I don’t struggle with the “blank screen/paper” phenomenon that many writers have. It’s always been very easy for me to just sit down and start using the word things. My particular hang-up is looking at the work I’ve done and usually thinking it’s worthless. I wouldn’t be overly surprised to find some of the players on our current squad in a similar frame of mind. James Pearce tweeted after today’s match that the players “looked mentally exhausted” and “still had no answers going forward.” He’s right, but it’s hard to separate that from a general malaise that has led us to getting only 10 points from the last 12 matches (relegation form if ever it could be said) and the exhaustion that comes with the constant losing. We’ve all seen those sides, late in the season, when they know they’re going down and it doesn’t seem like there’s any point anymore in doing much of anything on the pitch. We haven’t quite reached that level, but we are at the point where we get to the final third and, more often than not, the energy simply dissipates. Balls are aimlessly tossed into boxes completely filled with opposing players and we get nothing and then everyone has to drag themselves back to cut off the counter-attack. The fire that led to utterly controlling games and hounding the opposition into submission simply isn’t there anymore and, again, I’m not sure if it’s a factor of playing matches in front of empty houses for the past year or this team simply not enjoying playing together anymore or just because they’ve realized that the league title is gone and, quite likely, the Champions League next year is gone, too. At that point, you could possibly be forgiven some lack of fight or intensity.
Except that this is a Jürgen Klopp side and this is Liverpool and these are professionals and… and… and… The counter-arguments become more numerous the more you look at the premise and, still, the losing continues. Remember how the theme of last season was the 2-1 victories? Now it’s 1-0 defeats, because even worse than the makeshift back line and the occasionally sloppy defending is the fact that we simply can’t put the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis. Or almost any basis. So, while I don’t suffer from the “Where do I start?” problem, I do occasionally have to deal with the “Where do I go from here?” situation. I’m betting that’s exactly the problem weighing down Jürgen’s mind at this very moment. What else can he do? Wholesale lineup changes didn’t work and, if the first half was any indication, only made it worse. It’s a bit late in the year to try sorting out a regular formation change. But something has to change if there’s any glimmer of hope of making top four which, it must be said at this point, there may not be. We have the “easiest” run-in among those contending for those top spots, but we’ve just shown that we can’t win a match against a team in the relegation zone and, indeed, haven’t done well against the bottom third of the league for most of the season. We also have a match on Wednesday against Leipzig. Win that and we’re through to the quarterfinals for the third time in four years which is… something? Will this side be in any shape to take on the likely far more strenuous opposition beyond Leipzig? Am I thinking too far ahead? Probably. But that’s what happens when you’re looking for something to say and the current situation basically leaves you with no options. The word “abject” is often followed with “hopelessness.” We’re not there yet, but it’s difficult for that concept to not cross your mind when, in the space of two months, you go from a dominant side to one that looks like it’s out of options.
Liverpool 0 – 1 Fulham
That diagram, of course, tells the whole story. Fulham has almost twice the level of good chances that we had, typically when they were racing past Neco Williams on the right side. Due credit to the kid for fighting and for his obvious talent, but he’s just not a Premier League-level fullback yet, especially in our system, which demands more from them than almost any other position. He has a tendency to drift inside, which leaves the wide space open for counters and also requires more labor to generate our attack, since he’s not wide enough to receive the balls that could be coming from the back line or from Andy Robertson. Notice how we didn’t see the frequent cross-field switches between the FBs? That’s why. Further due credit to Rhys Williams, who is Neco’s age and has been dropped into a very challenging situation, but I’m not sure that Rhys will get past the “emergency backup” stage without a change to our system. He’s good on the ball, good in the air, and has decent positioning, but you can’t teach speed and he doesn’t have it.
We could see the little flashes that make Diogo Jota, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Naby Keita who they are, but for all of that depth that it seemed like we had at the start of the season, we’ve failed to see it really pay off and are instead left in the Divock Origi stance: When the subs come on, nothing really happens. That’s an essential quandary of any team sport, in that if they were star players, they wouldn’t be sitting on the bench in the first place, so expecting them to have a transformative effect is a bit illogical. But it’s often just a case of fresh legs in a game that can be more endurance-sapping than others. In that respect, my first question would be why Gini Wijnaldum was subbed off first, instead of James Milner, Robot Warrior, since the robot was clearly grinding gears after about 10 minutes of the second half. I’m betting that Jürgen didn’t want to take the loudest voice off the pitch again and I can’t entirely blame him for that. As I mentioned last time, you often have to have leaders who step up when the usual guys are out injured or simply not performing. This season, this squad has not done that and we have suffered for it.
So, yeah. Wednesday back in Budapest for our “home” game vs RB Leipzig. Then we’re off until Monday when we visit Molineux to play the Wolves. Can someone find an answer before then? It really can’t get much worse (he says, hopefully.)