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Robertson and Alexander-Arnold are the biggest victims of Liverpool's early-season struggles

09:06 BST 05/09/2022
Andy Robertson Trent Alexander-Arnold Liverpool 2022
As Jurgen Klopp looks for the right balance at Anfield, his brilliant, flying full-backs are searching for their best form

We should probably start by stating the obvious. Playing as they are, Liverpool can forget about winning the Premier League title this season.

Six games into the new campaign, Jurgen Klopp’s side already face an uphill battle, a challenge to reassert their authority. Having dropped nine points from a possible 18, the question at the moment is whether their slow start is just that, a temporary blip, or if it is something altogether more alarming.

Depending on your viewpoint, the Reds are either an evolving team packed with talent and potential, or one which is tired and has lost its sparkle. Are they a work in progress or a declining force? You decide.

Against Everton on Saturday there were signs of both. Merseyside derbies are not always the best games from which to make definitive judgements, but at Goodison Park you could understand why Klopp has confidence that better times are around the corner, but also why so many supporters are concerned about the direction his team is heading in.

Flickering into life and bristling with intent one minute, lethargic and terrifyingly easy to counter-attack the next, the game was in many ways a distillation of Liverpool’s season so far. Context is important, specifically the injuries which have so disrupted their plans and team selections, but there is no doubt that Klopp and his players are still searching for something, be it rhythm, form, fitness, confidence, belief or a combination of them all.

Their struggles, perhaps, can be best summed up by the problems facing their flying full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who have for so long been integral to Liverpool’s style, but who are yet to exert anything like the same kind of attacking influence so far this term.

Robertson, in fact, was left out of the starting XI against Everton, with Kostas Tsimikas preferred, while Alexander-Arnold was substituted after 58 minutes, having been replaced after 71 in the midweek win over Newcastle. Both wore faces of thunder as they made their way through the Goodison mixed zone afterwards.

Klopp’s reasoning is that while the rest of his team - particularly his midfield - is feeling the effects of injury, there is a need to ensure that those who are available, particularly key players such as Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, are not overburdened early in the campaign.

“It has nothing to do with performance, even when I know that Trent can play better than today, definitely,” Klopp said when asked to explain Alexander-Arnold’s withdrawal at Everton. “It’s just that we have to get through this period.

“Trent is playing all the time, Robbo is playing all the time. We have alternatives there so that’s why we have to use them, to bring fresh energy on the pitch, pretty much.”

Klopp might deny this, but there is no question that there has been something different about Liverpool this season. Bar the win over Bournemouth, a ruthless thrashing of willing opposition, they have lacked the kind of cohesion, organisation and balance which have been their hallmarks for years.

Understandable, perhaps, with the likes of Luis Diaz, Fabio Carvalho and Darwin Nunez still being fully integrated into the squad, and with Harvey Elliott bringing a new - and exciting - dynamic to their midfield play. If it looks a little disjointed at present, that might be because players are still working each other’s game out.

That is certainly the case with Robertson and Diaz, who have combined well on occasion but who at this moment in time have nothing like the understanding that Robertson built up with Sadio Mane.

With Mane, the movements became almost second nature. Both knew exactly where the other would be at any given time, and would adjust their position accordingly. It was planned, structured, automatic and often devastating in its effectiveness.

Diaz is a different kind of wideman, one who prefers to drop deep to receive possession and attack defenders, and who is as comfortable carrying the ball infield as he is combining with an overlapping full-back. The Colombian is a fine player, and has already proven a good signing for Liverpool, but there is room for improvement in terms of his ability to connect with his team-mates, for sure.

It is another South American signing that may hold the key to Alexander-Arnold’s form. Nunez’s arrival marks arguably the single biggest shift in Liverpool’s strategy since the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson Becker in 2018, when Klopp decided that the spine of his side had to be populated with elite, physically-dominant players.

At 23, Nunez is far from the finished article - witness his promising-but-raw display at Everton for evidence in that regard - but his strength, aerial presence and ability to generate shooting opportunities inside the penalty box will change the way Liverpool play, and Alexander-Arnold should, with time and training-ground work, provide a rich supply line for the Uruguayan. We have already seen an evolution in the England international’s game, with him drifting infield from right-back and looking to create from central areas, a la Joao Cancelo, Philipp Lahm or Joshua Kimmich.

Alexander-Arnold too is having to adjust to new personnel this season, with Liverpool having used three different right-sided centre-backs so far, and with Elliott beginning to establish himself on the right of the midfield three.

For so long, the likes of Jordan Henderson and James Milner (or perhaps Gini Wijnaldum) were trusted to plug the gaps while Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah wreaked havoc, but Liverpool have, by design or by circumstance, begun to edge towards a more technical midfield, with Elliott, Thiago Alcantara, Curtis Jones and Carvalho all happier with the ball than without it. The same can be said of Arthur Melo, the deadline-day loan signing from Juventus, who will provide cover in the ongoing absence of Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Alexander-Arnold, of course, remains one of Liverpool’s key men, and should be trusted to work through these early-season struggles and rediscover top form. Robertson, too, should be backed. For all Tsimikas’ qualities and personality, he is simply not in the Scot’s class, either defensively or in the attacking third.

This week sees the Reds begin their Champions League campaign with a tricky-looking trip to Napoli, and it will be interesting to see if the lights and glamour of Europe’s premier competition helps snap a few players out of their slumber.

Liverpool, after all, have reached three of the last five finals, and if they are to add to their rich continental heritage then they will need all of their stars to shine.

And in particular, their fantastic full-back duo.