Where have Liverpool's goals gone? Attacking woes putting Reds' title defence at risk

Firmino Salah Mane Liverpool GFXGetty/Goal

Perhaps it was inevitable, given the big build-up.

Perhaps it was inevitable, given the kind of season we are seeing.

Perhaps it was inevitable, given what was at stake for both sides, and given the fact there was no crowd inside Anfield to witness it, to influence it.

Article continues below

But the Premier League’s ‘top-of-the-table clash’ – it was actually third versus first, if you are getting technical – fell someway short of expectation. Less a clash, more a coming together of two teams with problems to solve if they are going to be polishing silverware come May.

Manchester United will, naturally, be the happier with Sunday’s goalless draw, even if their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, admitted that it felt like an opportunity missed. Not many teams get the chance to win in the league at Anfield but United, first through Bruno Fernandes and later Paul Pogba, squandered two glorious ones here.

They remain top of the table, yet they still have not beaten a team in the top five this season. They are unbeaten in a dozen league matches, winning nine, yet they are still to truly convince they can end their eight-year wait for a Premier League title. This stalemate on Merseyside, though a good result in the grand scheme of things, leaves as many questions as answers.

The same can be said of Liverpool, of course. Because if Jurgen Klopp wanted a game, and more importantly a performance, to convince the world that all is fine and dandy with the champions, then this was not it.

Their issues remain. Since thrashing Crystal Palace 7-0 on December 19, they have failed to win any of their next four league matches. Top of the league on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, they now sit fourth, usurped not just by United, but by Leicester and an ominous-looking Manchester City too.

If they look over their shoulders, they will see Tottenham and Everton closing in as well. A Champions League qualification spot is by no means a certainty, at this stage.

Liverpool results GFXGetty/Goal

Their struggles are clear. After the highs of the last two seasons, this is not what we have come to expect from Klopp’s men. If they are to retain the crown they won in such dominant fashion last season, then big improvements are needed.

They really needed to win against United, but they could easily have lost. In the end it was Alisson Becker who preserved their 68-game unbeaten home league record, making two vital second-half saves. The Brazilian really is some goalkeeper.

The rest of the team, though, is searching for form. Much has been made of Liverpool’s defensive issues, but their real problems have been at the other end of the pitch.

For the first time since March 2005, they have failed to score in three successive league matches. This, incredibly, was their first blank in the league at Anfield since October 2018.

Their key players, all of a sudden, have gone off the boil. Mohamed Salah was shackled comfortably by Luke Shaw here, Sadio Mane’s bright start faded, while Roberto Firmino’s afternoon was a collection of errant touches and shanked finishes. The No.9 was lucky to last 85 minutes. 

Liverpool's composure, their precision, their cutting edge, it has all gone missing. Since cutting loose at Selhurst Park, when they scored seven goals from eight shots on target, Klopp's forwards have lost their way.

Mohamed Salah Liverpool 2020-21Getty Images

They have had 63 shots in four games and scored once. They are not even working goalkeepers particularly, as those 63 shots have yielded only 11 on target.

“There’s no easy explanation,” Klopp told Sky Sports afterwards. “We always missed chances, it’s just we then had another one which we used.

“These moments, they happen. You have moments when you cannot explain and you score from all angles, like against Crystal Palace. Everything ended up in the back of the net. Then you have the other moments.

“It’s about creating. You create and create and create, and we will score. 100 per cent. Everybody knows it.”

The presence of Thiago Alcantara should certainly help, in that regard.

Thiago Alcantara Liverpool vs Man Utd Premier League 2020-21Getty Images

The Spain international played the full 90 minutes against United, completing his Anfield debut a full four months after signing from Bayern Munich, his touch, awareness and composure standing out a mile amid the maelstrom.

He finished having had more touches, completed more passes, contested more duels and won more interceptions than any other player on the field. He will be a big signing, no question.

Klopp, though, needs more from his other stars. He needs Salah and Mane back firing, he needs Firmino to sharpen up quickly. He could do with Diogo Jota fit sooner rather than later, and he certainly needs more from Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose performances at right-back have dipped markedly.

“In these situations you just have to keep going,” the manager told reporters after Sunday's game. “Try to ignore the talk around it, because when you don’t score goals then everyone tells you.

“We have to stay focused on the right stuff. We cannot force it. The most important thing is how you react to a missed chance in a game. You don’t care, next ball, try again.

“When you don’t score for a while then you deal differently with it, and that’s the challenge.”

It is certainly that. And it is a challenge Liverpool need to overcome quickly if they are to defend their Premier League trophy.

Because make no mistake, it feels like their grip has started to loosen in recent weeks.