Why Liverpool’s early season problems go beyond a weak midfield, from Van Dijk’s attitude to Salah-Diaz riddle

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When Liverpool kicked off their new campaign at Craven Cottage, there was plenty of reason to believe that they were favourites to win the Premier League title.

A team which had challenged for an unprecedented quadruple mere months before had already beaten Manchester City to the first silverware of the season in the Charity Shield the preceding weekend, it would be eight matchdays until they faced a team which finished in last season’s top five, and with fewer players set to feature in the World Cup than City their long-term prospects for managing the intensity of a title challenge seemed encouraging.

Instead, after just three matches, the Reds look down-and-out. Their worst start to a campaign in 10 years leaves them with two points from three matches, a desperately poor opening which may have been surmountable in the past, but in an era in which City’s strength under Guardiola means that points can only be dropped in something like six-to-nine matches across the entire season. Their challenge could be rendered finished while the nights are still light.

A spate of injuries have unquestionably contributed to the dreadful performances Liverpool have delivered against Fulham, Crystal Palace and Manchester United, and some supporters are calling for a new midfield player to be signed in order to rectify what they see as a problem area. But having attended all three matches so far, it is clear right now Jurgen Klopp‘s side has problems all over the pitch, with an incoherent strategy for attacking players meaning that signing a single player in midfield or any position is unlikely to prove a solution.

So, where have Liverpool been going wrong so far?

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Salah and Diaz not linking up

Liverpool have scored four goals so far this season. Every one of them has essentially just happened, the goal in each case occurring in isolation rather than being part of a cogent plan. Against United, Mohamed Salah scored smartly from a rebound after a set-piece, while Luis Diaz found the net against Palace through sheer individual brilliance.

At Fulham, Darwin Nunez‘s backheel went in via the boot of a defender and the second was scored by Salah after the Uruguayan mis-controlled a long ball. None of these goals really resemble one another in any way, nor do they tally with the way Liverpool have traditionally attacked under Klopp.

Mohamed Salah has scored twice in three matches, but has been left on the periphery of games in a disjointed attack (Footage: Sky Sports)

One of the reasons the Reds have struggled to genuinely threaten their opponents so far is that both Salah and Diaz, the players by far the most likely to score goals in the starting eleven, are staying so far wide during most passages of play that they are simply nowhere near the goal for the vast majority of matches. It seems to be a deliberate instruction rather than both players simply deciding to hug the by-line for no discernible reason, and it nullifies their danger immensely.

When Salah and Sadio Mane were playing as “wide” forwards for Liverpool, they were tasked with finding space between the full-back and centre-back in order to create opportunities. They regularly combined with one another, missing out Roberto Firmino in the centre who dropped deeper in order to contribute to build-up play and create space behind.

Now, Salah and Diaz very rarely play the ball directly to one another because they so far apart. They are playing separate games of football which leaves the whole side seeming unsure what a Liverpool goal is supposed to look like.

Confusion in the centre of attack

With Diogo Jota absent after suffering a hamstring injury in pre-season, Klopp has had the option in the opening fixtures (bar at Old Trafford) to choose between Firmino and Nunez in the centre of his frontline.

Firmino’s performances have been heavily criticised, and against United in particular he regularly dropped so deep to pick up the ball that an uninformed observer could have reasonably presumed he was a defensive midfielder rather than a forward.

But Nunez and Firmino could hardly be more different from one another. As strikers, they may physically stand in the same position on the pitch when the match kicks off, but that is about all they have in common. Where Firmino’s game is about turning quickly in small spaces, bringing others into play and linking different parts of the team together, Nunez wants to have plenty of space to himself, to cause chaos and to be played in behind for one-on-ones.

Roberto Firmino and Darwin Nunez occupy very different areas on the pitch, which seems to be leaving their team-mates caught between two stools (Footage: Sky Sports)

Switching between the two, therefore, profoundly changes the job of every other player in the Liverpool side. They go from looking to play the ball into the feet of a player who theoretically creates attacks to longer balls to one who is primarily interested in finishing them off.

The team has ended up in a halfway house where they are unable to play to the strengths of either style well at all, stifling creativity as a whole.

Midfield lethargy

Liverpool’s midfield has come in for most criticism from onlookers and, Harvey Elliott aside, every player who has played in the Reds’ engine room this season has underperformed.

Both Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson in particular look unfit. Not in the sense that they are injured, but rather exhausted. After seasons spent playing such intense football and competing on all fronts that is neither player’s fault, but this is August, not May, and the lethargy is worrying.

James Milner was often Liverpool’s furthest forward player at Old Trafford, occupying spaces the team’s midfield is not usually asked to contribute in. (Footage: Sky Sports)

The fact that Diaz and Salah are so wide is also exposing Klopp’s midfielders in a new way. Their role in his system over so many years has been to recycle the ball quickly either to full-backs in wide positions or vertically to the attack. Now, the No 8s are pushing higher up the pitch to fill the gaps which are no longer occupied by the wide forwards.

These are not and never have been goalscoring midfielders, and having them play so high up the pitch makes little sense and has exacerbated any tiredness issues.

Bizarrely meek attitude

Klopp described his players as having entered the Fulham draw with the wrong “mentality”. The Reds were meek, lacking self-belief and intensity.

Since then, little has changed. The first goal at Old Trafford in particular saw Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk barely even try to defend as Anthony Elanga cut the ball back and Jadon Sancho swivelled to score.

The rest of the team seems to be suffering from the same mental malaise. Players looks disaffected, disinterested and/or disdainful when goals are conceded. James Milner’s berating of Van Dijk on Monday night is one of few signs of any resistance to mediocrity so far this season.

Liverpool’s defending for Jadon Sancho’s goal was abject. (Footage: Getty)

The cause is impossible to identify, and could be different for different players. Some may be demotivated after winning every trophy on offer, some may be exhausted after putting in so much mental effort over such a long period of time, and some may simply be irritated by everything going on around them.

Since Klopp arrived, Liverpool’s collective determination and their belief that they can turn any situation around has defined their success. Whatever the reasons for the change, right now the lack of belief Liverpool’s players have in themselves and each other is a concern.

What now?

Some may call for a change of formation, but in reality Liverpool’s system has already changed significantly this season in the ways outlined above.

The signing of a new midfielder, and potentially an extra forward, might be unrealistic so late in the transfer window but would almost certainly help reinvigorate a season which is in danger of stalling at the start line.

However, far more important is that Liverpool’s existing players — who have been so brilliant for so long — remember what made them so effective as they picked up every trophy on offer, and start to believe in their collective ability to succeed together again.

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