The reaction to Liverpool’s first bad patch in since May 2018 has been remarkable. Defeat to Watford meant the Reds dropped out of the are they the best Premier League side ever discussion – at least according to rival fans.
The FA Cup loss to Chelsea was not the reaction Liverpool supporters wanted either. Back-to-back losses. Back-to-back games without a goal. Since returning from the winter break, the European champions have won just two of their five matches, losing three. In the process, they’ve scored just four goals and conceded seven times.
Given that dramatic downturn in form, people are scrambling to come up with theories as to why the Club World Cup holders are struggling. Some claim Jürgen Klopp’s tactics have been found out. Others suggest the winter break had a negative impact on the team’s rhythm. After all, Liverpool’s style relies heavily on monotonous, rehearsed actions.
But the biggest narrative being forced is that this sticky patch is because Jordan Henderson isn’t available. The skipper hobbled off in the 80th minute of the Champions League last-16 first leg defeat to Atlético Madrid and he’s expected to miss the return game against the LaLiga giants.
There’s every chance that @JHenderson’s injury could well clinch him the Footballer of the Year trophy. Sometime’s you don’t realise a player’s importance to a side until they’re absent.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) March 3, 2020
In his absence, Liverpool struggled against West Ham United, were humbled by Watford and lost in the cup to Chelsea. While he is a big loss to the team, the Reds' unconvincing performances can’t be pinned exclusively on the fact their Player of the Year candidate hasn’t been available for selection.
Henderson would be a loss to any team in current form. He initially looked back to his best as a centre-midfielder before dominating play as a No.6 when Fabinho was injured. The sooner he’s back, the better. But explaining away Liverpool’s form isn’t as simple as saying they miss their No.14. There's much more too it.
In Henderson's last start in the Premier League, Liverpool eked out a 1-0 win over Norwich City. All the talk afterwards was about how the Reds had struggled to create anything. But the underlying numbers painted a different story. Klopp's men finished with an expected goals total of 2.06 and an expected goals conceded total of 0.35. It was, on paper at least, a comfortable 2-0 win.
They played 624 passes with 219 coming in the final third. Liverpool controlled the game and the outcome was never in doubt.
The nature of the win over West Ham suggested Liverpool were fortunate. Łukasz Fabiański had a game to forget between the sticks for the Hammers and the table-toppers needed a stirring second half to make up for a lackadaisical opening 45 minutes.
Statistically, the match followed a similar path to the Norwich game. Without Henderson, the Reds created chances for an expected goals total of 2.4. They conceded more opportunities but also created more. The difference in expected goals at Carrow Road was 1.71, when hosting David Moyes' men it was 1.67.
In both matches, Liverpool attempted an almost identical number of passes in total and in the final third.
Goals change opinion. If Alisson had kept out Issa Diop‘s header, a save he would make nine times out of ten, that match would have been a routine victory for the Reds. But because Liverpool conceded, twice, the narrative afterwards was that there was no real control. In truth, Klopp's side had more shots on target than West Ham had in total.
The only thing that didn't paint Liverpool as the dominant force was the scoreline. But you could argue that was the case against Norwich.
Watford was a different story altogether. The home side battered Liverpool going forward and smothered them defensively. It was a scarily good performance for a side battling relegation.
The Reds created nothing, conceded chances at an alarming rate and looked bereft of ideas when in possession. And the stats back that up. Henderson would've made a difference against a physical Watford side, no doubt about it. But one aspect which seems to have been overlooked is the number of enforced changes and their impact on the team.
In recent weeks, Liverpool have struggled with consistency because there's been nothing constant about their starting XI.
Klopp's been trying to get Fabinho back up to speed. Sadio Mané was injured, Joe Gomez was ruled out for a match and Naby Keïta missed the trip to Vicarage Road. Dejan Lovren, Divock Origi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have all been given starts while Adam Lallana has made cameo appearances off the bench.
During Liverpool's 18-match winning streak, Klopp rarely made changes. He made the odd alteration to freshen things up but by no means did he make wholesale switches – like he's been forced into since returning from the break.
It's little wonder Liverpool now look beatable. They are beatable. Henderson's return will paper over some cracks but if the Reds are continuously forced into making changes every single week, performances will continue to underwhelm.