Mind the gap: The title’s gone for Liverpool - and so have their heads

HD Liverpool Hull City
How did a group of players labelled the most entertaining and explosive in the league become one without a top-flight win in 2017?


“We’ve started every summer with fresh hope, but by February it feels like we’re already asking ourselves where it’s gone wrong and thinking ahead to the following season.”

These words on Liverpool’s obsessive quest to land a 19th championship were published eight years ago, but the lines from Jamie Carragher’s autobiography still strongly resonate. 

Exactly three months ago, Chelsea were looking up at the Reds, whose blinding attacking blur obliterated Watford 6-1 at Anfield to send them a point clear at the summit.

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Now, it is Antonio Conte’s charges comfortably perched at the top of the table, with Liverpool’s view of them impeded by the presence of Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham - all above the Merseysiders in the Champions League spots. 

HD NDiaye scores v Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp has not seen his men win a top-flight game yet this year, and to highlight just how pitiful that is, the bottom three have all managed at least one victory in the past five fixtures.

Liverpool's record of three draws and two defeats is equivalent to Middlesborough’s and as such, so begins the revisionism and inquisition.

The ‘Why Liverpool are genuine title contenders’ pieces have been replaced by articles pointing out their lack of genuine world-class talent.

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The club’s recruitment, saluted as shrewd in the early months of the season, is now singled out as substandard. 

Having Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and one of Emre Can or Georginio Wijnaldum on the bench has degenerated from a position of power to one of poverty. 

HD Adam Lallana Liverpool

James Milner was being punted as one of the division’s best left-backs, while Barcelona had ramped up the charm offensive on Philippe Coutinho, who’d been outperforming the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne prior to suffering ankle ligament damage. 

England were urged to build around Adam Lallana, while Jordan Henderson had an army of support to earn the captaincy of his country. Sadio Mane and Joel Matip were declared two of the best bits of business across the league in the summer, while opposition managers continually referenced the Reds’ collective clout. 

In the current context of absolutely unacceptable performances and results from Liverpool, coupled with the demand for extreme opinions to draw in hits, viewers, listeners or followers, it’s unsurprising that the very components applauded not so long ago are now derided.

Do Liverpool need better players? Unequivocally. But that is the thought of every club across every league - from Barcelona to Bastia. 

The more pertinent question is how did the same group of footballers, labelled the most entertaining in England and better equipped to challenge for the title than their predecessors in 2008-09 and 2013-14, plummet at such an alarming rate? 

HD Jurgen Klopp LFC

There is the obvious: fatigue, injuries, interruption in rhythm and individual losses of form feeding into the collective. 

But with Klopp referencing the “mood” not being right in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Hull City, has the mental scarring of once again falling short in the ultimate ambition been the biggest noose around their necks?

The German identified expectation, fuelled by almost three decades of disappointment, as one of the club’s biggest issues on his first day in the job. 

“First of all we have to talk with all LFC fans, talk about what are expectations,” he said. 

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“Expectations can be a real big problem, it's like a backpack of 20 kilos, it's not so cool to run with this!”

However, it is not just supporters ruled by the overriding desire to see Liverpool described as league champions again.

HD Liverpool celebrate v Man City

The players live this longing. They too are governed by it. Carragher admitted he used to be fixated on the title “as many as half a dozen times in an afternoon,” while Steven Gerrard felt “life was hardly worth living” after his slip in a 2-0 defeat against Chelsea in April 2014 shifted the advantage in Manchester City’s favour. 

The former skipper cried in the back of the car after departing Anfield, before setting off in a private jet for a 48-hour escape to Monaco to deal with the reality of yet another missed opportunity.

And despite the quelling of expectations publicly, Liverpool’s current alumni would've headed into the international break in November believing they could break the 27-year cycle of failure. 

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The victory over Manchester City on New Year’s Eve would’ve furthered that thought process, before Tottenham’s ending of Chelsea’s phenomenal 13-game winning run at the turn of 2017 added to the hope.

But then came game after game, frustration after frustration as Conte’s side simply picked up where they left off and Liverpool couldn’t pick up points at home to struggling Swansea City

HD Jurgen Klopp

Klopp asserted that “putting themselves under pressure is kind of a hobby right now” and Dr Steve Peters, the psychiatrist who worked with the Reds under Brendan Rodgers, noted this as a debilitating effect of targeting a set ambition that is not solely under your control.

"If you start going into the realm of the uncontrollable with a pre-defined goal then you are going to start to stress," he told the Independent in 2013.

"So I would be guiding Liverpool to say, 'By all means let's commit to the dream and make it happen. But let's not make it a goal and put pressure on ourselves to live up to something that is actually not in our control.'

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"That, to me, is very critical in life. The goals become: 'Let's do the best we can, be prepared as individuals, be prepared as a team, make sure we get everything right.' These are the goals because you can control these. At the end of the day you can't do better than your best."

On football’s notion of making sure teams are ‘up for it’ following a series of blows, Peters further added: “People keep saying this, and anecdotally they talk about it getting the team 'up', but if you actually look at what happens, when the team are in this state or an individual is, their judgement is impaired. 

“They make errors and they then try to correct that by emotional attacks which result in further errors.”

HD Hull 2-0 Liverpool

This feeds into Klopp’s admission that Liverpool “produce our problems by ourselves most of the time” as well as the rinse and repeat nature of their shortcomings. 

Hull scored from their first corner of the game at the KCOM Stadium, a set-piece that was poorly conceded, and seemed to immediately paralyse the visitors. The positioning was flawed, there was no pressure on Harry Maguire in the first phase of play and no reaction when Simon Mignolet dropped the ball except from Alfred N'Diaye, who poked in the opener on his debut.

“Formation wise, it’s not right, not in one second of this set-piece and I have no idea why,” Klopp said.

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“Then we gave an easy counter-attack away again and [it was] 2-0.

"It’s all about concentration, it’s all about being really in the game and finding the answer now after a defeat which really hurts, not only myself but the players too.”

Liverpool celebrate

Liverpool need to stop feeling sorry for themselves, regain their swagger and the belief in their abilities and blueprint. Block out the noise and start bringing the roof down again. 

The title has gone, but there’s still a season to save. 

The Reds' incredible start has understandably placed more emphasis on their current malaise, but the fact remains the club have only managed to secure Champions League football once in the last seven seasons. 

It would be a betrayal of the first five months of 2016-17 if Liverpool allow that statistic to carry over into an eighth campaign.