Liverpool gave a spirited performance in their 1-1 draw with Chelsea on Tuesday. Although they narrowly avoided defeat thanks to a Simon Mignolet penalty save, they could have won the game themselves with more clinical finishing. The visitors could claim likewise, so a draw seemed a fair result.
The draw halted a wretched run of form for Liverpool that saw them exit two cup competitions and fall further behind in the title race. It was a night when the physical endeavour of the midfield emerged as the major factor for the home team, over several of their more important attackers throughout the season.
Each of those players — Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino — received just 5 out of 10 ratings on Tuesday, while Sadio Mane wasn’t on long enough to earn a mark, but understandably did little in a brief cameo.
This was a far cry from the Nov. 6 outing that saw Liverpool demolish Watford 6-1 to briefly go top of the table. All of the above names were given deserved 9 out of 10 ratings on a day when their team were unstoppable.
It would be fair to say that supporters haven’t seen such a concerted, consistent display from all four footballers in the same game since. How could they, if they have hardly appeared together in that time?
Mane was consistently effective up until the moment he left for the African Nations Cup. His absence has been the hardest thing for Jurgen Klopp to deal with, just at a time when Liverpool’s fixture list became more congested.
His return has been much desired, with little sympathy shown for Senegal in the international tournament.
Mane looked devastated when he missed the penalty that sent his country crashing out in the quarterfinals. That, plus the month’s absence from English football, could see him struggle initially to return to his previous form.
Coutinho had been out for even longer after a bad injury during the Sunderland match on Nov. 26. He has had a handful of games since his recovery, but hasn’t showed any of the delightful trickery that won him a new contract to the delight of Liverpool fans.
Firmino kept fit, but suffered a goal drought during the period that his Brazilian teammate was missing. Klopp tried to use him as a replacement for Coutinho, forcing him out of the danger areas where he’d operated so well beforehand.
It was a necessary tactic, one that gave Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge chances to establish themselves in the side. Although the former racked up an impressive number of goals in that time, Liverpool as a unit never really achieved the fluidity of the opening months of the season.
Firmino did score two well-taken goals in the 3-2 defeat against Swansea, but was back to his errant worst against Chelsea, fluffing two chances that could have given Liverpool all three points and revived their title hopes.
Lallana initially kept up his impressive form before the turn of the year, but seemed to suffer from the absence of Mane more than anybody else.
When he is pushed forward, it simply emphasizes the lack of creativity in the Reds’ midfield three in comparison to their colleagues.
In tight, pressurised matches with Manchester City, Manchester United and now Chelsea their work rate has been important, but with just three goals in those games it’s obvious Liverpool were lacking something.
The drubbing of Watford came just before an international break. That might have been disadvantageous for Liverpool since they were obviously flying and they subsequently drew the next game 0-0 with Southampton.
Even so, that match saw a number of chances for them while the Saints clung to their point. There were no goals, but something resembling a performance was evident.
Contrast that with the dismal borderline surrender in both EFL Cup matches, where Liverpool were fortunate not to concede more goals during the 1-0 defeats in both semifinal legs to the same opposition.
With an FA Cup exit as well, Liverpool now have it all to play for in the league. They gave their all against Chelsea, but it was a far cry from the team that set the league alight in autumn.
There aren’t many sides that can flourish without all of their main attacking threats firing. Klopp has a job on his hands to ensure that his “fantastic four” of Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino and Mane return to form as soon as possible. It doesn’t look like Chelsea can be caught now, but it’s extremely tight for the other three Champions League places up for grabs.
Without his most creative players, that could end up being a pipedream. Klopp has done his best to tinker with his side during various absences, but from this point forward he must use the easing of fixture congestion to his best advantage or risk another season of “what might have been.”
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.