In reality it was just a few weeks ago. But the form of Jurgen Klopp’s side since that day has been alarming and has offered up ground to their title rivals over a miserable festive period. Now Manchester United are level with them on points at the top of the table with a game in hand, and Manchester City, four points back with two games in hand, look in imperious form again, having dismissed Chelsea and United in back-to-back games.
Something that Klopp’s team has never been associated with is a lack of goal threat but Monday night’s defeat by Southampton summed up their recent woes as they huffed and puffed their way to a second defeat of the season.
Liverpool’s frustrating run of form continued when they were beaten 1-0 by Southampton, and the strain showed on Jurgen Klopp (left) and Roberto Firmino (right)
Liverpool were genuinely abysmal in the first half and, although brighter in the second, they couldn’t find a way through Southampton’s defence in search of an equaliser they probably didn’t deserve.
It comes off the back of two more frustrating draws with West Brom and Newcastle over the festive period, as well as dropped points against Fulham and Brighton.
Next up for the Reds is a trip to Aston Villa – where they were beaten 7-2 in October – in the FA Cup on Friday but one eye will surely be on the massive game with Manchester United at Anfield on January 17.
So, with that in mind, Sportsmail looks at the pressing issues causing Liverpool’s title defence to stall and how they can rectify them ahead of that mammoth showdown in less than two weeks’ time.
Missing Van Dijk in defence AND attack
Losing the best defender in world football is obviously going to cause problems.
Virgil van Dijk has been the rock of Liverpool’s back four since his arrival in January 2018, bringing the composure and quality that had been sorely missing.
His aerial ability combats threats from set pieces, something West Brom took advantage of at Anfield last month, and his pace allows the team to squeeze higher up the pitch without fear of being caught out.
The Dutchman also carries a psychological advantage when he comes up against the league’s best strikers and his leadership from the back is vital.
Virgil van Dijk’s prolonged absence with a knee injury is being felt both in defence and attack
But Van Dijk is also a key part of Liverpool’s attack and there is no doubt their build-up play has slowed without him in the team.
Last season he played more than 200 passes into the opposition’s final third, crucial to the Reds getting quick ball into Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to catch opponents off guard.
At 6ft 3in he is also an obvious weapon at set pieces and Liverpool’s record of goals from corners, which has improved under Klopp, has dropped off this season. Van Dijk has scored six goals since the start of 2019-20 and provided two assists.
So while Liverpool’s defence is feeling the effects of the Dutchman’s absence, they are also lacking his presence at the other end of the pitch too.
No creativity in midfield
There was always going to come a time, after three full seasons of the Salah-Mane-Firmino triumvirate running riot, that opponents would wise up.
Sitting deep, denying the pacey wingers space to run into and showing them outside and away from goal has proven to nullify their threat.
If you can get around Firmino when he tries to turn and stop his through balls at source as well then Liverpool look flummoxed.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side are so dangerous because if Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero or Riyad Mahrez draw a blank then they have the threat of Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva from midfield.
Liverpool need more creativity in midfield, including Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson
Thiago Alcantara’s return from injury has been a boost but he now needs to get up to speed
Manchester United can call on Bruno Fernandes to get them out of trouble when their attack misfires. Goals coming from every department is vital.
As Jamie Carragher pointed out on Monday Night Football, Liverpool’s midfield three, whoever it may be, are not in the team to score goals or provide assists.
They are workmen, there to cover every blade of grass, press opponents and recycle possession to sustain attacks and suffocate their opponents.
But Klopp now needs more from his midfield trio. Thiago Alcantara started just his second Premier League match at St Mary’s and it is hoped he can bring some added spark.
But Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Curtis Jones – plus Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita when they are fit – need to start taking more responsibility in attacking positions and offer another route to goal for the Reds.
Front three short of confidence
It seems strange to say that Salah, Mane and Firmino are missing some of their killer instinct when they have 28 goals between them in all competitions so far this season.
But something is not quite right and particularly Salah’s lack of involvement on Monday night when they were trailing for so long is cause for alarm.
The Egyptian’s role in the team has also appeared to change slightly. Whereas he would find himself out on the right, driving at defenders and cutting onto his left foot in previous seasons, Salah now seems to be the point of Liverpool’s attacks.
His influence in the the build-up play therefore appears to have suffered and Liverpool are missing his creativity and ingenuity around the box when defenders are so deep.
Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are struggling for quality in the final third
Liverpool have managed just seven shots on target in their last three matches and it took until well in the second half for one to arrive on Monday – Mane’s scuffed shot at goal rolling into Fraser Forster’s arms.
To the credit of Mane, he still looks very lively and the most likely to make something happen but Firmino and Salah’s touches are off, their decision-making in the final third is not quite right and their end product has been wasteful.
After three years of unrelenting games for the attacking trio, the burden was eased when Diogo Jota started so brightly at Anfield before his knee injury.
That has put the burden back on Salah, Mane and Firmino, with Takumi Minamino still finding opportunities hard to come by. Jota should be back by the beginning of next month, much to the relief of Klopp.
Alexander-Arnold’s alarming dip
After his explosion onto the scene in recent seasons, it was probably to be expected that Alexander-Arnold’s performances would drop off at some point.
The 22-year-old has completely redefined the right-back role, becoming more of a playmaker for the team than just a defender who gets crosses into the box.
But ever since he returned from a calf injury sustained against Manchester City in November, Alexander-Arnold has been far from his best.
It is another reason why Liverpool’s creativity has dried up because he is so integral to how they progress up the pitch and bombard the opposition penalty area with crosses.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has struggled for form since he returned from a calf injury last month
He managed 13 assists in the Premier League last season but has just two so far this campaign, while his defensive work has also suffered.
Alexander-Arnold’s error that allowed the ball to run through to Danny Ings for Southampton’s goal on Monday night was costly and he needs to improve, especially with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford coming to Anfield this month.
He was also wasteful on the ball at St Mary’s, losing possession a huge 38 times before he was subbed off by Klopp with 13 minutes left to play.
Andy Robertson, his partner in crime on the other flank, has been as good as ever and Klopp needs his right back to start firing again as quickly as possible.
Much has been made of Liverpool’s injury crisis and they are still short of personnel in certain positions.
But what has been just as damaging is that others are having to be moved from their usual role to cover for the absentees.
Jordan Henderson is so critical to how Klopp wants his midfield to play that they looked short of his energy and drive on Monday night when he played in defence.
Fabinho, who has made a remarkable transition into a top-class centre back, is so good at regaining possession in midfield and starting attacks that his absence is also being felt.
Like Van Dijk, Joe Gomez’s pace allows for the team to be more daring in attack and Joel Matip’s lack of reliability has made the defensive crisis worse.
Joe Gomez has a long-term knee injury while Diogo Jota has missed the busy festive period
It remains to be seen whether Liverpool will enter the transfer market for a centre back this month but a solution is needed because the Reds will pay the price for depleting their midfield for defensive cover.
Klopp’s best midfield of Fabinho, Henderson and Thiago have started just one game in the centre of the pitch together all season.
No Van Dijk and Gomez also restricts Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, who perhaps feel they have to caution themselves going forward with such a makeshift pairing alongside them.
Jota has also missed the crucial festive period when he was in red hot form, Alisson missed games before Christmas, Keita’s reliability is a huge issue and Oxlade-Chamberlain is working his way back to full fitness after a long lay-off.
Thiago’s return has been a boost in recent matches but Klopp will feel he is still a couple of players short of a squad that can compete on all fronts.
Who can take advantage?
At this stage of last season Liverpool were flying and had already built up a huge gap to Manchester City and their other rivals.
But in a crazy campaign, littered with bizarre results and inconsistencies, the Reds’ dip in form has come at the worst time with United, Leicester and City breathing right down their necks.
Even though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was on the brink of the sack a month ago, United are now genuine contenders and the showdown at Anfield on January 17 is probably the biggest game between the two clubs for years.
United play Burnley in their game in hand before then so could go to Anfield three points clear of Klopp’s side if they win at Turf Moor next week.
Manchester United can go top of the Premier League before they go to Anfield on January 17
With Fernandes and Rashford firing, Solskjaer’s side are mounting an unlikely challenge. Will they fall away? Who can tell in this crazy season.
Leicester have also been impressive so far. They were battered at Anfield just over a month ago but now sit one point behind Liverpool, who still have to go to the King Power Stadium.
Jose Mourinho and Tottenham, meanwhile, felt aggrieved to leave Anfield pointless last month and they can go just one point behind Liverpool if they win their game in hand.
Mourinho’s style is not easy on the eye but a tight defence combined with the goal-scoring prowess of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min gives them a chance.
Manchester City are starting to hit top form as well and still have two games in hand to play
And then there is Manchester City, who are rapidly finding their form and brushed aside Chelsea on Sunday.
Guardiola’s men have been Liverpool’s main rivals for the title over the past two seasons and once they play their two games in hand, they could go top.
It would also be foolish to rule out Chelsea, despite their dip in form, and big outsiders Aston Villa, Southampton and Everton are also thereabouts.
It promises to be the most fascinating second half of a Premier League season for years.