Liverpool’s 2-2 draw against Chelsea on Sunday helped identify a major problem for Jurgen Klopp as Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah jet off to the Africa Cup of Nations
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita are all off to the tournament in Cameroon and are likely to miss between five and eight Liverpool matches over the next month.
This is an obvious problem. Salah is Liverpool’s top scorer and talisman. Mane is his partner in crime on the opposing flank. It was unsurprising that both scored in their final game before leaving, against Chelsea on Sunday.
At his best, Keita is a dynamic box-to-box midfielder – a category of player of which the Reds are lacking.
All three will be big misses to Jurgen Klopp, who will have to rely on Diogo Jota and – once he returns from Covid isolation – Roberto Firmino to step up in front of goal.
Liverpool are unlikely to bolster their ranks in the January transfer window to cover for their absentees.
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They will have to rely on the players they already have to muddle through until early February, when they can expect the missing trio to return.
Strangely, though, their weakened attack might not just be the biggest head-scratcher for Klopp at the moment, with goals generally in abundant supply.
The German will have spent months considering how to adapt during AFCON, but sitting at home watching the frenetic, chaotic and dramatic 2-2 draw at Chelsea, another issue reared its head.
Klopp selected an experienced trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Fabinho to play in midfield at Stamford Bridge.
In theory at least, they had the numerical advantage, up against Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante in Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 formation. Yet, as the game wore on, it became obvious that it was the Chelsea duo who were getting the better of their opponents.
With the ball Liverpool were sloppy and wasteful, were rushed into making mistakes and struggled to settle into their normal rhythm.
HAVE YOUR SAY! How will Liverpool get on without Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah? Comment below.
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Off the ball the problems continued, with Kovacic and Kante dictating play, finding gaps and dragging players out of position.
Chelsea’s first goal came from a freakish and awkward but equally stunning volley from Kovacic. The second showed the Blues’ midfield dominance.
Salah was beaten to the ball by Rudiger, Kante dragged Ibrahima Konate out of position and Christian Pulisic got away from Henderson to finish, with Virgil van Dijk nowhere to be seen on the cover.
It was this pattern of play which prompted Jamie Carragher to hit the nail on the head in his analysis of Klopp’s customary high defensive line.
“It does feel at times this season where Liverpool are really on the edge of it being too much,” Carragher said on Sky Sports.
“Now, whether that’s because the midfield this season are not getting enough pressure on the ball, because I think midfield has been a problem for Liverpool this season.
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“The line is still the same but they’re not getting that pressure in midfield on the ball. But if you’re not getting that pressure you’ve got to drop at times.
“It’s not, ‘we can’t play high,’ but there are certain situations where Liverpool’s back four have to go back five yards. It happened [in the 3-2 defeat] at West Ham and cost them the game there.”
Over the next month, Liverpool will be short of key personnel up front. In midfield they have greater numbers, but their problem is arguably more acute. It is fundamental, not individual.
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Henderson and Milner have been exceptional for Liverpool for some time. But after a gruelling and difficult festive period they were off the pace at Stamford Bridge.
The problem was identified by Pep Lijnders, who brought on Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones.
Liverpool did not concede any further goals, yet the feeling of their vulnerability could not be shaken.
Klopp will need to use those games to find the best combination to solve Liverpool’s midfield malaise.