Graeme Souness says Liverpool’s slump in form is merely a blip and predicts Jurgen Klopp’s side will return to winning ways against Everton on Saturday.
Liverpool appeared to be back on track with 3-1 wins at Tottenham and West Ham but have since suffered three successive defeats, leaving the Reds in sixth spot – some 16 points adrift from league-leaders Manchester City.
Klopp ceded a title challenge after the 3-1 defeat to Leicester and appeared to turn his attention to a top-four finish, a race which appears to involve nine or more teams – with Everton only three points behind in seventh and having a game in hand.
“If I’m on the touchline watching that Liverpool team play, I’m delighted with the play,” said Souness. “I’m not panicking as a Liverpool fan, all that daft talk out there is just that: daft talk. This is still a group of players capable of winning trophies.
“I am like most Liverpool supporters – I think the football has been good enough to win games, with a few lapses of concentration in games.
“I liken it to how Liverpool were before they got [Virgil] van Dijk and Alisson. They were a team who caught your eye, good to watch, won games, threatened to be the best, then they sign Van Dijk and Alisson and all of a sudden they were the best.
“Van Dijk is obviously out, and Alisson has hit a difficult patch. But like all good players, that is temporary, he will come out of that, and he’ll be fine going forward, as will Liverpool.
“I was watching the game on Saturday against Leicester, and I was thinking how well they were playing, and it is only a matter of time before it’s 2-0 or 3-0. The doorbell rang, I went and answered it, I came back five or six minutes later and it was 3-1! It was a real double take at the television.
I was thinking how well they were playing, and it is only a matter of time before it’s 2-0 or 3-0. The doorbell rang, I went and answered it, I came back five or six minutes later and it was 3-1!
“I thought that Liverpool were easily the best team, and should have won that game easily. But football is a strange thing.
“There were lapses of concentration, a bit of confusion with the new centre-half, but I come back to it: these things happen. I’ve been there. I see this as temporary.
“You can never underestimate what confidence does to players. There will be individuals in that group that will need to feel much loved, and that everything is rosy in the garden.
“They’ve got some leaders, and they are the players who need to stand up on a daily basis, to make sure everybody is at it in training, and on matchdays, whether it’s an arm around the shoulder or a pointed finger. I think they will be fine going forward. I think they will be fine against Everton.”
Van Dijk is the missing glue
Souness believes the absence of Van Dijk has played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s dip but also points blame at a drop in intensity in midfield – comparing the blow to a surprise knockout, from which the team can prove their true resilience.
“If you could go back to the start of the season and ask Jurgen Klopp or Liverpool fans: who is the one player you don’t want to miss the season through injury? I’d have gone for Van Dijk.
“He’s the glue that holds them all together. If that had happened to Mane, you’re thinking Salah, Firmino and a couple of goals from midfield, you could get around it better than losing your main man at the back.
“He looks like someone who plays in his armchair, which is always a great sign for a player. I said to him the night they got presented with the league trophy against Chelsea: ‘Do you ever get a sweat on?’ And he smiled. I think that is a mark of how good he is. He never seems to be under pressure.
“Like in any job, if you appear to make it look easy, that means you’re quite exceptional, and he is. They miss him enormously, no doubt about it.
“But that’s not the only problem; the lack of intensity in midfield has been a big issue, but there’s still a long, long part of the season to go. They’ve still got the Champions League, and you can’t write them off anything. They are a team that have proven they can bounce back.
“Okay, this is a punch on the nose. It’s like a boxer being put on his backside for the first time. You get up, wipe your face and get on with it. Deal with it, and let’s see what you’re made of now.”
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Kabak finding his feet
Liverpool looked to address their crippling injury-struck defence by signing Schalke centre-back Ozan Kabak on loan last month but the Turkey international faced a harsh league debut in the defeat at Leicester before helping his side keep a clean sheet in the 2-0 win over RB Leipzig in the Champions League.
“He’s a good player. He’s finding his feet in our football. On first impressions, I think he’ll be fine. We’re quick to judge people in our football; he’s a young man, and finding out about the players he’s training with every day.
“It’s a totally different environment. But he will be welcomed at that football club, in the city, and I think he looks like someone who can be an asset going forward for Liverpool.
“I’m not sure if Klopp is totally set on a partner for Van Dijk going forward, and he might be the one.
Liverpool have fielded 17 different centre-back partnerships this season
“I always believe your back four and goalkeeper is a unit within your XI. That understanding develops with playing week in, week out with each other. I see that as a vital part of the team, to have that understanding.
“The two full-backs and goalkeeper know all about Van Dijk, [Joe] Gomez and [Joel] Matip, and that’s paramount.”
Badge kissers grab headlines, grafters win games
Liverpool’s midfield has been fluid this season, with Fabinho and Jordan Henderson dropping into centre-back roles to cover the defensive injury crisis, while summer signing Thiago and academy prospect Curtis Jones have been drafted into the side alongside the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner.
“I’m a big fan of this midfield,” added Souness. “They’re not silky, they’re not Kevin De Bruyne, they’re not David Silva types. They’re not cute and clever players. They are real grinders. I would not enjoy playing against them, because they never give you any time on the ball, they’re putting you under pressure. That means your head is down, when you want to get your head up and pick passes.
“I think they’ve been undervalued in many ways – it’s the badge-kissers waving to the crowd after scoring that get all the headlines. But whichever three players are playing in there, they are an integral part of that team.
“I think that’s what we’re missing this year, I don’t think that intensity has been there, and that’s what is causing them to slip off.
“You’re only talking fine margins. If you’re just one or two per cent off the pace, for whatever reason, it’s a difference between winning games and not winning games. Fabinho has been missed in there; he’s powerful, he’s strong, and he drives them on.”
“I am personally a fan of Thiago, and it’s only a matter of time before people are raving about him. He’s a technician. It’s just about getting the mix right; he doesn’t have the drive of say Wijnaldum or Henderson, but he is a fabulous little player.
“I don’t see him being a liability, I think that’s a bit extreme. There’s no doubt about it, he doesn’t have that high energy of pressing the ball, but you’ve got two either side of you who can do that. Whatever Liverpool miss out on in that defensive sense, he’ll give you going forward.
“He’s a technician, and I think Liverpool have needed that type of player. Whether he starts every week, or you bring him on and keep him fresh by not starting him every week, that might be a thing going forward. But I would not use the words liability and Thiago in the same sentence, definitely not.“
Onwards and upwards for Everton
Souness also believes Everton have improved significantly under Carlo Ancelotti and believes the future is bright for Evertonians.
“I look at Everton on Wednesday under Ancelotti, they are extremely well organised, have a never-say-side attitude, but they don’t have the quality of players Liverpool have, and if Liverpool are anywhere near the top of their game, they win the game.
“It’s as simple as that, because ultimately it comes down to the players on the field. It’s not your tactics, or what the manager says to them. If you’ve got the best players on the pitch, as a manager you can enjoy it most days.
“I think under Ancelotti Everton are an improving team, no doubt about it. And I’m sure they will strengthen again in the summer. Ancelotti knows his way around football, he’s done it everywhere he’s been. I can only see it being onwards and upwards for Everton.
“I see a team who does all the basics right. I see a group of players who are learning from their manager about what you have to do to be successful. Whether they will all be there at the end of the day, who knows? Because Carlo, like any manager, will want to improve his group. I’m sure he’s made his mind up on where he needs to strengthen come the end of the season. I’m sure, with the owners they have, they will want to help him do that.
“It’s definitely an improving Everton. Everton are a fabulous football club; it would be nice to see them in the top four, with Liverpool winning the league, and maybe one day they meet each other in the Champions League. I think that’s how it could end up, with the manager they have. If they support him properly, and Carlo hangs around long enough, that could easily happen.
Merseyside derby prediction
So, how does Souness foresee the blockbuster derby to play out on Saturday?
“At the weekend, this is about a Liverpool team who will be angry but will have their confidence back. They put in a really solid performance in Hungary in midweek, and won the game quite comfortably. I think they’ll have a tougher game against Everton than they did in midweek.
“Klopp will be going into this game confident. Liverpool have a great group of players; they’ve won the Premier League, the European Cup, and he knows the quality they’ve got. He’ll be looking forward to this game. When you’re winning most weeks, it’s a great feeling, so he’s been tested. As a football man, not just a Liverpool supporter, I am looking at this Liverpool team and thinking: ‘There isn’t a lot wrong with that.’
“I think every manager in this league, bar Pep Guardiola, would want to manage this Liverpool team. It’s a hiccup for them, that’s how I see it. I think Liverpool will win, 2-1 or 3-1.”