The 2016/17 Liverpool are amounting to nothing more than a bogey team to the Premier League’s top six.
From eight games against sides occupying those positions, Jurgen Klopp’s men have taken 16 points and are without defeat.
They are three points ahead of Chelsea in the top-six mini league yet find themselves 14 points behind the leaders in reality. Arsenal are now a point above them in fourth with a game in hand and their push for a Champions League spot is in serious danger of unravelling.
The 3-1 loss to Leicester was their fifth of the season with all five of those defeats suffered against sides battling in the bottom half of the table with reverses to Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea and Hull.
Monday’s lamentable display at the King Power Stadium was the same but also different to the rest.
There was the same vapid invention against a compact side. There was the same susceptibility to pace on the counter-attack and there was the same problems from set-pieces. What was different, though, was the absence of intensity and drive. Klopp’s Liverpool has been hallmarked by ambition and energy but against Leicester they simply looked disinterested.
Their tempo was laborious, their speed of thought and passing slow while the combination play was predictable and their desire non-existent.
Indeed, there’s a misplaced arrogance about them at the moment. It’s like they expect brilliance to just emerge and the players quite literally pass the responsibility onto the next with no one taking the initiative.
The blueprint to beating Liverpool is painfully straightforward: defend deep and narrow with two banks of four with one man up to counter and one to stick on the holding midfielder.
It forces them out wide were they begin a vexing perpetual process of floating aimless crosses into the box for one of the smallest attacking trios in the league.
While their defensive fragility is to be expected – they are on course to match their goals conceded record of the last four seasons which stands at 1.3 per game – the lack of energy is not.
That excuse could be rolled out after a hectic festive period but Klopp had two weeks to work with his side before the trip to Leicester.
And ultimately, the German shares accountability for their slide from title contenders to top-four hopefuls.
There doesn’t appear to be a coherent Plan B to put smaller teams to the sword and it’s leaving some players completely exposed.
Lucas Leiva bore the brunt of supporters’ frustrations on social media but is it really his fault when the manager sticks to such a high defensive line?
Liverpool kill teams by exposing their pushed up backlines with pace in behind. How perplexing it is then, that they are also being killed by the same tactic.
Their strength is in defending deeper areas which allows the likes of Lucas, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren to attack the ball with their back to goal. In the 1-0 win over Manchester City and the 2-0 triumph of Tottenham they had success in soaking up pressure and countering with limited pressing from the front three.
They allowed the opposing centre-backs to have the ball then harried them when it came into midfield.
The system has worked to help Liverpool punch above their weight against more expansive teams but when they are expected to lead they don’t have the capacity to break teams down.
Say what you like about Brendan Rodgers but there were times, particularly in the 2013/14 campaign, were he showed the flexibility and fluidity to change his tactics depending on the opposition. So far, Klopp’s not shown that.
Perhaps, though, the former Borussia Dortmund boss has had his hands tied. If one thing is clear, it’s that changes are needed in the summer. When Liverpool have bought, they’ve bought well with Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Matip all successes this season.
More is required, though, with squad depth an obvious issue. James Milner, as well as he has played there this season, is not a left-back capable of mounting attacks. Lucas, likewise, is not a centre-back adept at dealing with speed. Jordan Henderson was sorely missed on Monday but it shouldn’t be that the team falls apart when one player is absent.
Their saving grace is that fixtures for the teams around them are not favourable with Europe and other cup competitions further complicating matters.
But Liverpool need to do something different from this point on if they are to avoid finishing in the same position as last season – outside the top four.
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