LOOKING BACK AT JANUARY AND THE DREADED AFCON PERIOD
Liverpool have successfully navigated a tricky January in a period where they lost three key players to the African Cup of Nations (AFCON). We take a look back at just how well the Reds managed their way around the January fixture list.
Jürgen Klopp’s side came into 2022 off the back of a demoralising defeat away to Leicester City. As is the case in recent times, a single defeat is a full blown crisis for some, with several questions raised in the wake of the loss at the King Power.
It didn’t help either that the first game of the new year was a crucial trip to Stamford Bridge to take on fellow struggling title contenders Chelsea. A victory was a must if we were to keep pace with the relentless Manchester City. Covid hit the team hard in the days leading up to the clash however.
Alisson Becker, Joel Matip, Roberto Firmino and manager Jürgen Klopp all went into isolation and were ruled out of the game as a result. With Andy Robertson missing out due to suspension and Thiago out injured, Liverpool were basically without the spine of the team.
What followed at Stamford Bridge was a performance full of a mixture of brilliance and flaws. With Mané and Salah in the side, there’s always a chance, and those two gave us an early 2-0 lead against Chelsea. The lack of a spine bit us hard however, especially the absence of Thiago.
The midfield on the day was completely outclassed by Kanté and Kovacic as Chelsea staged a spirited comeback to pull level before halftime. 2-2 was a fair result in the end, with neither side good enough to nick the much needed win.
That stalemate meant we were 11 points behind City who had at the time won each of their previous 11 league games. It didn’t help that Naby Keita, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah departed soon after for the AFCON. The mood around the club wasn’t one of optimism.
A week later, Shrewsbury visited Anfield for the FA Cup 3rd Round in the midst of a controversial Covid storm. The Shrews took a shock lead against a Liverpool side made up of mixture of senior players and youngsters. Kaide Gordon responded with his first ever goal for the club at senior level.
The comeback was duly completed with Fabinho notching his first brace for the club. It was hard work beating the League One side to be honest, with the Reds not making much of their dominance in possession until late in the game, and looking particularly susceptible to the counter attack. It was slightly concerning.
That concern descended into full blown pessimism when Arsenal came to Anfield for the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi final days later. A frustrating goalless draw (against ten men for the most part) sparked talks of squad depth amidst criticism of the owners for a lack of investment.
Paul Merson: “Take 2 players out of Manchester City, no problem. Take 2 players out of Chelsea, no problem – take Mane and Salah out of Liverpool – it changes everything.”
There was also criticism for the manager for not changing his system in the absence of his two star wingers, and for not changing shape/personnel in response to the sending off. Skipper Jordan Henderson also got it in the neck for a lack of creativity from midfield.
It was overlooked somewhat how badly Trent in particular suffered on what was his return from Covid. Trent was only going to get better after that, and with the return of Curtis Jones the previous week, the midfield was about to get an upgrade.
Against Brentford three days later, Jürgen Klopp made some subtle changes to his side. He chose Curtis Jones ahead of James Milner in midfield and preferred Oxlade-Chamberlain in attack ahead of Minamino. Ox offered pace and penetration on the right wing, allowing Jota to play from his preferred side.
Those minor tweaks plus the fullbacks returning to form, saw Brentford despatched with minimum fuss. The resounding 3-0 victory saw Fabinho open the scoring, Ox also on the scoresheet, both full backs providing assists and Curtis Jones impressing in midfield.
With Chelsea losing to City, the Reds climbed second. A corner had been turned. Confidence had been restored and a winning formula had been stumbled upon. The manager maintained the same midfield trio for the rest of the month, keeping Jota on the left wing too, with Ox on the right.
It left Minamino out of the lineup in the absence of Mané, Salah and Origi. What that says about his long term Liverpool future remains to be seen. The final nail in the coffin of his Liverpool career seemed to come at the Emirates stadium for the second leg of the semi final.
With Oxlade-Chamberlain out with an ankle complaint, young Kaide Gordon was preferred on the right wing. That was possibly the best team performance of the month, with Liverpool exhibiting control and quality to knock Arsenal out infront of their own fans.
Trent returned to form with a brace of assists for Diogo Jota. Performances across the pitch were top class as Liverpool sealed their place in the final without the help of Mané, Salah or Keita. The midfield looked a far cry from the version we saw at Stamford Bridge or even in the first leg against Arsenal.
Liverpool won every single game Curtis Jones started this month (4/4), drawing the two games he wasn’t in the starting XI.
Two days after sealing a League Cup final showdown against Chelsea, Manchester City were held to a 1-1 draw at Southampton. Liverpool travelled to Crystal Palace the following day and did what was required; win. An excellent start saw the 2020 champions go 2-0 up.
Palace rallied second half but a late Fabinho penalty halted any thoughts of a comeback. Cutting the gap to City down to 9 points (with a game in hand) and sealing a first League Cup final since 2016, all without the AFCON trio is an excellent month by all standards.
Stats for January:
Van Dijk, Fabinho – 6
Fabinho – 4
Jota, Oxlade-Chamberlain – 2
Alexander-Arnold – 4
Robertson – 3
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