Injury plight cannot be overlooked during post-mortems of Liverpool’s reign as champions

Jordan Henderson suffers an injury during Liverpool’s defeat by Everton

There were 126 days between this season’s Merseyside derbies, but Liverpool must feel like they have endured the misfortune, malfunction and ‘what can go wrong, will go wrong’ of a few campaigns combined from the Goodison meeting to Everton deservedly ending their 22-year Anfield misery. 

There are the numbers: this – four defeats on the spin – is their worst Premier League form since 2002. The defending champions have lost six of their nine top-flight games in 2021. They have scored once at home this year, where their current spell of being beaten has never been as poor since 1923-24. 

There is the fact Liverpool have had more VAR decisions go against them this season than any team in the entirety of 2019-20. 

There is the very visible fatigue, the ceding of a fear factor, the defensive frailties, the inability to be decisive in the final third and failings on an individual and collective level. 

There are the struggles against low blocks and shambolic capitulations. 

Liverpool’s players react during defeat by Everton

There have been the injuries, brutal and consistent with Jordan Henderson the latest casualty, brushed aside by some commentators as “an excuse.” Aye, every team suffers setbacks and many of them happen concurrently. 

That does not mean it makes sense to overlook or play down the scale, severity and regularity of Liverpool’s injuries in assessing their sorry state. 

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Would any of the above – the stats, the structural issues, the mental and physical exhaustion partly brought on by the psychology of having to absorb absence after absence and not being able to rotate – be as awful if Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Diogo Jota and Fabinho were available?

If the answer is no, and that is only part of Liverpool’s missing list, then it cannot be considered inconsequential. 

The loss of Van Dijk alone has affected so much in the build-up, at set-pieces, in how the opposition approach a game. The situation at centre-back, where even the makeshift options are out, is destabilising. Eighteen different partnerships in the heart of defence, none of which have managed three matches in a row, is not a platform you can build from. 

These pages have discussed in detail the knock-on effect on the midfield and how the fullbacks and forwards are suffering from not having the same protection, service, surety and a proper rest. 

But acknowledging that the crux of Liverpool’s problem stems from their lengthy treatment roster does not absolve their other failings, like dithering in the January window and wasting clear-cut opportunities when they are actually created with the lowest shot conversion rate in the division this year.

Several players have been a shadow of what they would expect from themselves. Multiple things can be true at the same time.

On Saturday, Everton targeted Ozan Kabak via the dangerous Richarlison and succeeded. They happily allowed Liverpool the ball in the knowledge that they have found it hard to conjure clear opportunities when faced with a wall. They were diligent defensively, and in the horrid wind, Jordan Pickford was faultless. 

The goalkeeper, who has been heavily criticised especially in derbies prior, with his rashness flagged in the reverse fixture that ended Van Dijk’s season, needed that performance.

Everton needed it from him too, but as Carlo Ancelotti noted: “Our target is not beating Liverpool. Our target is to reach the European positions and be playing European football next season. This is the achievement.”

Liverpool, meanwhile, look like they require divine intervention in the league at the moment in order to secure a victory let alone a Champions League spot.

Klopp’s side had won six out of seven clashes after the Goodison derby in October that claimed Van Dijk, drawing the other against Manchester City and conceding just three goals in the process.

That run seems like it occurred in a different age altogether. The injuries increased, to an unprecedented level at centre-back, and they’ve slowly, surely come undone.

There’s no easy option to mend their tapestry. Trying has not been enough and Klopp has said Liverpool have to “force it as well. In the decisive moments, we have to be calmer, that’s how it is – like in the finishing situations. 

“The boys are still full of desire, I see that. But to change a football game, a result, to get the result you have to be decisive in the right moments defensively and offensively – and that’s what we are lacking.

“Meanwhile, unfortunately we got used to it that we have to change things because of injuries and we just try to set up again for the next game. As long as we have 11 players we will do that.”

But when major starters are absent from the XI, Liverpool will not resemble the 97-point side, the champions of Europe nor England’s best. 

They will have do everything, however, to resemble a top-four team. Not securing a Champions League finish has seismic consequences on the club’s financial state, the ability to attract new players, retain the most important ones and not have to spend years trying to catch up again. 

That is far more damaging than the current talk of ‘worst champions,’ ‘collapse for the ages’ and the other tags affixed to Liverpool.

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