Ryan Vrede writes that Liverpool will be a domestic and European force again, but right now nobody fears them.
Liverpool has lost something far more significant than the world’s best centre back, Virgil van Dyk, or his defensive partner, Joe Gomez, widely considered to be one of Europe’s best young players. Despite the raft of injuries they’ve suffered this season, nothing is more significant than the one that that trumps all that. Liverpool has lost it’s aura of invincibility.
There is no question that, at their best, they are a team of extraordinary skill, technical ability, are rich in tactical intelligence and immensely fit. This collective potency is fuelled by individuals who are either the best in their position in the world, have the potential to be the best in their position in the world, or, like Roberto Firmino and Jordan Henderson, are those rare players who are much-maligned by your average fan, but, are celebrated to the knowledgable as absolutely essential to any success, despite them operating in the shadows of others.
This combination of things makes for a really good football team, but it’s their collective refusal to relent, even in the face of the most impossible odds, and then to triumph, through which an aura of invincibility is built. Everton, Paris St. Germain, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspurs, they’ve all been victims of Liverpool’s irrepressible belief that they will win. Barcelona, populated by a clutch of the planet’s most gifted ballers, including one of the greatest ever, Lionel Messi, succumbed to Liverpool’s irrational belief that they can walk on football’s choppiest waters, again and again and again and again.
The more this belief was requited, the more Liverpool were able to invade the very psyches of their opponents. At some point most teams, even the game’s elite, just didn’t believe Liverpool were ever out of the contest, especially in front of 60 000 disciples at Anfield. It took years of cultivation, and it peaked in the 2019/20 season, during which they simply pummelled teams into mental and tactical submission.
That aura is incredibly fragile though. While it takes years to build, it can be lost in a matter of weeks. This is Liverpool’s present-day reality. They are a shadow of the team they once were. Most individuals are empty shells of the players who once imposed their will on the opposition through a mix of seemingly superhuman conditioning, soaring talent, limitless determination and tons of temperament. The loss of one of football’s most catalytic forces, the Anfield crowd, has further undermined their cause.
They are shot. Critically, everyone knows it.
The only way to recover this aura is to win consistently again, especially when they appear to be out of the contest. Yet even that seems fanciful, such is the team’s deep dysfunction. Even when Liverpool were at their peak, Manchester City were capable of beating them by a three-goal margin. That result matters less in the context of establishing how far Liverpool has regressed than league defeats or draws against the likes of Brighton, Burnley, Southampton, Newcastle or Aston Villa. Liverpool vanquished these minnows in their league-winning season. A few months later and even Villa’s upcoming visit to Anfield sparks anxiety in even the most blindly optimistic supporter.
There are mitigating factors, of course. Liverpool have been able to field what most consider their best squad just four times this season. Losing their centre-back pairing, and a string of replacements thereafter, forced Fabinho and Jordan Henderson into defence. Herein lies primary reason Liverpool has become defensively shaky and impotent on attack.
As midfielders, they are critical to the team’s defensive and attacking prowess. Liverpool’s defensive excellence in recent years rested heavily on their unrelenting work-rate, anticipation, tackle fight and tactical intelligence, often seen in their ability to cover spaces left by their attack-minded team-mates. It is their defensive competency that gives the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and the trio of Mo Salah, Said Mané and Firmino the freedom to throw defensive caution to the wind. Furthermore, their ability to win the ball high up the field and launch counter-attacks against defences who’s shape has been compromised by them losing the ball on attack, created countless attacking scenarios where Liverpool had a number’s advantage. Liverpool has a number of world-class midfielders, but none of them with the set of qualities that Fabinho and Henderson employ to the team’s advantage.
This is not to undermine the contribution of others, but one would be hard-pressed to argue for two more important players in the context of how Liverpool play. They need to return to midfield urgently. It won’t solve all Liverpool’s problems, but it will instantly raise the quality of both the defensive and attacking play. That is a start.
I suspect Liverpool will continue to be inconsistent until Van Dyk and Gomez return, so it may be best to tailor your expectations accordingly. At that point the process of restoring the once match-defining aura will begin.