, offer a more natural focal point in attack.

    Nunez should be fine at Liverpool. He’s a good player who will undoubtedly improve. But his moment of recklessness against Crystal Palace was terribly-timed, and with Jota unavailable, Klopp has little wiggle room in terms of selection, or indeed changing the game from the bench. 

    What he would have given for a bit of Mane’s steel, and his quality, at Old Trafford.

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    THE HANGOVER

    Klopp and his players would dismiss the idea, one suspects, but you have to wonder how much last season, with its highs and lows, its relentless intensity and its heartbreaking conclusion, took out of Liverpool.

    It would be understandable, inevitable even, if there was some kind of hangover. When you dig so deep for so long - 63 games, all of them vital and many of them on a knife-edge - it can’t be easy to simply dust yourself off and go again, however driven, however fit, however professional you are.

    For all the glory of the journey, last season ended in pain for the Reds. They missed out on the two prizes they wanted more than any other, and while a post-season trophy parade in the city may have lifted spirits, they would not be human if they didn’t wonder whether 2021-22 was as good as it was going to get.

    They only dropped 22 points in the whole of last season, but they’ve let seven slip already this time around and can ill-afford to lose more ground in the coming weeks. 

    The flip side is that if any side has shown itself capable of dragging themselves out of a hole and putting a run together in recent years, it’s Liverpool. 

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    THE GENERAL MOOD

    Sometimes you just feel it. That sense that everyone is on edge, just waiting for something to go wrong. That something just isn’t right.

    It feels like that with Liverpool at the moment. They’ve been happy for so long, but they’re not happy now. They’re arguing with each other on the pitch, the manager is talking (tongue-in-cheek) about a witch’s curse and stories are emerging about players wanting to leave.

    The fans, too, are worried, terrified of the idea that a wonderful era could pass, that Manchester City will get away from them, and that they could be overtaken by sides who have spent big and, it seems, strengthened well. 

    Of course a sense of perspective is needed. It’s three games, and Liverpool aren’t the only ones to have had issues  - Chelsea lost 3-0 on Sunday, City dropped points too and United are not suddenly world-beaters because of one belated show of effort and energy - but there’s no doubt that a nerve-settler is needed, just to restore a sense of calm and composure to proceedings.

    Liverpool need a win against Bournemouth this weekend, that’s obvious, but beyond that they need a convincing performance - as much for themselves as for anyone else.