Well would you look at that! Things were bad enough in 2020, but at least Liverpool’s home record remained untouched in the Premier League.
Just 21 days into the 21st year of the 21st century, though, the Reds have somehow lost at Anfield in the Premier League… to Burnley.
In truth, if anyone deserved to end Liverpool’s 68-match unbeaten league run at Anfield, it was Burnley. The Clarets were the only side to bring anything away from a trip to the red parts of Merseyside last season, and in fact, they had drawn two out of their last three away matches against Liverpool.
The match was a classic Burnley victory – next to no possession, a 6-4 formation in defence and a winner in the last 10 minutes. Here, we will take a look at the clash from Liverpool’s perspective, and take a look at all that is going wrong for the Reds right now:
Going into this match, Liverpool were six points off the top of the table, although they had played one fewer match than Manchester United. They were going to face the Red Devils in the weekend, but that was an FA Cup clash. Naturally, you would expect to see all the big guns deployed against Burnley, with some perhaps getting rested over the weekend.
Jürgen Klopp turned up with this:
The likes of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were benched, while James Milner, Takumi Minamino and Curtis Jones did not start either. Jordan Henderson was out with a slight groin problem, but with Joël Matip back fit, there was a possibility of partnering him with Rhys Williams or Nathaniel Phillips and sending Fabinho back into his natural position in midfield, but Klopp thought better of it.
With Salah and Firmino missing out, it was most puzzling to see Xherdan Shaqiri in midfield once again. In the last match against United, this worked because Liverpool switched to a 4-2-3-1 while pressing with Salah pushing up and Shaqiri going out to the right wing, but against Burnley, there was no pressing to be done.
If rest was indeed Klopp’s concern, one man who clearly needed some was Trent Alexander-Arnold. The star right-back had not been performing as well as we are used to seeing following his positive COVID-19 test, and in the last three matches, he attempted 32 crosses and found his teammates with just five. Against Burnley – 1/22.
But even with only half of their A-team starting, Liverpool should be able to breeze past Burnley, right?
Lack of clinicality
2018/19 and 2019/20 Liverpool were renowned for taking the one chance they got in a match and coming away with a 1-0 victory. In those two seasons, 24 of their league victories were by a solitary goal. But on most other occasions, they won big, averaging just over two goals per match.
So far this season, they have averaged 1.95 goals per match, so that statistic has not dropped too far. But, they have blanked in their last four league matches now, and just have one in five. One explanation for such sudden slumps usually centres around a lack of chances, but that is not the case for the Reds.
In the last two seasons, Liverpool averaged an xG of 1.65 per match, outperforming it by 38.5 across the two seasons. So far this season, they have accumulated 34.7 xG in the Premier League, scoring 37 times. So, their average xG per match has been 1.82 – 0.17 higher than what they have managed in the last two seasons.
The xG Gods giveth and they taketh away… pic.twitter.com/B0HTML9eNu
— The xG Philosophy (@xGPhilosophy) January 21, 2021
The chances are still rolling in, but they are not being taken for once. Their PSxG (per shot expected goals) only dropped from 0.11 to 0.9 prior to Burnley, so the quality of individual chances is not deteriorating too sharply either.
So, you just have to put their lack of goals down to a bad patch in front of goal. But, at the same time, it is tinged with some questionable selection. For example, if either Salah or Firmino went one-on-one against the goalkeeper towards the end of the first half, they would have scored regardless of their poor form. Divock Origi, who happened to be on the pitch instead of one of those two, ended up hitting the woodwork, losing the match for Liverpool in a way.
As is very well-documented, injuries have been a huge pain for Liverpool this season. Virgil van Dijk’s long-term absence is, of course, a major concern, but Joe Gomez’s absence, Matip’s recurring issues and, most recently, Diogo Jota’s long lay-off are also proving hugely problematic. Against Burnley, the joy of Matip’s return was neutralised by Henderson’s absence, which clearly seemed to hurt.
To make up for their loss of personnel in defence, the Reds have been forced to transform their key defensive midfielder, Fabinho, into a full-time centre-back. Henderson had been forced to partner him often as Klopp didn’t seem to trust the younger alternatives, so Liverpool indirectly lost two midfielders.
With those two moving out of midfield, the Reds had to work with no defensive midfielder. Thiago had been slotting in that position for the last couple of matches, and while he was a massive upgrade with the ball at his feet, he wasn’t so good when the opposition had possession.
This season, Liverpool have averaged 47.84 pressures in the midfield third per match, a sharp decline from the 66.96 they averaged in the last two seasons. While the pandemic and tight fixture schedule can be blamed for some of that, their new-look midfield is also a part of the problem.
This leaves the defending champions’ backline much more exposed, and, being the makeshift defence that it is, it is often breached. In just the first half of this season, Liverpool have conceded as many goals as they did in the entirety of the 2018/19 Premier League campaign.
1361 days after Liverpool lost to Crystal Palace at Anfield in April 2017, they have been beaten in their own backyard in the Premier League. The second-longest unbeaten home run in the league’s history has come to an end, and with it, Liverpool’s title hopes are slowly starting to fade away.
However, they are only six points off the top of the table, and if we have learned one thing in the first 21 days of 2021, it is to not presume anything at all this year. As Klopp said in his post-match interview, it’s not rocket science – things are just not going Liverpool’s way right now, but a spark of quality mixed with some good luck could easily turn things around.