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Liverpool counting cost of Diogo Jota's absence as much as Virgil van Dijk's

Chris Bascombe
·4-min read
Reaction from Liverpool's Roberto Firmino during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on January 17, 2021 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. - GETTY IMAGES
Reaction from Liverpool's Roberto Firmino during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on January 17, 2021 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. - GETTY IMAGES

Jurgen Klopp knew the day would come when the discussion around Liverpool’s title defence focused on notable absentees.

What he would have found less predictable is the suggestion the ill-timed injury to Diogo Jota, not Virgil van Dijk, might prove the most influential in this year's race.

While the football world has obsessed about Liverpool’s defence bereft of three senior centre-backs, it has crept up on the consciousness that the famed front three needs to reconnect with their usual dynamism, speed and efficiency.

Since Jota’s exceptional start to his Anfield career was halted on December 9, Liverpool have won two of their seven Premier League games. Although they scored seven against Crystal Palace, they appeared to leave their proficiency at Selhurst Park.

In the other six games, they have a meagre four goals. For the first time since 2005, Liverpool have gone three Premier League without scoring. That was inconceivable heading into this campaign.

If Klopp could rewind, he would surely opt against playing Jota in the Champions League dead-rubber against Midtjylland. That was the evening the Portuguese striker suffered the knee injury which might keep him out for another couple of months.

Liverpool have not looked the same since.

Sadio Mane of Liverpool stands over injured Diogo Jota. - Bradley Ormesher /NMC Pool
Sadio Mane of Liverpool stands over injured Diogo Jota. - Bradley Ormesher /NMC Pool

Yet before there is too much finger-wagging at Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino - the latter of whom was most wasteful during Liverpool’s most dominant period in the first half against Manchester United - the chain reaction still began when Van Dijk’s season was curtailed in October.

To score, Liverpool must first create, and that is why the inclusion of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in defence is having a fundamental impact on what is happening 50 yards up the pitch. The duo showed they are capable emergency centre-halves. Liverpool need to recruit to free them to adopt their normal positions, not because of susceptibility to concede, but in order to restore the ability to win the ball back swiftly in the final third.

Henderson and Fabinho may not be hailed so much for their creativity, but Klopp once described his much-heralded counter-pressing as ‘the best number 10 in football’. The trio of Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho led those forward thrusts to Champions League and Premier League glory, creating the space in which the forwards thrived.

Liverpool’s rethink added creativity with Xherdan Shaqiri and the majestic Thiago Alcantara, but they are playmakers, less likely to pounce on a hesitant full-back or midfielder on the edge of their penalty.

That ability to pin opponents back, forcing mistakes, is what Liverpool are missing now. The joy of Jota was he looked like he could thrive in any system, with that Luis Suarez-esque habit of scoring goals which barely looked like chances.

Chris Bascombe's Liverpool briefing
Chris Bascombe's Liverpool briefing

Firmino, who for the last four years has led the ball hunt with the usual midfield three, is suffering most with his lack of goalscoring magnified. He, like his attacking partners, will be transformed when Fabinho and Henderson are back where they belong.

How soon will that be? That is in the hands of the recruiters and the accountants.

The more Liverpool offer reasons as to why they will not sign a centre-back in January, the more it feels like they are prepared to tolerate a year-long experiment to prove no matter how makeshift their line-up, they can still be champions.

Immediate needs are colliding with longer-term goals. Only when the centre-backs return and midfield has a more familiar balance will Liverpool’s attacking swagger return.

For all those concerns - and as much as rivals will talk about injuries being part of the fluctuating fortunes of a season - the question for those seeking to take advantage is if they do not punish Klopp’s Liverpool now, then when?

On the surface, this represented an encouraging point for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Yet Liverpool’s four year unbeaten home record in the Premier League remains intact, even if at times on Sunday it felt like that had as much to do with reputation as the quality of their performance. Offered the chance to push on, United were still hesitant. There is still a fear of what Liverpool's striker will do, even when they are doing it.

We are none the wiser as to whether United have what it takes to go the distance as we are whether Liverpool will retain their title with so many of their stars unavailable or compromised.

Whenever contenders meet there is a relentless hunt for clarity. After this dour, generally unsatisfying draw, anyone trying to predict the outcome of this title race is treading through fog.