Swiss cheese Liverpool expose their holes as heavy metal era ending on a whimper

Steven Chicken
The Anfield scoreboard shows Palace a goal ahead in the dying moments of the game
Crystal Palace took a deserved victory at Anfield against a loose, sloppy Liverpool side

Risk analysts use a metaphor called the Swiss cheese model to explain how seemingly robust systems can catastrophically fail.

Imagine piling layer after layer of random slices of Swiss cheese on top of one another, with the aim of creating a solid structure you cannot see all the way through. The more holes there are, the more their locations are similar, and the bigger they are, the more likely it is that those holes will align.

That’s Liverpool, that is. And at the moment, you could pass the Premier League trophy and the Europa League trophy all the way through their stack of cheese.

Crystal Palace expose Liverpool weaknesses

We need to acknowledge up top how impressively bold and incisive Crystal Palace were in the first half, earning their lead and going within a panicked Andy Robertson boot away from taking a just as deserved second goal.

After the break, with Liverpool applying greater and greater pressure on their penalty box, Oliver Glasner’s side dug in magnificently to put bodies in the way of every cross and shot they could possibly scramble in front of.

Nothing should be taken away from Palace in criticising their opposition. For an away team against supposedly far superior opposition, this was close to a perfect performance, especially coming from a side that had taken just two points from their past five games without a clean sheet to leave them nervously looking back over their shoulders – a worry that has now been considerably alleviated. Palace had not won away to one of the Premier League’s current top three since beating Manchester City in October 2021.

But inevitably, our focus is primarily on the side that is meant to be challenging for the Premier League title, not the one that now looks to be pretty comfortably ensconced in mid-table once again.

So, Liverpool. For the second game in a row, and far from the first time this season, they were woeful.

Loose, loose, loose, loose, loose. In all departments, whether that was their marking at the back, their passing in midfield, or most especially their work in front of goal, Liverpool made themselves look like a Championship side battling to get out of bottom three (and trust me, I know of what I speak), not a team that until a few weeks ago still had aspirations of completing a quadruple.

Now, Jurgen Klopp’s final season lies in tatters. They are out of the FA Cup. They face an almost hopeless task staying in the Europa League. And their title hopes now require Arsenal and Manchester City both having a similar level of wobble. One of them? Maybe. Both? Unlikely. The era of heavy metal football is ending on a whimper.

Liverpool decline surprising only in its depth

Alisson’s return from injury was the headline after the teamsheets were published, but at least eight of Liverpool’s outfielders were the ones who looked like they were returning from significant injury lay-offs and wanted to just feel their way back into action without over-exerting themselves.

Nothing summed them up better than a moment late in the first half, when Alexis Mac Allister got the ball on halfway, looked up to assess his options, gestured his disbelief at the lack of movement ahead of him, and played a long ball over the top for Darwin Nunez purely out of a lack of other viable choices.

That pass actually paid off, with Dean Henderson halting midway through his egress off his line to allow Nunez to cross for Luis Diaz at the back post. But the Colombian was unable to cleanly control the slightly misdirected cross, allowing Palace just enough time to scramble back and force Diaz to too narrow an angle to capitalise.

That trend continued throughout the second half, with numerous Liverpool players guilty of sloppy work where it most counted: Nunez shooting straight at Henderson off Virgil van Dijk’s knockdown, Diogo Jota having a shot blocked from a Dominik Szoboszlai square ball, Curtis Jones incredibly missing a one-on-one with the Palace keeper; the list of wasted opportunities continuously grew and grew.

The depth to which Liverpool have fallen off has been shocking, but that they have run into these problems is not a surprise; it’s been in the post for quite some time.

Once a tightly-coiled machine of fine-tuned parts, Liverpool’s squad now has too many flighty players who can spend long spells of games taking heavy touches, applying poor finishes, and failing to make runs at the right time. Mo Salah has always been like that – the notion that he has only been so since his injury is exaggerated at best – but now half their side is in that mould. It was only a matter of time before those holes aligned once again.

Salah, Nunez and Diaz can be tremendous fun to watch at times, but in this era of fine margins both within games and in title races, worthy champions are often those sides who are able to supplement those flair players with something else. You need players with robot-like consistency and efficiency, or who are willing to work incredibly hard and s***house their way through the opposition when all else fails.

They used to have those traits (to varying extents) from Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Fabinho, Roberto Firmino and most especially Sadio Mane. If Salah was having one of those games where he looked like he had barely ever kicked a ball before, they would ensure the holes did not appear elsewhere. Their replacements, be they from the transfer market or the academy, have not been able to live up to that to the same extent. 

Liverpool’s league position makes clear that in the grander scheme of things, they remain a very good team. But where they were once a hefty block of top-quality Cheddar, they are now Swiss to the core.

That is why their injury crises this season have hit them as hard as they have. That is why they have so often had to come from behind to win this season. And it is why they are now reliant on slip-ups from their rivals to keep their Premier League title hopes alive.