- Even though Liverpool have reached the Champions League finals, their status for next year’s competition is in doubt.
- Late-season injury issues and a cold run of form have left Liverpool in need of a point on the final day of the season.
- Even with their team’s struggles, do Liverpool supporters have anything to worry about?
Believe it or not, Liverpool still haven’t clinched a trip to next year’s Champions League.
With one game left to play, they have 72 points, and Chelsea sit behind them with 70. If Liverpool were to lose at home to Brighton on Sunday and Chelsea comes back from Newcastle with a win, the Reds would finish the season in fifth and Chelsea would, improbably, be on their way to the Champions League.
This is, of course, very unlikely to happen. Brighton are +1477 (5Dimes) to beat Liverpool, while Chelsea are -158 to win at St. James’ Park. Liverpool, by any measure, are in terrific shape. Despite that, the fact that Liverpool find themselves with any fear on the season’s final day is alarming. This was supposed to be wrapped up weeks ago.
An Unwanted Distraction
While Liverpool were busy beating Roma to advance to the Champions League finals, their Premier League form took a major tumble. They haven’t won since April 14. In the interim they’ve drawn against West Brom and Stoke, two teams set to be relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season. Liverpool then lost to Chelsea last weekend, a major stumble that put them in their current predicament. Before their three-game stumble, Jurgen Klopp’s team were in third place, not only seven points ahead of Chelsea, but also two points in front of Tottenham Hotspur.
Champions League qualification was supposed to be done and dusted by now. In an ideal world, Liverpool would be resting stars and getting healthy ahead of their Champions League final against Real Madrid, not making sure they don’t slip up and face disaster.
Embrace the Sweat
It’s been a weird stretch of games for Liverpool. They played well against a poor Stoke side, a game sandwiched between the two legs of the Champions League semifinals. They outshot Stoke, 20-5, and even though they managed to get only two total shots on target, 14 of the 20 were inside the penalty area. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t go into the net.
But, in the other two matches — against West Brom before Stoke, and against Chelsea after — Liverpool were well off their game. They took nine and 10 shots in those two matches, well below their season average of 16.6. And they conceded 13 and 12, despite giving up only 7.6 on average. The Stoke game might have just been bad luck, but both before and after that Liverpool’s dropped points were very much in line with how they played.
It is, of course, impossible to treat Liverpool’s form like an actual crisis because while they were busy struggling in the Premier League, they did rather handily dispatch Roma in the Champions League semifinals — although even there they were unable to comfortably put Roma away despite scoring the first five goals of the two-legged tie. It is admittedly an odd way to look at things, but after going up 5-0 in the first 68 minutes, Liverpool proceeded to get outscored, 6-2, the rest of the way. The same dynamic as the Premier League played out in miniature in the Champions League semifinals. After building a huge cushion, Liverpool played just poorly enough to create some sweat at the end.
Testing the Depth
Some of this seeming tendency to slip may be out of Liverpool’s control. Nearing the end of a long season, and with an unexpected Champions League run piling up games on top of their domestic schedule, Liverpool are simply running out of bodies, especially in midfield. Superstar Philippe Coutinho forced his way to Barcelona in January. Since then, Emre Can has gone down with a back injury (one that might be exacerbated by the fact his contract is up at the end of the season). Adam Lallana has barely played all season, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had decidedly come into his own this year after transferring from Arsenal, ripped up his knee in the first leg against Roma.
The only warm bodies that Liverpool have left are Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. That’s a perfectly capable midfield. But, in Klopp’s high-energy, high-pressing, mile-a-minute system, everybody needs a day off sometimes. In order to rotate the squad, Liverpool’s 19-year-old fullback Trent Alexander-Arnold has been playing midfield minutes. He’s handled himself well in the position — and he played it as a youth player, so it’s not entirely unfamiliar territory — but it’s still not ideal to have your prodigy of a fullback playing important minutes out of position in games that matter simply because you’re out of any other options.
And then there’s the front three. Mohamed Salah has clearly been a revelation. Roberto Firmino blends attacking output, defensive ferocity and playmaking creativity in a wholly unique way, and Sadio Mane might as well have been constructed in a lab to provide whatever is needed to knit the two more prolific members of the front line together. It’s been a magical unit all season long. But when members of a unit works that well together, it’s hard to rest or rotate them and not see some form of malaise. Of course, it’s hard to start all three of them every game and also not end up with an attack running on fumes by the end of the season.
Liverpool’s depth in attack certainly isn’t great. Dominic Solanke has shown a promising skill set in limited minutes. He’s also 20 and has yet to translate those skills into goals. It may well be coming, but it’s not here yet. Danny Ings is a nice squad player, but he’s not nearly dynamic enough to take the place of any of the front three. And here again the fact that Coutinho left and Ox and Lallana got hurt — all three of whom could have provided wing depth in addition to their midfield presence — makes the problem more acute.
Weathering the Storm
Given all these dynamics, it’s certainly understandable that Liverpool ended up fading down the stretch. It’s also why the fact that they built such a huge cushion over the bulk of the season is so key. The reason that Liverpool have spent the end of the season remaining overwhelming favorites to qualify for the Champions League even while struggling over the last month is that they earned that right through their play in the 34 games before that.
Seasons are long, and sometimes injuries, poor play or other vagaries of life are unavoidable. Just because they’re slightly below their peak performance in the Premier League right now doesn’t mean that Liverpool made mistakes in order to get here. The side maxed out what a dynamic attack and versatile midfield could provide them, giving them the space they need to weather the storm when they got infected by an injury plague down the stretch.
Now, all the team needs is an extremely routine point at home (and it’s worth noting even as they’ve struggled, Liverpool haven’t lost to anybody but Chelsea; their other down results have all been draws against lesser sides), and their season ends as an unreserved success. And that’s before they set foot in Kiev for the Champions League final, a match they have a very real chance of winning against Real Madrid.
Photo: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.