Jurgen Klopp believes dwindling confidence in front of goal is at the root of Liverpool’s ongoing struggles this season, as opposed to bad luck.
Although their active defence of the title has long since ended, Liverpool could formally end their stint as Premier League champions by claiming a much-needed victory over rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday.
If Manchester City beat Crystal Palace on Saturday and their neighbours lose to Klopp’s men, Pep Guardiola’s side will be crowned kings of England for the third time in the past four seasons.
That development might not be overly surprising, but the distance from which Liverpool have watched it unfold – having been the main counterpoint to City’s pretentions of dominance over the previous three years – certainly has been.
The Reds are sixth in the table, four points shy of fourth-placed Chelsea with five games remaining heading into the weekend, meaning anything other than three points against United would make their chances of Champions League qualification increasingly remote.
Long-term injuries to key defenders Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have taken a significant toll but a misfiring attack has been under the spotlight over recent weeks.
In three consecutive draws against Real Madrid, Leeds United and Newcastle United, Liverpool had 54 shots – including efforts blocked, as per Opta – and scored twice.
“We had a really detailed look at all the situations that we created over the last seven or eight games just to get an overview,” Klopp told Sky Sports. “It is not unlucky. There are moments where we are unlucky. But if you are unlucky so often there must be something else.
“Sometimes it sounds a little boring, but we know we have to improve. The one thing we have to keep working on is the finishing. We have to finish the situations off. We have created [many] chances in the last three games and scored twice. That is obviously not enough.
“The performance around that shows you that something was right in the game. We had really good spells, but the important moment is the last moment. We cannot expect it to change overnight but we will not stop working on it.
“It is not exactly the football of last year, maybe, but it is all fuelled by that one moment. Either you score or you don’t score. We have to keep working. We don’t have to change inside out, 360 degrees or whatever. We only have to improve and to make it click.”
Mane and Firmino under pressure
Such problems were unforeseeable at Christmas after Liverpool routed Palace 7-0 to go clear at the top of the table.
In the 19 Premier League games since, Liverpool have scored 19 times despite amassing an expected goals (xG) figure of 30.3. An xG underperformance of -11.3 is comfortably the worst in the division over this period.
Mohamed Salah has scored seven times in the top flight since December 25 and remains in the hunt for the Golden Boot on 20, one shy of Harry Kane. However, his attacking allies Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have managed three and one in 17 appearances apiece since then.
Salah and Mane are converting those opportunities Opta classes as “big chances” at 23.5 and 23.1 per cent success rates over the period in question, with Firmino languishing on 12.5 after netting one out of eight.
Compared to the trio most likely to feature in United’s forward line this weekend, the lack of efficiency is stark. Since Christmas Day, Marcus Rashford has put away 37.5 per cent of his big chances, with Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani snaffling 40 and 50 per cent respectively.
“We can see the boys are not confident enough in the moment,” Klopp said. “They don’t use their first touch. They want to make sure the ball is in the right position and then it is too late, the defender jumps in.
“There are a lot of things. After not scoring for a while, you do not use some situations for finishing. That is normal because we are not flying.”
Big six appeal
Funnily enough, the Untied game might be just what Liverpool need.
Shelling points to the likes of Leeds and Newcastle, due to late equalisers from Diego Llorente and Joe Willock, has been symptomatic of their season.
In games between the Premier League’s ‘big six’ this term, Liverpool have won five, drawn two and lost two to claim 17 points – a level-best points haul from those matches alongside City.
“It is about talking to them, helping them to find solutions,” Klopp added. “You can do that in training. All that is fine but then the game starts and the first ball does not go in, the second ball does not go in and the third ball does not go in. It is like a wound that is bleeding again.
“That is what you can see on the pitch. But a missed chance is information. You have to use it. The things we did to get in the position were right, so do it again but just adapt a little bit. Keep going. Stay positive.”