Virgil van Dijk's absence is having a "psychological" effect on Liverpool and summer signing Thiago Alcantara is slowing their game down, according to John Barnes.
Liverpool have made a stuttering start to the defence of their first league title in three decades, recording nine wins, seven draws and two losses in their opening 18 games.
Jurgen Klopp's men have already dropped more points than they did in the entire 2019-20 campaign, with their latest setback coming against Manchester United on Sunday.
The Red Devils maintained top spot in the table after holding the champions to a 0-0 draw at Anfield, and might have even escaped with all three points had Alisson not been at his best to deny Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in the latter stages of the game.
Liverpool have now gone three successive games without finding the back of the net for the first time in 16 years, while they continue to deal with a defensive injury crisis which has seen several key players sidelined.
Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have also been unavailable for the Reds, leaving Klopp with no choice but to deploy midfielders Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in the heart of the defence in recent matches.
Van Dijk has left the most gaping hole in the starting XI, with the talismanic centre-back having been out of action since October with a cruciate knee ligament injury, and Barnes doesn't think his old club are the same formidable force without the 29-year-old.
“When you’re so used to playing a particular style with a particular way with three hard-working midfield players, you’ve got Van Dijk at the back who gives you that assurance, which allows the full-backs to go forward with conviction and be creative," the Liverpool legend told talkSPORT. “All of a sudden, the psychological effects of Van Dijk not being there affects the whole team.
“So it doesn’t necessarily physically affect the team in terms of what they do, but if you look at Trent Alexander-Arnold, for example, or even Andy Robertson, when Van Dijk is there they know they can go forward with conviction knowing that they’re safe at the back.
“I don’t think they’re being as creative.”
Barnes also believes the presence of Thiago, who moved to Anfield from Bayern Munich in September, has disrupted the Reds' usual system with the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino now struggling to find space in the final third because the Spaniard holds onto the ball for too long.
“Thiago, who was running the game and was the best player in the first-half, I don’t think that necessarily helped the front three," he added. “With Henderson and Fabinho in midfield, they just get the ball forward and are much more direct for the three strong-running strikers to get on the ball and go on attack, Thiago slows the game down.
“When he slowed the game down in tight areas, that is not Mane’s game, that is not Salah’s game. So we’re getting used to a new system, but at the moment it’s not working.
“In my opinion, along with Man City, we’re still favourites [for the title].”