Before starting, I feel the need to make one point: I firmly believe knee-jerk reactions are one of the worst things a football fan can be prone to having. It is a common theme in my articles, in fact, that such reactions, and those making them (usually on social media), should be categorically ignored.
The following article is, I admit, a more negative view on Liverpool’s remaining campaign than some might wish to read. It is though also a result of the realistic view that has on so many occasions lead to me dismissing premature criticisms of the Anfield outfit. Moreover in the interests of dismissing potential criticism that this article is, no matter how much I may deny it, merely a backlash from the Swansea defeat, I will finally make the point that the premise of the article was conceived in early January and thus cannot be considered an immediate response to Liverpool’s abject display at Swansea.
It was after I was told that Liverpool ‘should crush’ Swansea City last week that I argued away games are never an easy task and that complacent attitudes towards games against ‘lesser opponents’ are to be avoided at all costs. I argued that I would not be surprised if Liverpool failed to beat Swansea City for two reasons; firstly away games in the Premier League are always a difficult proposition and secondly that Liverpool are significantly weakened following the sale of Philippe Coutinho.
The backlash I received was monumental – my views were dismissed as negative for the sake of being negative. However following Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat at Swansea my fears have been confirmed, at least as far as I am concerned.
Of course, the more rational fans (of which I consider myself a part) may at this point roll their eyes arguing that this was a one-off game, these games happen, they are in no way a reflection of what is to come in the forthcoming months of the season.
To this I raise two points. Firstly I would suggest a reflection on Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over Everton a few weeks back. Another game against a low-block defending side, another game where Liverpool created nearly nothing of note. Liverpool won the game, yes, but the result was a product of a ‘soft’ (at best) penalty and a late header from a corner – neither of these goals were created from open play. In short, Liverpool created nearly no chances but the underwhelming nature of the performance was paid little mind as fans preferred to bask in the glory of a derby victory and a fantastic debut performance from Virgil van Dijk.
Against Swansea, Liverpool’s attack was similarly devoid of ideas. It is true, yes, that Liverpool could and possibly should have scored at the death when Firmino’s header hit the post and Lallana failed to turn in from six yards. It is also true that Liverpool were a shadow of the side they were when Coutinho lined up in midfield.
The counter-argument to this may be a reference to Liverpool’s scintillating attacking display against Manchester City – this, though, cannot be taken into account. Manchester City, along with Arsenal and perhaps Spurs, are the only teams that will attack Liverpool to any great extent. In these games, creativity in midfield is not as imperative, since a low-block is not employed and Liverpool are afforded the space to attack without needing to create it since the opposition attacks so freely.
However, Liverpool have already played both City and Arsenal home and away already this season – with the exception of Spurs coming to Anfield in a few weeks, the entirety of Liverpool’s remaining games will be against sides that will, for the majority of the time, defend deep. The Manchester City result, in short, is not relevant when discussing how Liverpool are likely to fare in the next few months in the Premier League.
The argument I had made when Coutinho was sold was that Liverpool will struggle to create chances without him because he was the only player in the Liverpool squad that had the acceleration, passing and vision to take on players and pick a pass. Against low-block sides, a player of that mould is imperative to success as it drags players out of position and creates gaps as a result. Passing is usually not quick enough to have the same effect. In Liverpool’s case the latter point is particularly prevalent;
Liverpool’s midfielders, barring Lallana, are more industrious than they are skilful, after all.
The games against Swansea and Everton are the most recent tests we have to determine whether the argument that Liverpool will struggle is accurate. The games, clearly, show that it is. Jurgen Klopp does not have the strength in depth to mix it up, either. Lallana may play the same role as Coutinho did, but his attacking output will not come close to that of Liverpool’s ex play-maker since he offers neither the same ability to take players on nor the ability to play incisive passes – he is not the answer. Klopp has acknowledged this, too, stating clearly that Lallana is not Coutinho’s replacement.
The argument often used against those who argue that Liverpool will struggle without Coutinho is that there are others who offered equal attacking output, in terms of assists, key passes and other measures. This, though, is misleading. Coutinho was able to artificially boost the stats of other Liverpool attackers by making their job much easier than it is now. By playing direct passes and beating men, Coutinho allowed chances to be created by forcing the opposition out of their designated defending areas. Though at times the key pass or assist may have been made by another player, many Liverpool attacks simply would not have happened without the influence of the Brazilian.
It was clear, in my view, that Philippe Coutinho needed to replaced like-for-like, and that failure to do so would severely detriment Liverpool’s chances for success in the Premier League (where one can safely assume that success is consolidating a top-four finish) and the Champions League (where with Coutinho, Liverpool may have had an outside chance of success but without him the quarterfinals seem to be the most likely endpoint).
It is clear in my view, that Liverpool will not be signing a replacement. The ramifications for this failure to act could severely hamper Liverpool’s season. Klopp’s men stand just two points ahead of Spurs who, when considering that they have not been weakened going into the second half of this season, will fancy their chances of making those points up. The upcoming game at Anfield between the two sides is a game carrying huge importance for the race for the top four.
Assuming Arsenal do sign Aubameyang (I am generally very reluctant to predict deals happening before they have been completed, but this looks for all the world like it will go through and I will, therefore, break my rule of never assuming a transfer to be a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’), they will have strengthened overall despite losing Sanchez. The gap between Arsenal and Liverpool is not monumental and, given that they too have made ground on Liverpool in terms of overall quality, the risk that they will catch Liverpool up is a very real one.
Naby Keita will address some of the issues Klopp is facing in summer, but before then Liverpool must finish fourth the continue their upward trajectory. A switch from the 4-3-3 to the 4-4-2 would eliminate the need for an offensive midfielder and give Klopp’s side the best chance for success. The signs, though, are that Liverpool will have a real fight on their hands to finish in the Champions League spaces come May.
In summary, Coutinho’s absence will continue to affect Liverpool’s attacking output to a significant degree. It can be assumed, quite safely, that Liverpool will not be signing a replacement. Arguments that Coutinho was not the driving force behind Liverpool’s attack is, quite frankly, inaccurate and if the squad stays as it is Liverpool will continue to struggle to create chances. Liverpool are a weaker side than they were a few weeks ago and, given that Liverpool’s rivals for fourth place have become stronger (in relative terms), the reds face an uphill struggle to continue their positive momentum.