Liverpool returned to the top of the Premier League table with a last-gasp 2-1 victory away at Fulham, but the manner of the performance left a lot to be desired once again.
Having taken the lead midway through the first-half courtesy of the in-form Sadio Mane, Liverpool failed to build upon their advantage and made tough work of what should have been a comfortable three points.
Complacency crept onto the pitch and the tempo dropped at an alarming rate allowing Fulham to build in confidence as the game progressed into the latter stages.
With the tension palpable, evidence of the Premier League title race taking its toll on Jurgen Klopp’s men resurfaced again.
James Milner had been introduced into the fold under the guidance of Klopp to calm down proceedings, yet it was the most experienced player in the Liverpool team who was to be the ultimate catalyst for handing Fulham a survival lifeline.
In a state of panic, Milner needlessly lashed at the ball and sent it waywardly spinning towards his own goal.
From that point the danger should have been averted, but even the most reliable of players in Virgil van Dijk and Alisson had been sent into a frenzy, with their untimely mishap in communcation allowing former Liverpool man Ryan Babel to tap into an empty net.
Thankfully for the Liverpool supporters in the away end, their misery lasted only a matter of minutes.
Fortuitously, Fulham suffered a moment of madness inside their own box, as Sergio Rico inexcusably dragged Mane down inside the penalty box after poorly parrying Mohamed Salah’s tame shot back into the danger area.
The Spanish goalkeeper had handed James Milner the chance to redeem himself and the former Aston Villa player graciously took it to hand the away side a vital three points.
It had been a dramatic end to affairs and Liverpool had demonstrated the dogged determination needed from title challengers.
Many have even used the age-old argument that Sunday afternoon was a representation of potential champions needing to ride their luck at critical points throughout the season.
However, with the way the game panned out against Fulham there is a consistent pattern arising in Liverpool’s play that has been significantly more noticeable in recent months.
Against a Fulham side with the most goals conceded in the league, Liverpool’s early superiority had presented a golden chance to close the current goal difference deficit to Manchester City.
With the seemingly evident chance to rack up the goals and send out an emphatic message to their title rivals, the Reds instead put in a pitiful display that was both lethargic and sluggish in equal measure.
The source of Liverpool’s problems once again could be stemmed back to the team’s lack of creativity in midfield.
Even at one-nil down when the pressure should have been increasingly ramped up, Fulham were able to sit back and absorb what little strain the away side put on them.
It was all too comfortable for the Cottagers’ and was reminiscent of the same issues that had threatened to derail Liverpool’s title challenge altogether.
After surging nine points clear at the top of the table in December, a collapse that resulted in four draws in six games saw the Reds relinquish their grip as the front-runners in the Premier League title race and handed the initiative to Manchester City.
That run included the bitterly disappointing nil-nil draws away at Manchester United and Everton in consecutive weekends.
In the stalemates at Old Trafford and Goodison Park, Liverpool were largely restricted to long balls down the channels for the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to chase or punting in hopeless crosses lacking the necessary accuracy or conviction to threaten.
The Anfield’s sides woes could be summed up with James Milner – acting as an auxiliary right-back – completing only 3 of his 17 crosses versus the Red Devils.
In both games Klopp fielded a midfield of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum; whilst that midfield set up was able to remain disciplined and restrict Manchester United and Everton in terms of chance creation, in hindsight it also hindered the balance of the team going forward.
The lack of adventurous buildup play in the middle of the park left a vast gap between the midfielders and the attackers.
With none of the midfield trio willing to carry the ball with intent and attempt to closely support the forwards, it permitted the opposition to sit deep and leave Liverpool’s usually potent front three isolated.
A conservative midfield set-up resulted in Liverpool lacking the essential inspiration and ruthlessness needed in the final third to break down a side stubborn in its protection of their goal.
Therefore, it was compelling that the inclusion of a forward-thinking midfielder into the fray in the form of Adam Lallana coincided with Liverpool returning to winning ways with a thrilling 4-2 triumph over Burnley.
The surprising return of Lallana to the starting eleven against the Clarets’ certainly raised eyebrows amongst the fanbase prior to kick-off, but by the end of the game the English midfielder was at the centre of all the acclaim.
An on-form Lallana from the start proved to be the tonic that Klopp’s side needed to kick themselves into gear and help forget the disappointment of those two back-to-back uninspiring away performances.
Whilst Lallana’s finest days at a top club may be behind him, the former Southampton man’s capacity to move the ball forward at a brisk speed helped considerably against Burnley.
Even when the away side took the lead in just the sixth minute, there was an abrupt sense that the chances would come – an impression that wasn’t evident throughout the previous fixtures.
Despite Lallana delivering a standout performance, it seems incredulous to suggest that the 31-year-old can become the long-term answer to Liverpool’s creative enigma.
Lallana was rewarded for his exploits against Burnley with another start against Fulham, yet once again the former Southampton man failed to deliver consistently and perform to the same level he had just a week previously.
Additionally, the statistics don’t reflect well on the England international who has only notched himself one goal in his last 30 competitive appearances at club level — a figure that is even more concerning when you consider that last goal occurred on the final day of the 2016-17 against Middlesbrough.
Accordingly, it is not a shock that Liverpool’s recent performances have summoned the majority of fans to address the club’s failure to replace the gaping hole left by Philippe Coutinho more than a year ago.
The Reds are desperately craving the creative brilliance and match winning moments that somebody in the mould of Coutinho offered them in abundance.
Liverpool’s bold decision to grant the current Barcelona man his dream move in the middle of the season enabled the club to prize Virgil van Dijk away from Southampton in the same window.
Whilst the Dutchman’s impact at Anfield has been nothing short of a revelation, Liverpool are considerably lacking that attacking spark in games and the Brazilian’s ability to change a game in the blink of an eye has been sorely missed.
Whether it was unleashing one of his trademark thunderous long shots or threading an eye of the needle pass, the genius of Coutinho was usually Liverpool’s get out of jail card before his departure to Catalonia.
Klopp’s desire to fund a move to fill the colossal void left by Coutinho was demonstrated by the club’s harrying pursuit of Nabil Fekir.
The Lyon captain – who bagged 18 goals and 8 assists last season – was identified by Klopp, Michael Edwards and his scouting team as possessing the perfect profile to slot into the vacated number ten role.
A deal had been agreed with Lyon’s notoriously tough negotiator Jean Michel Aulas and it was heavily rumoured that the 25-year-old had participated in the club’s traditional signing day interview.
Following the arrivals of Fabinho and Naby Keita, Fekir was set to become the final piece in Klopp’s midfield puzzle to challenge the superior financial riches of Manchester City for the Premier League title.
However, an unforeseen issue with the medical forced Fekir’s dream move to collapse, with Klopp making the decision not to seek an alternative.
The imminent return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be an added bonus to the Reds in their title pursuit and help dampen the blow of failing to land Fekir in the summer.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dynamism and explosive nature gives the Liverpool midfield a completely different dimension and was decisive in the club’s deep run in last season’s Champions League.
The 25-year-old established a telepathic relationship on the pitch with Mohamed Salah in particular during the latter stages of the campaign.
However, with Oxlade-Chamberlain likely to need time to work his way back to peak match sharpness and Keita not guaranteed to hit the ground running following his indifferent start to life on Merseyside, it seems implausible that the summer window will not curtail another hunt for an attacking midfield addition.
One name who could potentially be on Klopp’s radar is Julian Brandt.
Often overlooked in the Leverkusen team by Leon Bailey and more recently Kai Havertz, Brandt’s performances have gone predominantly under the radar since the appointment of Peter Bosz.
The Dutch coach arrived in the dugout of the BayArena with Leverkusen sitting in a lowly ninth place – seven points off the Champions League places they narrowly missed out on last season.
Nine matches later and the club are in a healthier state of affairs as one of the most in-form teams in the Bundesliga.
Surprise exits in both the DFB Pokal and Europa League have marred proceedings slightly, but Leverkusen’s domestic rise has overseen their climb to sixth in the table – just five points behind Borussia Mönchengladbach in the race for Champions League qualification.
A substantial part of that has been the tactical tweak Bosz has made.
The 55-year-old is widely renowned for his brief ill-fated time in charge of fellow Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, but the reason why the German club payed up to €5million – a Bundesliga record – can not be overlooked.
The former Vitesse coach was the mastermind behind knockout victories against Schalke and Lyon on Ajax’s way to the Europa League final during his last season in the Netherlands.
Not even the expected final loss to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United that followed could dampen the perceptions of the manner in which Bosz had assembled a young, talented side lacking experience and how he had turned them into one of Europe’s most fearless outfits.
The style of football that Bosz incorporated into his Ajax team made him an ideal fit at the Johan Cruyff Arena. The ex-Dortmund boss assimilated the traditions of the club by immersing his side in the teachings of the man the Ajax stadium is proudly named.
Expansive, attacking football built on the basis of maintaining possession has been part of Bosz’s footballing ideology since he ventured into management.
Since the Bundesliga resumed after it’s annual winter break Leverkusen have averaged 65.35% possession in matches, coinciding with Bosz being appointed.
Within Bosz’s system every single percentage of possession obtained per match is regarded as serving a purpose.
From an attacking standpoint the concept is to dictate the tempo of the game and patiently wait for gaps to appear in the opposition’s backline.
Subsequently, Bosz deploys two inventive midfielders with the technical prowess to control a game. This system is reminiscent of his Ajax side that lined up with the creative duo of Davy Klaassen and Hakim Ziyech, flanking the supporting cast of Lasse Schöne.
Whilst Kai Havertz was always going to be an accomplished fit on one side, Leverkusen’s alternative options in midfield did not fulfil what Bosz demands in that specific role.
Instead of reverting from his trusted structure, Bosz adapted and shifted Brandt from a wide position to occupate the unfilled midfield space.
This transformation has elevated Brandt’s form to a disctinct new level and has payed dividends for Leverkusen. Under former manager Heiko Herrlich, Brandt had only managed a meager 3 goals and 4 assists, but under Bosz it has been a different story.
Brandt has blossomed in his new central surroundings, bagging 4 goals and setting up 6 others in just 12 appearances.
The Bremen-born player’s upturn in form now lies him third on the Bundesliga assists chart – trailing Joshua Kimmich by one and three behind the leader Jadon Sancho.
Previously playing out on the wing, Bosz noticed that the German’s lack of pace was stagnating his progress as a talented footballer and threatening to stunt his long-term development.
Moving him into the centre of midfield alongside Havertz and Charles Aránguiz has taken advantage of his innate technical ability and substantially reduced a key glaring weakness in his game as a natural wide man.
Similar to Leverkusen, Liverpool average a high proportion of possession per game that currently stands at 58.4% on average across the entirety of this campaign.
However, the difference between the two teams is that the English side often lack the essential midfield guile required to create clear cut openings compared to their German counterparts.
The total chances created by the entirety of the Merseyside club’s six midfield options this season amounts to 82.
In comparison, Brandt has managed 60 alone in the Bundesliga and in the process created on average per ninety minutes 3.72 chances.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s greatest creative midfield threat is James Milner who currently averages 2.56 based on the same metrics.
This is where a player like Julian Brandt would be hugely beneficial for Liverpool.
The number 10 has also completed 2.6 key passes on average per game domestically in 1452 minutes this season, compared to Adam Lallana who has only mustered 0.7 key passes on average per game.
Moreover, this statistic is even more impressive when it is examined that Lallana has only played 248 minutes of Premier League football this season.
Whilst Lallana isn’t the best yardstick to compare the potential heir to Coutinho with, Brandt has also outperformed summer target Fekir.
The French World Cup winner has failed to hit his meteoric heights of last season and has subsequently only forged 28 chances created – less than double Brandt’s total – and also falls short in the key passes completed per game (1.6) metric.
Not being afraid to run from deep with the ball to break down resolute defences is another strength of the German international and he has a take on success rate of 1.86 per 90 minutes this season – higher than any other Liverpool midfielder.
Brandt’s adaptability in being able to play as part of a midfield three makes him a suitable candidate to potentially carry Liverpool’s creative burden.
The German’s tendency to play on the front foot and look for advancing options would give the likes of Salah and Mane the license to run in behind instead of having to drop deep and act as the main creative outlets in the team.
Likewise, Roberto Firmino will be permitted to play closer to the two inside forwards and produce the sort of mesmeric performances the Kop were use to seeing from the Brazilian on a consistent basis.
Brandt’s versatility is another plus point to acquiring the Leverkusen man.
Klopp is a huge advocate for his attacking players being able to operate in multiple positions across the front-line and that is exactly what Brandt offers.
Liverpool have tended to opt for either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 shape this season and Brandt could comfortably fit into either system.
Whether it is part of a midfield three or directly behind the striker, Brandt could do an efficient job in either role making him an ideal fit for Klopp’s Liverpool.
Naturally a winger, Brandt would also be a suitable deputy for the mercurial Sadio Mane if the Senegalese wide man needed a rest or was absent through injury.
Finally, adapting to Bosz’s high-pressing system has been a key component to Brandt excelling in his new role.
The Dutchman’s philosophy is designed to press high and win the ball back urgently when possession has been turned over.
This is similiar to Klopp’s infamous gegenpressing and Brandt has bought into this methodology by dispossessing opponents 1.68 times on average per game.
Gini Wijnaldum (1.57) and Naby Keita (1.25) are the closest Liverpool midfielder’s to that number, but Jordan Henderson (0.15) and James Milner (0.58) both sit well below that marker.
Conclusively, Brandt statistically and stylistically has materialised as a standout option to potentially fill a role that recently has become more and more an area of concern.
The withdrawal symptoms from the exit of Coutinho are finally starting to appear and for the rumoured £24million buy-out fee a deal for Brandt seems the type of bargain that Jurgen Klopp surely couldn’t turn down.