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Soccer

Liverpool Is Broken

Mohamed Salah of Liverpool looks dejected after Piotr Zielinski (not pictured) of SSC Napoli scores their team's fourth goal during the UEFA Champions League group A match between SSC Napoli and Liverpool FC at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on September 07, 2022 in Naples, Italy.
Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Liverpool’s 2022–23 Premier League season started poorly. Through six games, the Pool Boys have three draws—including a 0–0 against cross-town rivals Everton—and one loss, to the previously despondent Manchester United. The team also needed an excessive amount of stoppage time to beat Newcastle 2–1 at home. The only purely bright spot was a 9–0 walloping of newly promoted Bournemouth, in a game that felt at the time like a reset but now feels like a blip.

At the very least, Liverpool could find comfort from its clean slate in the Champions League. Though their Premier League title hopes might already have taken a major hit, given how thin the margins are when Manchester City is roaming around, the Reds could simply focus on finishing in a respectable domestic position while putting most of its attention on the glamor competition.

The Champions League group stage started with Liverpool traveling to Napoli on Wednesday, a difficult fixture but one that the English side could win if it shook off its early season doldrums. Let’s see what happened:

Hm.

Oh no.

OK, what the hell?

Yikes.

After just 47 minutes, Napoli had put four goals past a dejected Liverpool. Frankly, Napoli should have scored more. Liverpool goalie Alisson got caught out on an early through ball to Victor Osimhen, only for the Nigerian to blast it wide. Just a few minutes later, Napoli earned another penalty, and Osimhen again failed to score. It was a nightmare scoreline that actually undersold the nightmarish performance.

What went wrong exactly for Liverpool? In a sense, the same things that have gone wrong all season long. Let’s start with the defense, as one must when the team in question surrenders four goals in 47 minutes. Thanks to a long-term injury to Ibrahima Konaté and a shorter-term injury to Joël Matip, Joe Gomez was called in as Virgil van Dijk’s center back partner. If you watched the succession of goals above already, you know that things did not go well. Gomez was directly at fault for Napoli’s second and third goals, allowing André-Frank Zambo Anguissa to run all over him for the former and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia to steamroll him for the latter. Matip came in at halftime, but he was clearly not fully fit, and also the game was basically wrapped anyway.

The other issue is one that has popped up more and more this season: Trent Alexander-Arnold is a passenger in defense right now. The 23-year-old is still one of Liverpool’s best players on offense, but with Gomez next to him instead of the steadier Matip or Konaté, his defensive shortcomings are even more evident. Before Gomez got victimized for Napoli’s third, Alexander-Arnold just let Kvaratskhelia run right by him, putting more pressure on his center back. With No. 66 on the right, Liverpool knows what it will get from him on defense—not a lot—and it hurt the club on Wednesday.

Further up the field, the midfield depth issues that have plagued Liverpool all season made themselves known once more. James Milner is a beloved Liverpool veteran, but he is also approximately 73 years old and no longer the kind of player that a club of Liverpool’s status should have to rely on. He started on Wednesday and promptly gave up the first penalty on a handball, and then picked up a yellow card in the 10th minute. He was subbed off in the 63rd minute for Thiago, who just came back from injury himself.

Perhaps Liverpool’s most concerning issue, though, is the attack. Luis Díaz is excused from most of the criticism, as he has been Liverpool’s best forward this season, and probably its best player period. On Wednesday, he scored a consolation banger in the 49th minute, curling the ball past Napoli goalie Alex Meret.

Díaz also had a rocket header off an Alexander-Arnold cross that unfortunately for him went straight at Meret. If there is one Liverpool player who can hold his head up high right now, it’s the Colombian.

On the other side of the attack, Mohamed Salah has been bad. Not “bad by Salah standards,” but just bad. With the departure of Sadio Mané this summer, the offense has had to go through Salah at all times, and the Egyptian hasn’t delivered. He isn’t finding as much space on the wing as he has in seasons past, nor has his shot delivered as usual. Remember that 9–0 victory over Bournemouth? Somehow, Liverpool did that with Salah contributing zero goals and zero assists.

For the season, Salah has two goals and two assists—solid stats that mask subpar performances. His only good game came against Newcastle. If that type of slump continues, Liverpool will continue to struggle, even if its defense and depth problems are magically solved in the near future. It would also help if new signing Darwin Núñez settled in quicker than he has, though his shot counts are healthy; he’s averaging 7.71 shots per 90 minutes in the Premier League, numbers that should eventually lead to goals.

There are other issues at play, too. Van Dijk hasn’t been his world-beating, goal-saving self so far, and injuries to Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino have put more pressure on Salah than the club likely expected. Still, though, this feels less like a poor stretch of form and more like an indicator of the end of one era and the start of another, more uncertain one.

This is not to say that Liverpool is done as a top club, or that Jürgen Klopp has lost his touch. It’s more that Liverpool was one thing for so long, and at such a high level, and there’s bound to be a period of adjustment as the players behind that previous era age and get replaced. There’s not really much the club can do to reinvent itself right now, either. The problems will be addressed in due time, whether it’s by the new players becoming better integrated or the old mainstays getting healthy again.

Perhaps some of this rockiness could’ve been avoided if Thiago had stayed healthy, or if Gomez didn’t have to play so many important minutes. Or, perhaps, Liverpool is just a very good team who no longer can say that it is at the pinnacle of European soccer. Napoli didn’t need to expose that to the world in the way that it did on Wednesday; Liverpool has made it clear all on its own this season.

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