EPL 2016/17: How Jurgen Klopp's aversion to the winter transfer window cost Liverpool this season
Reflecting on the past two months of action, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it had been a two-horse race throughout the entirety of the current Premier League campaign. Tottenham Hotspur have appeared the only real challengers to Chelsea’s indisputable stranglehold on top spot, but there were a host of other clubs heavily involved in the earlier stages of the season; some of whom have fallen away completely since Christmas.
Amongst such sides were Liverpool who, at the beginning of the year on game week 20, sat second with 44 points, just five behind leaders Chelsea. Jürgen Klopp had marshalled the Reds with unprecedented efficiency, with the club having lost just two games in the first half of the season.
At present though, it’s a completely different story. With one game left to play, Liverpool now sit fourth, having lost four more games since and preparing to battle Arsenal to keep the fourth spot on the final day.
Pundits chant monotonously year-after-year that ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’ and reinvesting in the January transfer window can often prove to be the difference, supplying clubs with the depth they need to see out such an arduous nine months.
Much like the man he’ll be battling for the fourth spot on the final day, Arsene Wenger, Klopp is reluctant to spend during the season’s half-way point and this persistence has played a key role in Liverpool’s eventual demise.
Whilst the Merseyside outfit loaned out Lazar Markovic and Mamadou Sakho to Hull City and Crystal Palace respectively in January, it proved to be their only notable dealings, along with the sale of Tiago Ilori. Liverpool were one of just two sides (the other being Tottenham) who brought no players in of any description in January and it’s this lack of winter investment which ultimately cost them a shot at a first title since 1990. Unlike their North London counterparts, Liverpool needed reinforcements, most notably to bolster squad depth.
Across this term as a whole, Liverpool have conceded 42 goals, with Arsenal the only side in the top seven to have let in more. The Reds have alternated between three rather mediocre centre-halves on paper; Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, all of whom have proven to be error-prone defenders on occasion.
Prior to the mid-season collapse, all three defenders had put in surprisingly decent shifts, with the much-criticized Klavan even contributing an average of six defensive actions per game and looking fairly reliable in the short-term absence of Matip through injury.
That said, a top-class defensive acquisition to cover the loss of Sakho and any further potential absentees was sorely needed by a side who are very top-heavy. Liverpool have developed a well-recognised adoration of signing Southampton players and Virgil Van Dijk was one of their prime targets in January but a deal never came to fruition. The former-Celtic defender performed especially well in the latter part of the season, with only Nathan Redmond (751) bettering his overall performance score (701) on ‘Squawka’ to date.
Whilst, at the back, things have looked shaky, Liverpool have created more chances going forward than any other Premier League outfit this term with 478. They have converted those chances into an impressive 75 league goals but the most optimistic Liverpool fan will tell you that figure could have been a lot higher, given that they’d already scored 48 times in the division by the start of January, rendering them the league’s leading scorers at the time.
Throughout this campaign, most of the top clubs have had big, key forwards who have found the net on 20+ occasions, including Kane at Tottenham, Sanchez at Arsenal and Aguero at City. Liverpool’s goal return on the other hand, although not disappointing, has been sporadic and widely-spread, with Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané sharing the bulk of the goals. Had the club invested in a reliable, out-and-out striker to replace Daniel Sturridge, they could have won the title merely based on a superior goal return.
It’s easy on one level to comprehend why the club shied away from signing big name players in January, as it’s often a time of financial ambiguity and negotiations are undoubtedly made harder when a side are looking to counter balance injuries by retaining as many names as possible.
That said, a side with Liverpool’s status and prestige would have been more than capable of signing players to improve squad depth and failure to add any names proved, frankly, idiotic.
James Milner provides a prime example. A competent player who has demonstrated great versatility to cover full-back positions this term and well at that, but who has had little competition in these positions. Merely adding some backbone to the individual brilliance Liverpool are blessed with would have made a bigger difference than many might think.