Liverpool's problems ahead of Atletico clash

Virgil van Dijk is out of form, Jordan Henderson’s absence is being felt and the famous front three are not offering enough… the problems Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp need to fix ahead of their most important game of the season against Atletico Madrid

  • Liverpool have lost their last two games — with defeats at Watford and Chelsea
  • They face Bournemouth at weekend but biggest issue is Atletico Madrid clash
  • Jurgen Klopp has a number of issues to address ahead of that encounter
  • Sportsmail has taken a look at the problems he needs to solve before Wednesday

The invincible season is off the table. The Treble is no longer possible. They will almost certainly win the Premier League but Liverpool’s slate of potential achievements has been chopped down.

After the losses against Chelsea and Watford, the most important game of their season is now undoubtedly the clash with Atletico Madrid next Wednesday. While they face Bournemouth first, retaining the trophy really would put the icing on the cake of winning the Premier League.

They are a goal behind following the 1-0 defeat in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano and there is plenty of optimism to be had from the fact the Spanish side have to go to Anfield for the return game.

Liverpool suffered a second defeat on the spin as they were beaten by Chelsea on Tuesday

Jurgen Klopp has a number of problems to solve ahead of their game against Atletico Madrid

But Liverpool do have problems to address. They are undoubtedly a brilliant side and once this patch of three losses in four is over, they will be reflected upon positively.

In both of their defeats in the last five days, though, they have deserved to lose on the balance of play. There are things for Jurgen Klopp to address ahead of the clash with Atletico.

Sportsmail has taken a look at the problems he needs to fix if Liverpool want to advance to the quarter-final stage of the Champions League. 

Virgil van Dijk’s struggles and how it is impacting the whole defence 

The rock that Liverpool’s season has been built on is their excellent defence. The back four rolls off the tongue, and they have Alisson behind them — a man who is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.

Even after a three-goal loss at the weekend, they have conceded five less than any other team in the Premier League and there have long been calls for Virgil van Dijk to be in the mix for end of season awards.

But the Dutch defender has not been good over the last two games. After the Watford defeat, former Liverpool player Stephen Warnock suggested the absence of Joe Gomez was the issue. He said: ‘I’ve said for a long, long time now that Joe Gomez makes Van Dijk such a better player.

‘Van Dijk has that opportunity to go tight to players because he knows Gomez has that pace in behind.

Virgil van Dijk has been out of form over the last two matches and been an issue in defence

‘Gomez can give you two or three yards – he will still catch you. So he [Van Dijk] knows that he can go tight himself.

‘I just think the way Gomez plays as well suits Van Dijk. Partnerships are not always the ones that you think will work as well as they do. They complement each other so well.’

Gomez returned on Tuesday night and, it must be said, Van Dijk looked no better. His passing was completely off, which limited the team going forward, and he was weak with his aerial duels.

A good example is his role in the build-up to Ross Barkley’s solo goal. Van Dijk challenged for a header past the halfway line and ended up flicking it into Barkley’s path.  

Van Dijk’s challenge for a header past the halfway line was crucial to Ross Barkley’s goal

The Dutch defender reached the ball first but only managed to knock it into Barkley’s path

Liverpool’s defence did not recover quickly enough and Barkley struck the ball into the net

It put Liverpool in a difficult position defensively and meant Barkley could get the shot away that led to Chelsea’s second. Against Watford he was similarly guilty of letting players in behind, and his own shakiness contributed to the back-line conceding three.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was also at fault for one of the Hornets’ three strikes, but that stemmed from his more experienced team-mate’s issues. 

Van Dijk has not become a bad player overnight. His personal dodgy patch is impacting the team though, and they cannot afford another night like Tuesday when Atletico come to town. An away goal could be killer. 

The return of Joe Gomez was meant to help Van Dijk out but it did not have the desired impact

Jordan Henderson’s absence — and how much it hurts the team

It is no longer going against the trend to suggest Jordan Henderson is good, but it is worth saying that his absence has highlighted just how important a player he has.

Henderson did feature for the first 80 minutes against Atletico Madrid before going off injured but has missed the subsequent three games. In all of them, Liverpool have not looked to be the same side.

West Ham nearly ended the unbeaten run before the Reds fought back from 2-1 behind, Watford did provide the knockout blow and then Chelsea put them out of the FA Cup.

The common trend? The absence of Henderson.

Jordan Henderson has developed into a crucial player for Liverpool in recent seasons

Against Southampton, the most recent demolition Liverpool have handed out, Henderson scored a crucial second goal to send them on their way to a 4-0 win. 

More generally, he has been a shuffling, attacking presence on the right side of their 4-3-3 and grown into a seriously impressive No 8. The captain does not wear the armband particularly heavily.

They lack his creativity, and his ability to drive them up the pitch.

He was ruled out for around three weeks after the Atletico Madrid game, which means he probably won’t play on Wednesday. Klopp needs to pray that his leading man is back in time for the game against Madrid.

The midfielder’s absence in recent games has made Liverpool a weaker side on the pitch

The midfield conundrum

This is where another issue comes in. Anyone who has tried to replace Henderson has really struggled.

Adam Lallana has had some good spells for Liverpool in the past but it was really noticeable just how little of an impact he had on the game at Stamford Bridge. 

The midfielder had few chances, created little for his team-mates and generally did not impress enough to justify his inclusion against Atletico Madrid.

Curtis Jones was never likely to start, which means Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is probably going to be picked with Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho.

Adam Lallana did not have a particularly impressive game against Chelsea on Tuesday night

Georginio Wijnaldum is a crucial figure in midfield but struggled against Watford

Like Lallana, Keita has struggled for moments recently and against West Ham, he was hooked in the 57th minute for Oxlade-Chamberlain, which led to Liverpool turning the game around.

Before that moment, Klopp screamed at him to track back and then instructed him to go forward on another instance, which was ignored by the midfielder. The German has clearly not been happy at times with his No 8.

Both Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain were taken off after Watford’s second on Saturday, this time for Lallana and Divock Origi.

Whatever is going on with Liverpool’s midfield, it is clearly not working with the current set-up.

This is probably the issue Klopp has to fix the most before Wednesday’s game. 

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was hooked along with Wijnaldum after 57 minutes on Saturday

Get the front three firing again 

At the very least for Klopp, there is a simple solution to this problem. There was a temporary decision that makes less sense the more it is looked at.

Against Chelsea, Klopp decided to pick Origi on the left, Takumi Minamito in the middle and Sadio Mane on the right.

All three therefore felt slightly out of position, and the most threatening part of Liverpool’s side, that dynamic front three, was completely neutered. Even the remaining part of it, Mane, was playing on the opposite flank to usual.

Restoring Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah is now crucial, even if playing them did not make much of a difference against Watford. 

Roberto Firmino’s impact from the bench against Chelsea was not particularly significant

The truth is that they have not looked as dangerous as a united since the winter break. There is a sense that momentum has been lost.

It is reflected in the numbers that they have been posting in their last few games. Only Salah and Mane have bagged and they have struck just three times in five matches, which is a considerable drop off.

At both Chelsea and Watford, Firmino was crowded out in the time he was on the pitch. Neither side were willing to give him the space to operate as he likes to do as a forward.

Klopp needs to get the front three firing again ahead of the match against Atletico

Firmino gets plenty of credit for the work he does as their No 9, which is different to most other players in the Premier League. It might be the case that teams have realised that shutting him down is a great way to make Salah and Mane less effective.

After all, how can they dovetail around him when he is struggling to create chances? Against Watford, he managed none. Only against Southampton in their last five league games has he provided more than one, and it is no surprise they got a hatful then.

The perfect thing for the German now would be them bagging a handful of goals against Bournemouth and just getting back into the flow of things. Getting Firmino working and providing for Salah and Mane will be crucial there.

The challenge of Atletico and avoiding away goals

While solving the above issues would be all well and good, another problem for Klopp is that Diego Simeone’s side are no scrubs and will not be easy to overturn when they come to Merseyside.

They are brilliant at packing players in and seeing out ties. Last season against Juventus is the only time since 2008-09 when they have reached the round of 16 and then not advanced to the quarter-finals.

In round of 16 away games, they have also only conceded four goals in that time. 

Atletico hold a single goal advantage and while Liverpool can change the game with just a goal, conceding to Simeone’s men would alter everything.

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid defend well so Liverpool cannot afford to concede another

Liverpool need to ensure they do not let Atletico go ahead on the night or even threaten their net too much. 

This is where Klopp will earn his keep. They need a goal but cannot afford to leave themselves too open at the back. A solitary moment could put the match completely beyond their reach.

Given how impressively Watford counter-attacked against them, a different approach to that clash is required.

If getting one goal back on the Spaniards seems hard, that suddenly becoming three courtesy of the away goals rule makes it an almost impossible job. 

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