In the spring, all seemed well for Liverpool. The team had won the League Cup and the FA Cup, was going toe-to-toe with Manchester City in the English Premier League, and had reached the Champions League final.
For weeks there was talk of history as Jurgen Klopp’s men, famously called “mentality monsters” by the manager, were in contention for all four major trophies until the very end of the season.
Ultimately, two trophies went to Anfield instead of four, as Liverpool lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League and fell one point short in the league.
But there was little sign that, a few months on, things would unravel quite as they have for the Merseysiders.
For years, Liverpool has been the only team to challenge City for the league title – winning it in 2020 – yet this season Liverpool and City are worlds apart.
A 2-1 defeat at home against Leeds on Saturday compounded a miserable start to the season for Liverpool, a team now in the bottom half of the table, 13 points adrift of City, and needing a surge to even finish in the top four to guarantee Champions League qualification next season.
A title bid is effectively over before Halloween – unthinkable at the start of the season given Liverpool’s consistency since Klopp’s arrival at Anfield. It is fast becoming a season to forget for the Reds.
“You can’t qualify for the Champions League if you play as inconsistently as we do at the moment,” Klopp told the BBC after the Leeds defeat, Liverpool’s third in the last five league games. “We have to fix that.
“So many things are unlike us in this moment. I am sorry it is like this, but that is the situation. I am not sure how deep you can dig, but we will. It is like it is and we will work on solutions. We have to have a look at this game first, try to understand it a bit more and go from there.”
Mo Salah had leveled for Liverpool in the first half after Rodrigo had given visiting Leeds a fourth-minute lead. A late goal from Crysencio Summervile, however, in the 89th minute, secured a victory for Leeds which moves the team out of the relegation zone and ended Liverpool’s 29-game unbeaten run at home.
‘Liverpool being bullied’
So, why is Liverpool struggling so badly in the league this season? Its Champions League form has been fine, beating Ajax 3-0 in midweek to progress to the knockout stages, but in the Premier League defeats have come more frequently than victories.
There was the 1-0 league win over City which many thought might kickstart a sluggish start to the campaign, but that win – thanks to a wonderful Salah strike – now feels like a long time ago, rather than a couple of weeks.
The departure of Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich in the summer has undoubtedly had an impact – he was Klopp’s first major signing and became a key player for his goals, assists and relentless pressing.
Darwin Nunez, who could become the club’s record signing, was bought to replace Mane and though he made an indifferent start to his Liverpool career – being sent off in his first home game – he has scored goals, but he is yet as integral to the team as Mane once was.
There are the injuries, of course. Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz – players who injected so much verve into the forward line as the team ruthlessly accumulated victories last season – are long-term absentees.
Naby Keita, the club’s most dynamic midfielder, has yet to make a league appearance this season, while captain Jordan Henderson was injured against Ajax on Wednesday.
“We had problems from the first day (of the season), injury wise. Players have had to play from the first day. It’s our situation and it means we have to help ourselves, and that is what we will do,” Klopp told reporters, according to Reuters.
“Harvey (Elliott) has been exceptional for us this season. He had a good start but couldn’t keep it going. Thiago has been ill, up front the same (players) play all the time - they are the three strikers we have left.”
Key players have been far from their best, too. Virgil van Dijk, one of the club’s greatest signings, has been guilty of uncharacteristic mistakes – and awful misses in front of goal, a missed header against Nottingham Forest last weekend, for example, in another costly defeat.
The Dutchman’s dip means the defense is more vulnerable than ever and it is not protected as it once was because Fabinho – usually another top performer – is also off-par in his defensive midfield role.
Where once there was a midfield of Fabinho, Henderson and the now departed Georginio Wijnaldum – a triumvirate which set the tempo for the high-octane football Klopp wants to play – now there is little of that energy and bite in the middle of the park.
Former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness was brutal in his assessment of his former team, saying on Sky Sports that Liverpool was being “bullied” in midfield.
“You can say it was a lucky first goal, but that’s not the reason Liverpool lost the game, Liverpool were a country mile from where they were in the last few years: they don’t play with the same intensity. I think, in many instances tonight, Leeds were more than a match for what Liverpool had been doing to teams for years.
“They basically bullied teams Liverpool, the midfield bullied teams. Now they’re being bullied in midfield, and that’s making them vulnerable at the back and they’re not creating the same chances up front. Liverpool are a shadow.”
He added: “When you look at the midfield of Thiago 31, Henderson 31, Fabinho 29 and after that you’ve got Keita 27, (Alex) Oxlade-Chamberlain, who’s been out injured, 29, Curtis Jones who’s 21 and Harvey Elliott who is 19.
“If you go back to the start of the season, Jurgen must’ve looked at his midfield and felt ‘we’re vulnerable here’ because with the age group, the chances are they’ll get muscle injuries. After that, you’ve got the two young boys.
“The Premier League is a really hard league to play in and is a long, difficult, sometimes physically and mentally, nine months for you. To expect two young lads to come in and take you through when senior players are injured is a big ask. Harvey Elliott has played in almost all the games.
“I’ve said this since the start of the season, I felt the midfield is no longer the midfield that can get them into the position where they’re going to win the big trophies.”