Liverpool have a hole at their heart right now – on and off the pitch

Ian King
Alisson consoles Ibrahima Konate after Liverpool lose to Brighton.

In losing to Brighton – the second time they’ve conceded three in 2023 – Liverpool showed up glaring deficiencies, and the midfield isn’t their only issue…

Never mind the relative sizes of the clubs concerned, this was Liverpool’s second successive Premier League defeat to the teams either side of them in the current Premier League table. Even if we strip away both the context behind of their 3-0 defeat at Brighton – because this result both was and wasn’t a bolt from the blue – this was a colossally bad result for Jurgen Klopp’s team. Add to that a home draw against Wolves in the FA Cup, and the team’s start to 2023 couldn’t have been much worse. And all this after a less-than-stellar second half of 2022 really left them needing to hit the ground running after the pause for the World Cup.

A moment first though, please, to pour praise upon Brighton & Hove Albion. They were, again, exceptional. It was reported after the match that ‘Since the resumption of club football after the World Cup, no side in the top five European leagues has scored more goals in all comps than Brighton’, and it isn’t difficult to see why. They now move with such fluidity and pace that they can find the space which creates chances. This upswing started before the end of last season. In their last four games of last season, Brighton scored just 42 goals, the joint second-lowest of the all bar the three relegated clubs. 

But in their last four games, something seemed to click. In their last four games of last season, Brighton scored three against Wolves and West Ham and four against Manchester United, and they scored five against Leicester in their last game this season before Graham Potter abruptly left. But after a slow-ish start, they’ve turbo-charged under Roberto De Zerbi since the end of October with four goals against Chelsea and Everton, and now three against Southampton, Wolves and Liverpool.

And they have the one thing that Liverpool don’t at the moment; a functioning central midfield. It’s clear that they needed upgrades in both midfield and attack, but it does seem surprising that Liverpool have forked out on Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo in the last year, two wingers and a striker, when the team is crying out for some urgent midfield renovation.

This was reflected in the one-sidedness of Brighton’s win. It was just too easy for them to move into space. Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister controlled the centre midfield as though they were playing in a World Cup, while Solly March was an impish presence up front, his perpetual motion propelling him to two goals while Evan Ferguson, who only signed a full contract on his 18th birthday in October, played as though he’d been doing this for years. It is no understatement to say that it would not have been that surprising had they won by five or six.

Liverpool’s current existential crisis has left them in a similar position to Chelsea, but it comes from a very different place. Chelsea have made a lot of changes very quickly. New owners, a lot of new players, new manager and coaching staff, new almost everything. And the acquisition of all those new players has coincided with a horrendous run of injuries which have covered the full gamut of bad luck. It’s not an excuse, as such. The richest clubs don’t get to use excuses.

But it is an explanation. There are a lot of new moving parts having to be fixed together quickly at Stamford Bridge. The issue is that there have been so few signs of improvement, and in a results based business patience is tested closer and closer to breaking point with each passing defeat. Furthermore, there are no cast iron guarantees that it will all come together in the end.

Liverpool’s situation is almost the opposite of this. Liverpool have refreshed this year. It can hardly be said that they haven’t spent money when they dropped £64m (possibly rising to £85m) on Nunez alone. But their refresh seems to have been partial. They have injuries, but nowhere near as many as Chelsea. And although it has been confirmed that Liverpool are up for sale, no sale has taken place yet, while the manager has been there for seven years. If Chelsea have changed more than their stability could tolerate in the last year,  Liverpool are making the opposite journey towards something approaching the same destination.

None of this is to say that Klopp should be hoicked out at Anfield, or that Liverpool should run around like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka’s factory in the January transfer window. Chelsea’s scattergun transfer policy has been some distance from uniformly successful and Liverpool should note that as per, say, Bruno Guimaraes at Newcastle or Casemiro at Manchester United, the right individual player can have a transformative effect upon a team. It might not take much to bring the best out in the other resources that Klopp has at his disposal. Their latest signing, Cody Gakpo, made his Premier League debut against Brighton. Goodness knows what he must think of it all.

Of course, the word ‘crisis’ means different things to different people, and with Liverpool still in the FA Cup and still in the Champions League there will be some who will consider that ‘only’ being in ninth place in the Premier League is very much a first world problem. But missing out on the Champions League is expensive, and if your finances are tilted towards near-perpetual involvement in it, missing out is a considerable cost.

It’s tempting to look at the ownership situation at the club. Now that Liverpool are up for sale, might it be that the owners have taken their eye off the ball. How much would non-involvement in next year’s Champions League impact upon Liverpool’s sale price, if or when that goes through? It seems unlikely that recent performances on the pitch have increased the value of the club. They may be best advised to return to the tiller and start bringing in the players it’s clear that Liverpool need.

Because Brighton are the opposite of both Chelsea and Liverpool, at the moment. Brighton have lost a swathe of players, their manager and their coaching staff as well other key backroom staff, and their top scorer in the league is refusing to play and has been sent to train on his own. Yet still they they keep going and keep improving, bloodying the noses of clubs with considerably greater resources.

Having a solid structure underneath has been key to Brighton continuing to thrive despite everything thrown in their way. Chelsea do not have this structure. They have inexperience and an even higher staff turnover. And neither do Liverpool, to the point that it’s starting to feel as though they are entering into a state of entropy.

The replenishment of the team has only been partial and the current squad is hopelessly lopsided. Jude Bellingham perhaps, at some indeterminate point in the future, is not going to dig them out of the hole that they’re sinking into right now. There’s something missing at the centre of Liverpool Football Club at the moment, and that doesn’t only apply to their midfield.

Read more: Liverpool ‘low point’: Apologetic Jurgen Klopp ‘can’t remember a worse game’