And so we come to a defining month in any Premier League season.
The campaign has passed its halfway point. The lines between title challengers, mid-table and relegation scrappers have been drawn; managers have come and gone; every club is primed for the frantic dash to the finish line that lies ahead in May.
For those at the top end of the table, there is so much at stake. In what has been and looks set to culminate as one of the most competitive Premier League seasons ever, Chelsea have nudged ahead of the chasing pack. After a hectic festive period, Liverpool remain their nearest pursuers in second place with four other clubs trailing closely in our wake.
Monday’s draw away at Sunderland has seemingly, and hopefully only temporarily, tempered the hope generated by what otherwise was a successful Christmas for the club. Victory in the Merseyside derby was followed by successive home wins over Stoke City and Manchester City; optimism and belief were heightened. Some of that has seemed to fly out of the window in the wake of Monday’s result, replaced with lingering questions over how this squad will end the season, particularly amidst such strong competition as they face in the fight for not only the title but a place in the Champion’s League.
Some of the response, as it did after the setbacks against Bournemouth and West Ham United at the beginning of December, feels a little over the top. As disappointing as it is to drop points against a team currently in the relegation zone and who had been destroyed by Burnley in their previous game, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned before Monday that we’d slip up in the one game over Christmas that we were most heavily favoured to win.
That concern wasn’t helped by seeing the team sheet an hour before kick-off. If anything did surprise me about Monday it was that Jürgen Klopp didn’t make more changes to his starting eleven less than forty-eight hours after the hard-fought win over Man City. The only change that was made was an enforced one, Daniel Sturridge replacing the injured Jordan Henderson, whose influence was sorely missed on Monday.
Klopp did say after the game that he’d considered changes, that he’d asked his players whether any of them felt unable to play two games in such quick succession. Unsurprisingly, none did.
As a consequence, the performance we saw was a more laboured one than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing from this Liverpool squad. We were the better team and, were it not for a bizarre error in judgement from Sadio Mané in conceding a second penalty to Sunderland, we would have likely won the game. It was one of those contests where it just looked like too many of our players were just too short of ideas, where the speed of thought and instinct that has made Liverpool such an irresistible attacking force this season was unfortunately lacking. There were too many touches in the centre of the pitch, too many sloppy passes that went needlessly astray, not enough of the clinical edge that would have put a struggling side like Sunderland to the sword on another day.
Should Klopp have made more changes?
Perhaps. It’s easy to say in hindsight but had he done so and we’d gotten the same result, or worse, then there’d have been questions asked nonetheless. It is understandable that he wanted to keep faith with the players who have served him and the club so well this season, that he wanted to avoid potentially harming the momentum building as a consequence of four consecutive league wins.
Maybe it’s more pertinent to question how Klopp might have made changes to his starting line-up rather than whether he should have.
Deprived of the injured Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Joël Matip, all certain starters when fit and available, the options available to Klopp were limited. Beyond Divock Origi, there really wasn’t a player on the bench at Sunderland that you feel could have a telling impact on the game. Lucas Leiva and Alberto Moreno have spent most of the season on the sidelines and there’s good reason to question whether either has a long-term future at the club. And despite his insistence that some of the talented youngsters at his disposal would play a part in Liverpool’s festive programme, Klopp has been hesitant to use the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ovie Ejaria in the league.
With Sturridge having picked up an injury on Monday, the severity of which has yet to be confirmed, and Mané now having departed for the African Cup of Nations, Klopp’s options have been depleted further.
With that in mind, should Klopp be looking to the transfer window that has just opened?
For me, the answer to that question is yes.
Not that I expect him to. As much as I might think the squad needs an attacking addition this month, I don’t envisage Klopp spending money in January.
While it has been widely reported that Klopp would like to add another option to his attack, it has also been emphasised repeatedly that he would only do so if a long-term target became available; there won’t be any stop gap signings arriving at Anfield this month.
It is a stance that I think is admirable and support. Having seen Liverpool shoot ourselves in the foot through making too many of the wrong signings in recent seasons, I’d much prefer that Klopp and the club focus all of their attention on getting the players they are convinced will be the right ones for Liverpool rather than settle for underwhelming alternatives. And it seems very much like the right player in Klopp’s mind is Christian Pulisic.
There has been a number of players linked with Liverpool in recent weeks, ranging from column-filling non-starters (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) to the seemingly credible (Quincy Promes, Sardar Azmoun). But Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund’s United States international, is the player that Klopp wanted in the summer and reportedly remains at the top of the manager’s shortlist of attacking reinforcements.
The chances of getting him in this transfer window appear, at best, to be extremely remote. Dortmund are adamant that they do not want to sell the player and Klopp is reported to be ready to be patient in his pursuit of the highly-rated winger. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be surprising if the manager elects not to bring anyone in this month and instead hold off until the summer in the hope that Dortmund might be more amenable to parting with one of their current prized assets than if they are completely unwilling to do so now.
While I imagine there might be frustration amongst some supporters if Liverpool elect not to venture into the transfer market, I can’t say that I’d be hugely disappointed if Liverpool do not do any business this month. I might think we need another attacker as things stand but then I was also adamant that we should have done more business in the summer, only for nearly all of Klopp’s decisions to pay dividends in the months since then. So I won’t be second-guessing or questioning any decisions he makes this month, only hoping that any he might take will prove as beneficial as those he made in pre-season have been.
My only concern going into the second half of the season, and the reason I would like us to add at least one more player to the squad now, is how injuries and fatigue might affect our momentum as the campaign approaches its end.
It’s clear that there is a core group of players that, if fit, will be selected to start by Klopp, the only selection dilemma amongst Liverpool’s outfield being whether Emre Can or Georginio Wijnaldum start in central midfield. We could all name the other nine outfield players who will start and, unless his hand has been forced, Klopp has shown little inclination to change his team. The likes of Ragnar Klavan and Divock Origi have had something of an extended run as starters in the absence of Matip and Coutinho in recent weeks but aside from them, the lack of rotation has seen the likes of Moreno and Lucas play more than bit-part roles this season.
That selection policy has served Klopp and Liverpool extremely well, guiding us to second place in the table. And we’ve done it while having to contend with the absences of crucial players at intermittent times; Henderson, Matip and Coutinho were missing through injury on Monday, we’ve had to do without Lallana, Wijnaldum, Can and Lovren over the course of the season. In spite of that, Klopp has found the solutions within his squad to persevere and get results while having to contend with being deprived of some of his most influential players.
Can we rely on enough of those players to remain fit and continue to be the backbone of a title challenge between now and May?
That remains to be seen. Following Chelsea’s defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday, Liverpool are only five points off the Premier League summit with three of the current top six teams set to travel to Anfield in the coming weeks and months. And none of the five teams around us in the table seem to be in any particular hurry to add to their own squads this month, suggesting that they’re either content with what they currently have or emphasising how difficult it is to improve squads already in such positions of strength at this stage of the season.
The loss of Mané this month has probably exacerbated the concern of some supporters given that we have no one in the first-team squad who brings what he does to the table. Not only is he our top scorer in the Premier League this season, Mané has so often proven to be a difference maker in games with his pace and directness. That he will miss games against Manchester United and Chelsea in the coming weeks is a concern but it is something that we will have to simply get on with and find a solution to. Rather than a new signing, perhaps his absence will see Klopp turn to someone like Sheyi Ojo and give another of the club’s highly-rated prospects an opportunity to prove themselves on the grandest of stages before taking stock of what is needed in terms of recruitment in the summer.
A month is a long time in football and this one will be pivotal for Liverpool with vital fixtures in the Premier League to come as well as entry into the FA Cup and a League Cup semi-final to contend with. Chelsea’s defeat on Wednesday, one that ended a thirteen-game run of consecutive wins, has reinvigorated the title race; a good run in January could see Liverpool seize the initiative and re-establish ourselves as the frontrunners.
Hopefully, we will enjoy a similar run of luck in regards to injuries like the one the current leaders have enjoyed. Chelsea have avoided losing any of their key players for any prolonged stretches of time and if we can do the same then we will be more than a match for any of the teams around us in the second half of the season.
Written by Ben Teesdale