As Liverpool succumbed to a 2-1 FA Cup fourth-round defeat away against West Ham yesterday evening – the club’s sixth defeat in their last 15 matches in all competitions (four draws) – it seemed remarkable to reflect on the manner in which Jurgen Klopp’s side were being tipped as Premier League title contenders only two months ago.
In the aftermath of Liverpool’s 6-1 Capital One Cup routing of Southampton on December 2, for instance, The Guardian’s Dominic Fifield argued that the inconsistency of Arsenal and Manchester City, combined with Chelsea’s implosion under Jose Mourinho and Manchester United’s struggles under Louis van Gaal, paved the way for Klopp’s team to pick up where Brendan Rodgers left off in 2014 by winning the Premier League.
“Even now, with Chelsea horribly off the pace and those members of the established elite above Liverpool rather inconsistent, this season is starting to feel like an opportunity,” Fifield observed. “And on the back of the biggest victory secured by a visiting team at St Mary’s there is clear reason for optimism.”
The logic was sound.
Liverpool stood only six points off the Premier League leaders at the start of December, and the manner in which the Merseysiders were victorious away at Chelsea and Manchester City in the process of winning six out of seven matches in the month leading up to the Southampton clash meant that the positivity generated by Klopp’s appointment in place of Rodgers last October was beginning to seem justified.
Injury-prone forward, Daniel Sturridge, the scorer of 21 league goals in the 2013/14 campaign, seemed to be responding to Klopp’s brand of “tough love” by playing through the pain barrier, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno were receiving unprecedented praise for the quality of their defending, and even the young Belgian striker, Divock Origi, discovered a degree of composure on front of goal.
6. Origi becomes the first ever Liverpool player to score a hat-trick against Southampton as we cruise to a 6-1 win. pic.twitter.com/MNQ62QGVsi— #15 (@LFCHadouken) December 31, 2015
But the optimism with which many in the media greeted Liverpool’s November form has fast been proven hasty, and the manner in which the Anfield club have been overtaken in the league – not only by Leicester, but also by traditionally mid-table clubs such Tottenham, West Ham, Southampton, and Everton – cannot help but have impressed upon Klopp the enormity of the challenge that he faces in attempting to bring Liverpool back into the Champions League.
Liverpool followed up the Southampton victory by losing 2-0 away against a relegation-threatened Newcastle side, who have still only won six times in the league all season, and Klopp’s team have since managed only five victories in 18 matches in all competitions, winning just three of their last 11 in the Premier League.
Sturridge’s fitness has unsurprisingly collapsed. His cameo appearance last night was the first time that he has played since the Newcastle defeat. Lovren and Moreno have lapsed into last season’s form, while goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has consistently proven himself to be a liability in high-profile matches. Record signing Christian Benteke cannot find a way into Klopp’s starting side, Roberto Firmino has struggled to achieve consistency on front of goal, and an injury-hampered Origi has stopped scoring altogether.
Klopp now finds himself in charge of a club with a mid-table playing squad and Champions League level ambitions, and the rise of the Premier League’s new moneyed middle class means that Liverpool are going to have to work hard to remain competitive in the top-half of the Premier League table next season before even thinking about breaking back into the top-four.
Leicester, Tottenham, Southampton, West Ham, and Everton are all better run than Liverpool in terms of recruitment, and the same argument could be persuasively made with regard to Stoke, Watford and Swansea. The fact that the new £5 billion television deal, which comes into place at the start of next season, will enable all of these sides to rival Liverpool’s spending power means that the Anfield club now appear vulnerable to being permanently overtaken in the top six unless a more coherent recruitment policy is effectively implemented by Klopp ahead of the summer.
The staggering incompetence that has characterized Liverpool’s recruitment strategy since the departure of Rafael Benitez in 2010 has seen the club squander the economic advantage that previously ensured them a regular top-four berth, and the newfound wealth and unprecedented scouting expertise of the old mid-table clubs mean that Klopp faces the toughest task of his career in attempting to re-establish Liverpool in the Premier League elite.
[Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images]