It took Liverpool 30 years to end their wait to be champions of England, but Jurgen Klopp’s team are on the brink of surrendering their crown just seven months after lifting the Premier League trophy for the first time. In fact, fail to beat Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday and Liverpool can forget about retaining their title.
That is the brutal reality facing Klopp’s team after relegation-threatened Brighton inflicted a second successive home defeat on the faltering champions on Wednesday, with Steven Alzate‘s second-half goal the difference.
Until Burnley won at Anfield two weeks ago, Liverpool had gone 68 games unbeaten at home in the Premier League, a sequence stretching back to Apr. 2017. Now they have lost two on the spin, with league leaders City due to visit on Sunday, aiming to stretch their more positive recent run to 14 straight wins over all competitions.
For Liverpool defender Andy Robertson, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“Any game against Man City is a big one,” Robertson said. “As this moment stands, we’re not in the title race. We are seven points behind them and they have a game in hand. We need to get back to the Liverpool everyone knows.”
It isn’t just the back-to-back home losses that will worry Klopp and his players as they prepare to take on Pep Guardiola’s team.
Since beating Tottenham with a last-minute Roberto Firmino winner at Anfield on Dec. 16, Liverpool have taken two points from four home games and scored just once in that run. The defeat against Brighton — a deserved victory for Graham Potter’s suddenly in-form side — saw the Reds fail to score in three successive home games for the first time since Oct. 1984.
There are few positives for Liverpool to cling to right now. Perhaps they should just be thankful for the away wins at Spurs and West Ham during the past week that have at least kept them in the top four. But if they lose again against City on Sunday, they will be 10 points behind the leaders, having played a game more, and with precious little hope of Guardiola’s men allowing them back into the race.
“The solution is always the players,” Klopp said after the defeat against Brighton. “It has been a tough week and tonight it was not enough.
“The only explanation is that we are a fatigued team, mentally more or less. But City are flying and we have to find solutions.”
If, or more likely when, Liverpool admit defeat in their bid to hold onto their title, there will be many reasons for their failure to defend it.
Injuries have clearly hit hard. Against Brighton, Klopp was without Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Sadio Mane, and Diogo Jota. The defensive crisis, which prompted the Deadline Day signings of Preston North End’s Ben Davies and Schalke’s Ozan Kabak, has led to Klopp using Jordan Henderson at centre-half, which doubly has depleted the champions’ midfield.
Davies, who has never played at a level higher than the EFL Championship, was an unused substitute against Brighton, with Kabak not in the squad. But at some point, they will have to play because Klopp needs Henderson, last season’s FWA Player of the Year, back in midfield, organising and driving his team.
All clubs suffer injuries, however, and Liverpool are not alone in having had to cope without key players this season. But the season-long injuries to Van Dijk, Gomez, and now Matip have been hammer blows.
Also against Brighton, just as against Burnley, the absence of fans inside Anfield because of the COVID-19 pandemic worked against Liverpool. So often in recent seasons, the noisy, passionate urging from the Liverpool fans has carried Klopp’s men to victory – even when the odds have been stacked against them. City have been on the receiving end of the Anfield experience too in recent seasons, with the home crowd helping Liverpool blow Guardiola’s team away on more than one occasion.
Anfield, just like every other stadium, is silent this season, but the lack of noise has taken the edge off Liverpool’s performances. Home advantage has been lost to Klopp’s team. But despite the injuries and empty stands, Liverpool still have quality and depth, so they should have done much better in defending their title.
Losing to teams like Brighton can happen, especially in a season made so unpredictable by the effects of the pandemic, but dropping points against struggling teams has become a worrying trend for Liverpool. They have now dropped 16 points against teams in the bottom half of the Premier League and 11 to sides in the bottom six. The failure to beat Fulham, West Brom, Newcastle, Burnley, and now Brighton twice is why Liverpool are about to face City with their grip on the title having become so precarious.
Liverpool struggled to create chances against Brighton and Burnley. It was the same story against Newcastle and West Brom. They lack imagination and energy — and energy was a huge factor in their title success last year. Without it, Liverpool are not the same team. It is why Burnley were able to record their first Anfield victory since 1974 and why Brighton left Liverpool victorious in the league for the first time since 1982.
City haven’t won a league game at Anfield since 2003, but if they end that run on Sunday, the title will be heading to Manchester.
Time will tell whether it ends up with City or United, but whichever way it goes, Liverpool will be watching from afar.