As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp prepares to welcome his players back from international duty, the coming games could help define the Reds’ season
As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp prepares to welcome his players back from international duty, he will be well aware of the task ahead.
The Reds sit fourth in the Premier League table after losing their unbeaten record just before the break, and have two fewer points than at this stage in the 2020-21 season.
They are also sweating on the fitness of Sadio Mane after the forward only managed half an hour in Senegal’s World Cup qualifier against Togo, while Roberto Firmino is among those already missing due to injury.
However, as the manager and players will know, the period between the international break and the turn of the year is often significant for the Anfield club, and will be even more important this season.
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The period between the last autumn international break and the turn of the year can be a decisive one.
At the very least, it can put a team in an ideal position to kick on, as was the case for Liverpool last term before a run of injuries caught up with them in January and February.
It’s an opportunity to develop a bit of momentum without any interruption from international call-ups, while those teams with better starts in Europe are able to rotate their squad while also giving the necessary minutes to those who need them.
If Jose Mourinho’s peak years at Chelsea were characterised by fast starts and Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United supremacy often relied on mastery of the run-in, November and December belongs to Jurgen Klopp.
When Liverpool’s players returned from their final international commitments of 2020, they hit the ground running with a 3-0 victory over Leicester City at Anfield.
They remained unbeaten for seven further games – including an eye-catching 7-0 victory away to Crystal Palace – to end the calendar year atop the Premier League.
Somehow, though, that run of 16 points from eight games wasn’t even close to the best under Klopp across November and December.
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In Klopp’s first full season in charge, the eight games between the November internationals and the new year brought 17 points, with only Nathan Ake’s last-gasp winner for Bournemouth denying Liverpool an unbeaten record over the period.
Twelve months later, an earlier November break meant the stretch involved 10 league games, none of which saw Klopp’s men beaten.
In 2018-19 and 2019-20, though, the Reds were unstoppable over the period. Eight wins from eight en route to a runner-up finish in the first of those years, followed by seven from seven as they set the wheels in motion for that momentous title run.
For those keeping score, that’s one defeat in five seasons between the November international break and the turn of the year. One. That’s it. And even that came in a game which Liverpool had led 3-1 with 15 minutes remaining.
In contrast, Manchester City suffered three defeats in the corresponding period across the last two seasons, while Chelsea lost three December games in 2020 alone.
The need to deliver at a traditionally fruitful time of the season may be even more urgent this time around.
Players involved in the Africa Cup of Nations will be required to join up with their international squads after the Boxing Day fixtures, and for Liverpool that means three notable absentees.
Mohamed Salah is expected to be key to Egypt’s hopes of winning the tournament, while his club teammates Mane and Naby Keita are due to face off in the group stage for Senegal and Guinea respectively.
Liverpool have struggled in January in the past, and last season’s defeats to Southampton and Burnley will still be fresh in the mind for those around the club.
Klopp won’t be able to do much about his January absentees, but one thing he can do is set up his squad so they’re better prepared than most to deal with the loss of some key players at a time which has been tough in previous years.
The best way to prepare is to keep winning matches and build up enough momentum so your squad players can keep things ticking over.
This is when we learn how easy it is to do just that, year upon year.