Liverpool's poor finishing is hurting Jurgen Klopp's depleted side
Under normal circumstances winning the first leg of a semifinal away from home would result in nothing less than euphoria. These are anything but normal circumstances. Liverpool beat Stoke City 1-0 on Tuesday in the first leg of their Capital One Cup clash but lost more players due to hamstring trouble. Philippe Coutinho and Dejan Lovren were added to the club's immense injury list while Kolo Toure also limped off the field at the end of an absorbing night.
Reds manager Jurgen Klopp now looks prepared to enter a January transfer window he seemed to have little appetite for previously, and small wonder. When Liverpool and Stoke resume battle in three weeks' time at Anfield for the second leg, who will actually make it into the Reds' starting XI?
For some this run of injuries was predictable, and in fact was predicted by Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen. It's hard to deny there is a crisis at Anfield this season, but others prefer to focus on the fact that Klopp's renowned love of the pressing game didn't fare so badly at Borussia Dortmund. Liverpool fans would be ecstatic if Klopp achieved for them half of what he did in Germany.
There was also evidence of Liverpool frailty before Klopp arrived. The injury-plagued Daniel Sturridge everybody knows about, but the normally energetic Jordan Henderson broke down in August and has struggled to regain fitness since.
Joe Gomez and Danni Ings also suffered season-long injuries before their new boss had unpacked his bags. When a new manager demands more from his players without having hand-picked them or gone through a preseason fitness schedule with them, difficulties are bound to arise. However prescient some experts may appear, even they could not have predicted this level of upheaval.
It's a shame, because for large stretches of Tuesday's match Liverpool played well. There was irony in Stoke being regarded as the team that could take flight and play really exciting football while Liverpool set out to stifle them at every turn. It was almost a complete turnaround from how fans expected these matches to go in recent seasons, but if anything the Reds played all the football in a one-sided first half. The only thing missing was more goals, and that has been another story -- along with injuries -- that's become boring in the telling all season long.
Even Jordon Ibe's successful effort was a result of Joe Allen's skewed shot and Ibe's initially poor control. Roberto Firmino had a great game but failed to score when it looked like he couldn't fail to do so. His one-on-one with goalkeeper Jack Butland was another example of how Liverpool players are fearful in front of goal lately. Christian Benteke's winners against Leicester and Sunderland were welcomed but those games also featured far easier chances that he squandered.
Liverpool are making it harder for themselves, not just in securing bigger leads but by needing more effort to stifle the opposition when they inevitably hit back, as Stoke did on Tuesday. In the games this season where the Reds built up big leads there were moments when they could fall back and at least try to take the sting out of the match. They led 3-1 at half-time against Manchester City and Southampton this season, and although you can never rest against a side of City's quality the weaker teams become disillusioned when they feel the game is already lost.
Liverpool's inability to finish teams off whenever they've played reasonably well has been evident for over 18 months and that -- along with any fitness deficiencies -- will not be cured by a wave of Klopp's magic wand. His facial expression when a hobbling Toure started to struggle with minutes to go against Stoke spoke a thousand words. With four months and hopefully lots more cup games to negotiate, the manager's problems are mounting and despite this excellent chance to reach a Wembley final they may become worse still.
Does he need to ask less of his players? Could they retain possession a little better, thus negating the need to chase and harry the opposition so much? It's possible his beloved gegenpressing was necessary in his homeland because the technical standard of players is better there and one mistake would be swiftly punished.
A the Britannia Stadium this week, Stoke certainly fought harder in the second half but they carved out few opportunities and if anything were more wasteful in possession than in the first 45 minutes. A lot of that had to do with the huge Liverpool effort to put them off of course, but it came at a price. If he were to ask the players he still has left to take their foot off the gas against lesser sides, he runs the risk of embarrassments like the defeats against Newcastle and Watford. It's an amazingly tough needle to thread and in this division seems to be getting tougher.
Part of Liverpool's problem is their lack of real quality. In the short term Klopp arguably knows his men can't beat the likes of Manchester City or even the current Stoke side without a gargantuan effort all round. That kind of effort will be more noticeable this coming FA Cup weekend against Exeter City, where many so-called lesser sides will be battling to knock over the big teams knowing that if given time and space they can destroy you.
And so Liverpool's erratic season continues. They defied the odds against Stoke, as they've done in virtually all their big away wins this season. Fans have been arguing for two seasons about the players' quality but now a different discussion has arisen; how they are being used and how much effort they are putting in. Few supporters would have expected to be discussing if they are working too hard!
Klopp was bound to demand more than Rodgers, perhaps demand more than any other manager in the game, but the precision necessary to get exactly what he wants from these players with such a hectic schedule was always bound to result in mistakes. It is to be hoped that the lessons learned from this disarray are helpful in the long run.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.