If football really was the simple game of cliche, it would be easy for Liverpool to identify a single issue, work out a solution and put it right. This, after all, is the team that have, for five years, been consistently the second-best side in England. Yet, after a shambolic defeat at Brentford, they lie 15 points behind the leaders, Arsenal, and, more pertinently, four points off Manchester United in fourth, having played a game more. What must be most troubling is the sense of plates across the stage stopping spinning as Jürgen Klopp dashes frantically between them.
Klopp, addressing rumoured interest in Enzo Fernández and Moisés Caicedo, had warned that the club are not able to play Monopoly. What has been especially impressive over the past few years is the way Liverpool have achieved that level of consistency without ostentatious spending. And that is also why Champions League qualification is so essential; if revenue drops, so too does their capacity to spend and, with the club in significant transition, that could have serious consequences. It doesn’t take much for virtuous circles to become vicious.
But when fractures come it is in battalions. Everywhere in this Liverpool side, with the exception of Allison, there are doubts and concerns. In one sense, their problems this season have not been difficult to diagnose. The press has not been functioning and that is not something easily rectified. But to that was added a new vulnerability, an almost comical inability to defend corners as though Liverpool were still engaged in a festive game of charades, enthusiastically acting out Wenger-era Arsenal away at Stoke.
Every Bryan Mbuemo delivery from the right before half-time caused chaos. One trickled in off Ibrahima Konaté and two others led to disallowed goals. Some offsides are the result of careful planning and well-executed plans; these just happened in the chaos.
But it wasn’t just set plays. In the buildup to the first Brentford goal it was noticeable how Mbuemo hurtled past Virgil van Dijk, his turning circle so great they also had to move the stand for him, in the move led to the critical corner. Not for the first time this season, the thought occurred that Van Dijk is not quite so physically imposing as he used to be. Then for the second, a turnover that came directly from the free-kick for the second effort disallowed for offside, Liverpool’s marking fell apart again. Konaté, meanwhile, was inexcusably weak as Mbuemo brushed him aside for the third.
This is not entirely unrelated to the press, which should offer a first line of defence against counters. When it goes awry, the back four is inevitably more exposed. Add fragile confidence and perhaps a little rustiness after the World Cup and the chaos is, if surprising, not inexplicable.
A modern press is an almost infinitely complicated weapon, one that relies upon mutual understanding and interaction. A good one, when it works, can smother an opponent; but the multifacetedness that makes it such a difficult weapon to combat is also what makes it so vulnerable to malfunction.
Exactly what has gone wrong with the press is harder to say. The changes to the forward line perhaps haven’t helped. Planned as some of those have been, others have been imposed by injury, with Luis Díaz and Diogo Jota long-term absentees and Roberto Firmino struggling with a calf problem. In that context the signing of Cody Gakpo for what these days feels a relatively modest £37m initial fee probably makes sense if only to provide cover. He is a curious player, with a skillset that seems not quite to match his body shape, but he anyway was unavailable as he awaits a work permit after his move from PSV Eindhoven.
That meant Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain again being deployed on the left of the front three. He remains a likable, pleasing player, and one flick to set up a first-half chance for Kostas Tsimikas showcased his awareness, imagination and technical quality but, equally, he has not completed a full 90 minutes in the Premier League since April 2018. His goal was his first since last January and, with his contract expiring in June, he is surely playing, from Liverpool’s point of view, only out of necessity and, from his own, to persuade another Premier League club he does still, after all his injury problems, have something to offer at this level.
But there are also issues with an injury-ravaged midfield. There are absences everywhere. It was injuries that underlay Liverpool’s slump during the Covid season and there will be those who wonder just why this side seems so susceptible. Perhaps it’s bad luck, perhaps it’s related to the relentless intensity Klopp demands or perhaps it’s simply evidence of an ageing squad in need of rejuvenation.
And that demands money, and that requires qualification for the Champions League.