There has never been a time when football fans have been more informed.
The omnipotent connectivity of the internet provides access to supporters from all over the world daily information on the happenings of their club.
Not only that, the prevalence of statistics websites — such as FBRef — means people are privy to a lot of data that would have been inaccessible to most people outside of the football industry.
The quality of the discourse surrounding football has doubtlessly improved and broadened in terms of statistical analysis in the last few years. Take Match of the Day — perhaps the most mainstream football programme in the UK and Ireland — using expected goals, XG, figures in their post-match statistics as an example of analytic terminology penetrating the sports’ lexicon.
There are, however, downsides and this can clearly be seen in the criticism meted out to Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool squad over the course of the last two months.
The Reds find themselves near the bottom of the Premier League form table with two wins, a draw and three losses in their last six league fixtures. By any metric, the defending champions have been on an awful run, relinquishing their crown with a whimper after sitting atop the league on Christmas Day.
There is a reason for this, though, and it’s not — as some have suggested — because Klopp has been “found out” or “too wedded” to his 433 formation or any other pseudo-intellectual criticism that has been cast at the German and his coaching staff.
Liverpool has, without a shred of doubt, been horribly unlucky and this perfect storm of misfortune has both defined and undermined their season. It is nothing more complicated than that.
In fact, given the circumstances that they have had to deal with — without even talking about the drudgery of the ongoing pandemic and lockdown — the fact that the Anfield club is still in with a chance of finishing in the top four and are still in the Champions League is a major testament to the squad, the coaches and the medical staff.
Not only have the Reds lost all three of their senior centre-halves, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, for the entirety of the season due to injury, they have also had to do without the services of Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota for large swathes of the campaign.
Any team would struggle to cope with the loss of so many experienced and quality personnel — especially as the centre half position has been so badly afflicted — and like any well functioning machine, Liverpool has stuttered and spluttered without key cogs. The fact that the injuries to their three main centre-halves were all because of bad tackles, or allegedly so in the case of Gomez, only adds to the sense that the club is drowning in a maelstrom of bad luck.
It would be different if bad management had led to muscle injuries, but all of these absences have been from factors that are out of the Reds’ control, such as the horrendous tackles in the October Merseyside derby that ended van Dijk’s season and took two months of Thiago’s. Similarly, Jota and Kostas Tsmikas were mowed down by similarly poor challenges in the Champions League tie away to FC Midtjylland.
Having to field 17 different partnerships in the heart of the defence logically brings issues elsewhere. Take Fabinho, for example. The Brazilian has done a commendable job as a centre back, but his dropping back a slot in the team means the midfield rotation is short of one world-class option. Inevitably, the volume of football the former Monaco man has had to play lead to a muscle injury issue that has seen him sit out the last two games.
Jordan Henderson has played regularly as a defender since early January and this — again — has lessened the options Klopp has to rotate in the engine room. Even James Milner — renowned for his fitness and durability — has broken down with an injury in the recent clash at Leicester City. Thiago had to replace the 35-year-old against the Foxes and clearly, after missing the previous weeks training, wasn’t physically able to play, but there was precious little alternative but to throw the Spaniard in.
In their stead, other players — most notably Georginio Wijnaldum — have had to play more and, given it’s the most condensed season of all time, their energy reservoirs have obviously decreased as time has progressed and, predictably, so have their performances.
The unfamiliarity in defence has had a debilitating impact on the rest of the team, especially in terms of blooding new signings or young players. As it is, Klopp has enough issues at the back without providing Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson with rest and potentially further destabilizing the team by playing the relatively green Neco Williams and, in terms of playing for Liverpool, Tsimikas. Therefore, the full-back duo — the main hubs of the team’s creativity — haven’t been able to scale the heights they set for themselves over the last three season’s.
That’s why the suggestions that Liverpool should change formation or style are pieces of empty rhetoric — besides, the defending champions have played variations of 442 and 4231 in recent games. A formational change isn’t a magic elixir that suddenly revitalizes jaded players. You can only execute your plans if you have personnel with the requisite levels of energy and, because of their massive injury list, the Reds at present don’t.
The squads’ morale has subsequently taken a massive hit over the course of the season, a process made worse by being in lockdown. The players lose a game — often because of horrendous luck, officiating or both — and then their only option is to go home, ruminate on it and then saddle up for another game in a couple of days, such is the nature of this season. That is difficult for anyone and their fragile confidence is completely understandable in the light of the context of the world around them.
As much as the club won’t publicly acknowledge it, the amount of horrifically poor refereeing decisions that have gone against them this season — a number that comfortably reaches double figures — has also hampered them. Without exaggerating, the Reds could have easily collected 10 more league points if they had the rub of the refereeing green(or if they even had anything resembling competence).
If it wasn’t for bad luck, Liverpool would have had no luck this season, but the fan base as a whole need to acknowledge the circumstances at play and not hammer the players or the coach for trying their best, despite the worst run of misfortune imaginable. Sometimes, you can go so deep down an analytical hole that you can’t see woods for the trees and recognise the bloody obvious.