When Georginio Wijnaldum’s bullet header gave Liverpool a 1-0 win over Manchester City at Anfield on New Year’s Eve, the Reds moved four points clear from third in second place and looked the only realistic contenders to Chelsea’s title challenge.
Three weeks on and following the calamitous home defeat to Swansea City on Saturday, Liverpool now occupy fourth place, ten points adrift from Antonio Conte’s men and only four points ahead of sixth placed Manchester United. They also trail Southampton in the semi-finals of the EFL Cup, with the second leg to come this Wednesday, whilst a replay was needed in the FA Cup to see off League Two Plymouth.
It’s fair to say that January hasn’t been kind to Liverpool.
It didn’t help of course that Jurgen Klopp’s side began the month with the continued absence of talisman Phillipe Coutinho, missing since sustaining an ankle injury against Sunderland in late November and not available for the reverse fixture, which began Liverpool’s 2017 on January 2nd. The Brazilian of course returned as a second-half substitute in the 1-1 draw at United a fortnight later, but in that time they had failed to win a game in the calendar year, owing partly to Coutinho’s absence as well as that of two other notable starters.
The African Cup of Nations prompted the departure of summer signing/early-season revelation Sadio Mane, who joined the Senegal squad for the tournament in Gabon and has impressed whilst on international duty; scoring twice to aid his national team’s progress to the quarterfinals. Bittersweet viewing for Liverpool fans watching their player compete in the biennial competition, with delight in his form soured by the fact that each Senegal victory delays Mane’s return to Merseyside.
And then there was the confusion over the eligibility of centre-back stalwart Joel Matip. The 25-year-old had shunned his selection by Cameroon, provoking a row between Liverpool and the Cameroon Football Federation, who put forward a case to FIFA that Matip could not play for Liverpool during their participation in AFCON. The defender had been missing since the 2-2 draw with West Ham in early December after suffering his own ankle injury, an absence that was then extended by the wait to see if FIFA would uphold the Cameroon national team’s plea.
Last Friday FIFA dismissed the case against Matip and ruled him eligible to play, but as Liverpool’s back line fell apart against Swansea, Matip – possibly due to a lack of match fitness – watched from the bench.
Without Matip, Mane and Coutinho, the sparing use of Daniel Sturridge and captain Jordan Henderson’s recent struggles with fitness, Liverpool’s squad has not been able to cope with this month’s fixture congestion and title rivals who spent big in the summer now look well-placed to capitalise on the Reds slump in form. To regain the momentum – and results – of their blistering start to the season, Liverpool need to be active in the January transfer window, but signings are yet to be made.
As Henderson has echoed in the wake of Saturday’s defeat however, the recent slump does not make Liverpool ‘a bad side’. It isn’t yet all doom and gloom. Though the title now looks a distant prospect for this season, wherever Liverpool finish in May it will certainly be an improvement on last year and let’s not forget that when this campaign began in August, optimism was not over a title bid, but the chances of Klopp’s side breaking back into the top four.
The one-goal deficit to Southampton can easily be corrected on Wednesday under the Anfield lights, to give the Reds a shot at lifting the EFL Cup in February. And how much sweeter that would be if Liverpool can not only deny their greatest rivals in the final of that competition, but also beat Mourinho’s United to a top-four finish.
When you really look at it, Liverpool have probably overachieved in the first half of the season and the squad wasn’t prepared for it. A dip was inevitable. But what January has taught us is that if Klopp is to overcome almost three decades of expectation at Anfield for a league title, this squad needs reinforcement. Either in this transfer window or the next, options need to be added, or casualties to the starting eleven will continue to hold the club back.