“Forty-eight hours between two games – how does this work? And then you will sit there and say: ‘You didn’t perform too well, how did this happen?’ Or ‘injuries. Oh?’ and then this Dutch guy says ‘the training is not too good’.”
If Jurgen Klopp was annoyed when discussing the Premier League’s festive scheduling and his battles with Raymond Verheijen back in October, a penny would likely not be enough for him to divulge his thoughts two months later. After finishing their third game in the space of six days, his Liverpool side finally slipped up.
In reality, this was more of a lethargic tumble to the ground for the Reds, who looked tired throughout their 2-2 draw with Sunderland. No wonder, as ten of these players had started against Manchester City fewer than 48 hours earlier.
Klopp made just one change, citing his desire to maintain “rhythm”. There was little of that to Liverpool’s play at any point, as Emre Can clumsily stumbled around the pitch, Georginio Wijnaldum suffered a 90-minute blip after recent positive performances, and Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane looked a collective shadow of their blistering, free-flowing usual selves. That Daniel Sturridge was by far the best performer, alongside goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, spoke volumes.
The manager, of course, had predicted the criticism his side would face after this deluge of fixtures back in October. “You will sit there and say: ‘You didn’t perform too well, how did this happen?” he said, and he will almost certainly face such questions. So he should – Sunderland were more than deserving of a point, and will perhaps deem themselves unfortunate not to have claimed all three. David Moyes’ side, it must be said, were playing their third game in seven days, and had lost 4-1 to a relegation rival in their most recent match.
If ever a game exposed Liverpool’s main weakness, it was on Monday. It was not the defence that let the side down, nor profligacy at the other end or inadequate tactics from the manager. Instead, this draw magnified just how the club’s summer transfer dealings have left them short. The first team was undeniably improved – Mane, Wijnaldum and Ragnar Klavan were all signed, and all started against Sunderland – but the squad needed more investment for a concerted title challenge to be realistic. Of Liverpool’s bench, only one player could be described as a game-changer, and Divock Origi was brought on straight after Mane’s goal made it 2-1. Kevin Stewart, Ovie Ejaria and Trent Alexander-Arnold cannot relied upon to change the course of a Premier League match.
It was the introduction of Lucas Leiva which raised eyebrows the most. The Brazilian is expected to join Inter Milan this winter, yet here Klopp was, calling upon his services in a game his side had to win. The 29-year-old is not first-team quality, but he provides useful cover a number of positions. An already malnourished squad would be weakened further with his departure. Liverpool have a starting XI that can rival that of any other side, but their squad is in need of improvement. This season, of all seasons, a top-four place is not assured.
In any other season, a point away at a side battling relegation, combined with the short turnaround in between games, would not be a disaster for Liverpool. But in this season any slip-up is magnified considering the dominance of the current top six. This was the first game in which any of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City or Manchester United dropped points against any side outside the top six since December 13 – a run of 21 combined games. The gap to Chelsea could have grown by Thursday; the gap to the rest of their top-four rivals has tightened further.
Yet Klopp really has no-one but himself to blame. He chose to work with a smaller group of players, just as he chose not to rest any players against Sunderland. He has reaped the benefits of that feeling of togetherness since August, but there was always the possibility of it proving detrimental on occasion.