No time to panic but Liverpool's struggles show how even great teams need to evolve fast

Mohamed Salah Jurgen Klopp Roberto Firmino Liverpool GFX
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The drop-off in the champions' form has been stark recently and the manager will have some difficult decisions to make in the short and long term

In the end, perhaps the most shocking thing of all was that it didn’t actually feel all that shocking.

In fact, it felt almost inevitable.

Liverpool losing at home in the Premier League is a big deal these days, of course. It doesn’t happen often. We often speak of ‘fortresses’ when talking about football stadiums, but for close to four years Anfield has been exactly that.

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Home sweet home, for Jurgen Klopp and his team.

Not anymore. Not right now. Defeat to Burnley on Thursday was their first on home soil in the league since April 2017 – a run of 69 games and 1369 days, gone, with one swing of Ashley Barnes’ right boot.

When the highs are so high, the lows can feel that much worse. Liverpool have been in party mode for the best part of four years, but suddenly there’s a hangover to deal with, a house to tidy, unwanted guests to get rid of.

The numbers don’t lie. The Reds are five league games without a win, for the first time since 2017. They have failed to score in four successive league matches for the first time since May 2000. They’re used to breaking records, but not like this.

“It’s my fault,” a glum-faced Klopp told reporters on Thursday evening. “It is my job to make sure the boys have the right feelings and confidence, and that didn’t work out.”

There is no question that all is not well with the reigning champions right now. The goals have dried up and the confidence has evaporated. Results are poor and so are performances, both individual and collective. Relentless for so long, suddenly it looks like their batteries need changing. They’re not themselves.

The real issue is whether this is simply a blip, a bad month, a bump in the road, or whether there is a little more to it.

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Even great teams find it hard to maintain the highest of standards, year after year, and while five games, or even 19, is no real sample size, it is tempting to wonder if Liverpool, after three years on the treadmill, have simply hit the wall. It should almost be expected, after 97 and 99-point hauls in each of the last two seasons.

Certainly, Liverpool have spoiled their supporters, and the wider football public, with their form. First, they were fun but flawed, scintillating but brittle, then they learned to win. Their development as a team, and as individuals, under Klopp has been incredible. European, World and Premier League champions, in the space of 13 months. They will go down in history, and deservedly so. 

And you’d be a fool to write them off now, by the way. They’re only six points off the top of the table, and we’re only just at the halfway stage of the campaign. There’s a lot of football to be played between now and May. The Champions League is back next month, and there’s an FA Cup trip to Old Trafford on Sunday. If that doesn’t focus the mind, nothing will.

Klopp, though, needs to find some answers, and fast.

In the short-term he must repair his team’s confidence, tap into their pride and competitive nature and, first and foremost, find a way to get his forwards firing again. "We're lacking that decisive 10 per cent," he said on Friday. He knows that this season is a strange one, and that his team will need to fight for everything they get. A top-four finish is by no means a certainty, at this stage. 

Longer-term, though, some big decisions loom. And it is not knee-jerking to suggest that there could be some significant changes in the coming months.

“I think I heard somewhere that I have to rebuild this team,” Klopp scoffed earlier this week. “The world is a crazy place, eh? And not just because of the pandemic!”

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He is, of course, fiercely loyal to his players, particularly those who brought him his greatest triumphs. Ask him if he doubts Mohamed Salah’s finishing, Sadio Mane’s hunger or Trent Alexander-Arnold’s attitude, and you’ll get what you deserve. Don’t doubt them. You’ve doubted them before, remember?

But don’t ignore the obvious, either. What about Gini Wijnaldum, who plays pretty much every game but will almost certainly need replacing come the summer? What’s the plan there? 

What about the fact that all three of his first-choice forward line will turn 30 at some point next season, and that at least one of them has shown signs of decline this term? Klopp will defend Roberto Firmino to the hilt, but his influence has waned. There's no denying it. 

What about the defence? Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are recovering from bad injuries, serious injuries, the effects of which could be felt even after they return to action.

Van Dijk himself will be 30 in July, and Gomez, at 23, has had enough problems to last a lifetime. It will be a big ask to expect either of them to just pick up where they left off, however good they are. And Liverpool probably needed a centre-back, even before those problems.

Further forward, can Klopp trust his squad players to step up and truly make their mark with the club?

The potential of Curtis Jones is clear, and look out for Harvey Elliott, 17 and already one of the standout attackers in the Championship on loan at Blackburn, but will Naby Keita be able to stay fit long enough to truly deliver on his?

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Is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain likely to be a regular starter going forward? What about Takumi Minamino, who scored his first Premier League goal against Crystal Palace last month and has been given six league minutes since?

James Milner turned 35 earlier this month. He cannot be expected to fill holes forever, while it would be a surprise if Xherdan Shaqiri or Divock Origi were here in a year’s time. Both would have been sold last summer, had the coronavirus crisis not intervened.

There will, for sure, be new additions but there is also more to come from those recruited recently. It is way too soon to judge Kostas Tsimikas, Thiago Alcantara is a world-class player who will get better with games, and Diogo Jota should be a big part of the team, never mind the squad, in the coming years.

Jota's absence, indeed, has been felt as keenly as Van Dijk’s or Gomez’s of late, though legitimate questions can be asked of Klopp as to why he chose to risk the Portugal international in that dead-rubber Champions League game out in Denmark.

That, clearly, was a mistake, and Liverpool have generally not dealt in mistakes. They have operated with clarity, with precision, with unwavering composure and conviction, both on and off the field.

They won’t panic now, and nor should they. ‘Never too high, never too low’ is a phrase that has been used regularly within the club. You take the rough with the smooth, and you trust what you’re doing, day in and day out. 

They are being challenged now, questioned from outside for the first time in years. But there will be no finger-pointing or politicking, no wild calls or emotional decisions. Just hard work, introspection and trust.

Trust in the owners, trust in the manager, trust in the club.

It's an approach that's worked pretty well for them so far, in fairness.

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