Liverpool are witnessing first hand the dangers of a small squad. Only 14 players made more than 20 Premier League appearances last season and the starting XI rolled off the tongue.
Yet a handful of defensive injuries have obliterated Liverpool’s chances of defending their Premier League title, while it will even be a battle just to finish in the top four at this rate.
The loss of key starters has seen Liverpool struggle, but it is a loss of confidence and concern lack of depth in other parts of the squad that has caused a proper slump to set in, the kind of which Reds fans haven’t seen since the early weeks of the 2017/18 season.
It undeniably shows that if Liverpool are to be a consistent title threat in the way that Manchester United were under Sir Alex Ferguson and the way that Manchester City are now, there has to be greater depth and long-term active future proofing already needs to be underway.
Maintaining success is all about improving the squad readily, sometimes even when it seems premature. A great team may only last for two or three years before parts have to be replaced, whether it be players moving on or suffering a downturn in form because of age or other factors.
Ferguson managed to seamlessly transitioned from his first great Manchester United team to his second from the early 1990s to the late 1990s because he was ruthless with his existing stars and had already polished the players that he wanted to replace them with. But there was a noticeable transition period of around three or four years between his second and his third.
United then hadn’t adequately planned for the next stage when Ferguson retired in 2013 and eight years later are still embroiled in a much longer transition period that remains some way off ending.
For Liverpool, the time to change and improve is now. The fact that the drop this season has been significant and noticeable shows in some ways that it is actually already a little late.
A phenomenal assist in the recent defeat to Leicester aside, Roberto Firmino is no longer the same player he was. Once the focal point that knitted together every other aspect of Liverpool’s outstanding attack, the Brazilian has stopped being so effective.
Jurgen Klopp has defended Firmino this season, but the 29-year-old is the oldest of the Liverpool front three and the first to be hit with a loss of form that is more than an isolated blip.
Diogo Jota’s injury absence since early December obviously hasn’t helped given that he was supposed to be the player who could provide the necessary relief and competition. But Liverpool cannot simply rely on hopes that the injury situation will improve and that players will regain the confidence and form that has been lost.
Klopp and the hierarchy need to quickly start thinking about replacing certain individuals and the clock is ticking before Liverpool fall too far that they have to build again from scratch.
Erling Haaland is an obvious choice to step into Firmino’s shoes and take Liverpool in a much needed fresh and new direction. The 20-year-old is already a world class ‘number nine’ and could be at the top for a decade or more. What’s more, the time to do it would be now.
But talk of Haaland and Kylian Mbappe often comes across as unfeasibly idealistic, especially because Liverpool are clearly not in a position to compete financially with the wealthy clubs.
The Reds spent vast amounts building this team over a couple of years, spending that was only funded by exceptional selling of a number of players way over their market value – including Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho and Dominic Solanke.
Haaland is available for a capped price just under £70m in 2022, yet with Manchester City and Chelsea fully prepared to go for him this summer, it would be naïve to think that he would still be sitting there waiting for Liverpool to trigger his release clause by the time it becomes active.
It goes to show how difficult it is to stay on top. Liverpool could pay big for Haaland this year, requiring big sales to raise the cash. Alternatively, they could go for untested prospects instead that will cost far less, but it is a gamble that hasn’t always paid off and will take time to come to fruition as they develop…if they even develop as expected.
There is no single right answer, and although Haaland is close, it is never just that easy.