With Manchester United announcing the signing of Alexis Sanchez and Arsenal concurrently unveiling Henrikh Mkhitaryan as their prize from a drawn-out swap deal, the pressure was on Liverpool to make a sizeable statement as well.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were not going to make a move in the market on Monday, and so, had to seize the opportunity to underscore their ambitions at Swansea City in the evening.
While their top-four rivals looked for ways to enhance their options, the Merseysiders directed the spotlight on their shortcomings in a deplorable performance at the Liberty Stadium.
Having deservedly ended Manchester City’s 30-game unbeaten streak in the Premier League last week, Liverpool were then deservedly undone 1-0 by the bottom club.
The same line-up that provided buckets of dynamism against Pep Guardiola’s side - with the only change being the inclusion of £75 million Virgil van Dijk for the ill Dejan Lovren - were penurious in every respect against the relegation strugglers.
They lacked creativity, verve, incision, composure and - strangely given their imperious form heading into the fixture - confidence in their way.
For all the applauding over Liverpool’s ousting of City sans Philippe Coutinho following his £142m move to Barcelona, the club’s midfield was painfully in need of the playmaker’s attributes against Swansea.
Of course, they have lost these frustrating types of games with him in the line-up too, but there can be no arguments that the 25-year-old was capable of conjuring the moment to blow apart the opposition’s blueprint.
He contributed nine first-half goals before his switch to Camp Nou, and it was in the opening 45 that Liverpool practically surrendered maximum points with Alfie Mawson converting Swansea’s first shot on target of the game.
The failed attempt to advance Naby Keita’s move from July 1 to this month illustrated the fact that the Reds were aware they needed to inject more ambition into their midfield.
While RB Leipzig’s lynchpin is vastly different from the Brazilian, they share the ability of playing the game in the future and beating multiple markers to make things happen.
Liverpool’s midfield three of Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain thrived in the intense battle against the leaders, but with 72% possession and tasked with taking all the initiative against their hosts on Monday, they were defective.
Can tried to do too much with little efficiency, while the other two played as many passes in the opposition half combined as left-back Andy Robertson managed.
Liverpool’s lack of quality supply was compounded by a continued flow of bad decisions with everyone on the pitch culpable. Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino have scored 50 goals between them in all competitions this season, but it felt as though they could have been given another half against Carlos Carvalhal’s men and still come up short.
“We talk about tactical discipline and everybody thinks it’s about defence, that’s right, it’s a big part, but as well it’s offensive things, especially when you are a possession team like we are in a game like this,” Klopp said post-match.
“It’s clear where you start, where you have to be in each moment. It’s not mathematics but it’s clear where we can cause them problems. Swansea knows to win this game today they needed our help and unfortunately we helped them.”
It was a collective failing from Liverpool at the worst possible moment - after the teams above them and Arsenal all won this weekend, while additionally working on strengthening their positions.
2 - Two of the last three occasions the team starting the day bottom of the Premier League table has beaten a team in the top four have been Swansea vs Liverpool (today and January 2017). Quirky. — OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 22, 2018
For context, it is vital to highlight that this was the club’s first defeat in 18 matches and no side are immune from having an off day.
The issue is that there is so little margin for error at the top table. City are comfortably in the distance, United now have a six-point advantage over Liverpool, and Chelsea are now three ahead. Tottenham are two adrift of the Reds, with Arsenal five off the pace. Besides the tight top-four contest, Klopp also has the Champions League knockout round and the FA Cup to factor in.
The manager will know his charges are countless levels above the display delivered in Wales, but it has to be concerning that they were so devoid of ideas against the kind of obstructive approach they will face ad nauseam until the end of the campaign.
Explaining his tactics for the clash, Swansea boss Carvalhal remarked: “When we studied Liverpool, I told the players that they are a really strong team - like a Formula One car. But a F1 car in London traffic at 4pm does not run well. If they have space like in Formula One, we would lose three or four-nil. So we have to put them in traffic. We have to make them play the way they don’t like.”
Liverpool couldn’t solve this dilemma on Monday night and, if more aimless showings follow, questions will rightly be asked over why more wasn’t done in January to ensure there were greater options to crack this kind of conundrum.