If Liverpool want to keep touch as one of the five or six strongest clubs in Europe, they need to keep running faster and faster, just to stand still. They have stalled instead.
Liverpool started the afternoon with a point to prove, but ended it with just one on the board. Their home match against Brighton & Hove Albion was something of a test. How would they react to a four-week Premier League break, considering that they had been showing signs of physical strain that stretch back beyond the start of this season?
What sort of Brighton team would they play, considering that their opponents had undergone enormous upheaval themselves over a near-identical four-week break? And what happens now, considering the obvious conflict between the huge amount of goodwill that Jurgen Klopp has at Anfield and the reality of results since the start of this season?
It should be perfectly clear that Brighton are nobody’s fools and sit in fourth place in the Premier League on merit. Roberto Di Zerbi’s team made an important point of their own with an accomplished performance throughout which they were the better, more incisive, and more disciplined team. And that, perhaps, was the key difference between Brighton and Liverpool at Anfield. On a player-by-player basis, Liverpool have the better players, but Brighton had the better team.
It’s difficult to say whether fatigue is in the realm of an explanation or an excuse. There’s no question that Liverpool have had a more punishing schedule than most over the last couple of years, but that’s what you have to go through if you want to win the silverware. You don’t get the cups without the games. This year, Liverpool didn’t get the cups they wanted for their exertions, but that doesn’t make playing those games some sort of mistake, or anything like that. The harsh truth is that modern football isn’t going to slow its gallop because a club is feeling the pace.
But the very fact that Liverpool could have looked so leaden-footed after a four-week break from the Premier League can only really indicate that fatigue isn’t the only problem. All that gegenpressing, all that ‘heavy metal football’, depends on momentum, shutting down spaces and making it look as though you have more players on the pitch than you actually do. It requires players to be on top of their game, both physically and mentally, and to be thinking imaginatively and creatively.
And fatigue is hardly a good explanation for having fallen behind early on in as many games as they have; again, over a lengthy period of time.
And against Brighton, things might have been worse. Liverpool were reliant on an extremely fortunate own goal to take the lead which they ended up losing anyway, while another fell just the right side of a VAR call. And Brighton’s goals were far from the only chances they created. This was no smash and grab visit to Anfield, and it speaks volumes that Alisson was Liverpool’s best player.
Too many players are just bang out of form. Trent Alexander-Arnold is an outstanding player, but he’s looked like a pale facsimile of himself for a very long time now. There has been considerable conjecture over him not being able to command a regular starting place in the England team. If his form doesn’t improve, there will come a point at which that conversation extends to whether he should be in the Liverpool team. His defensive performance against Brighton was little better than shambolic. Mo Salah created one goal, but otherwise fired blanks again. And Virgil van Dijk looks almost like he can’t be arsed.
And all of this has ramifications. It doesn’t seem so long ago since Jude Bellingham going to Anfield from Borussia Dortmund felt close to being a foregone conclusion, and it may be telling that with Liverpool’s stultification on the pitch this season there have been increased rumours linking Bellingham with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and – most strongly, of late – Real Madrid.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation and these names that were always likely to join the chase for a player of this calibre, but this talk does reinforce the strength of competition for the players that Liverpool aspire to attracting.
This does tie into a broader issue that Liverpool and other clubs have faced in recent years. How do you compete with clubs who have, to all intents and purposes, infinite money? Chelsea have made it clear they’ll spend heavily and aggressively. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona have the churn created by their vast commercial operations. Manchester City and Newcastle United have have access to the vast wealth created by our addiction to fossil fuels. If Liverpool want to keep touch as one of the five or six strongest clubs in Europe, they need to keep running faster and faster, just to stand still.
But in the present day, the reality that bites for Liverpool is that even finishing as high as fourth this season is starting to look like it could be a challenge. They remain four points off fourth place, and the Premier League title already looks like it will be beyond their grasp this season.
Manchester City – although this should be tempered by a reminder that they have played a game more than Liverpool – are now 10 points clear of them, while leaders Arsenal are 11 ahead. And we consider both of these teams’ form so far this season, it’s difficult to see how Liverpool close that gap.
All of this leaves Jurgen Klopp very much where he was on Friday. Drawing at home to Brighton is not so dreadful a result as to push him closer to the edge of the event horizon that can do for the reputation of the greatest of managers, but it wasn’t a result from which he was claiming credit for coming from two goals behind in his post-match interviews, either.
But questions are starting to be asked about Liverpool’s transfer procedures and whether they have been working as well as they might, and about whether his tactics are working as effectively as they used to be.
Contracted to the club until 2026 he would be expensive to remove, and with no obvious candidates to replace him standing out. But Liverpool’s season is running aground, with a creaking squad that needs refreshing and a team that increasingly looks as though its peak years are coming to an end.
Brighton came to Anfield and ended up a little disappointed to be only leaving with a point. Liverpool’s disappointment seems more baked in, and with no apparent reset having been brought by the international break, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that letting up any time soon. These are worrying times for Liverpool.