Liverpool's 4-1 defeat to Manchester City last weekend was the final nail in the coffin for the champions' title defence and yet their trip to Leicester City on Saturday is an even bigger game. Jurgen Klopp's side are already three points behind Leicester. To lose at the King Power would most likely see them drop out of the top four by the end of the weekend.
This is not yet crisis, but failure to qualify for the Champions League surely would be, and once that becomes a distinct possibility it will necessitate greater interrogation of just how Liverpool have under-performed so badly. At a certain point the argument swings – away from sympathy over an injury crisis and towards a deeper questioning of the club's transfer policy and, yes, even the fallibility of the manager.
Because this is no blip. Starting with the 3-0 defeat to Watford back in February 2020, Liverpool have collected 60 points from their last 34 Premier League matches – almost a full season of mediocrity.
Liverpool's malaise explained
While Pep Guardiola rises to the summit of the table having worked out the pandemic, Klopp – like pretty much every other elite coach in Europe – continues to flounder; continues to press ahead with his usual tactical philosophy despite Covid-19 dramatically altering the variables. The lesson from Manchester City's new emphasis on low-tempo possession ought to be that humble adaptation is non-negotiable.
Klopp, meanwhile, continues with a formation and strategy that no longer feels appropriate for the moment.
Playing Jordan Henderson and Fabinho at centre-back has badly affected Liverpool's ability to sustain attacks, to press forward in waves and force the opposition into exhausted submission. This was their primary method at their peak, hence winning 14 games by a single goal last season and outperforming their xG by 24.72 extra points, per understat.com.
Without Fabinho screening against counter-attacks and without Henderson barking orders and pushing forward from midfield, Liverpool are no longer penning their opponents in, creating territorially even contests that do not suit Klopp's narrow 4-3-3.
And yet he persists regardless, only occasionally switching shape before retreating back to the cold safety of the system; a system in which the full-backs can no longer camp deep in the opposition half, and in which Thiago and Georginio Wijnaldum both look restricted by their current roles.
In every case – be it the formation or the non-deployment of the new centre-backs – Klopp is not taking the risks needed to attack pandemic football.
Open contest could help revive Liverpool
But perhaps this weekend is not the time for change, because Leicester City's desire to play expansively, most notably by taking advantage of attacking transitions with incisive football aiming to get behind the Liverpool defence, should stretch this contest and give Klopp's forwards the room they crave.
Liverpool will not be camped in the opposition half, but neither will they float awkwardly in between as they have against the likes of Brighton or Southampton. Instead, an end-to-end contest is likely to break out, which means room for Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane when a Leicester counter-attack breaks down.
This is what happened in their 3-0 win over Leicester in the reverse fixture, and although much has changed at both clubs since then it provides some comfort for Liverpool fans who can expect the same 4-3-3 and the same tactical approach from Klopp.
Salah in particular will expect to come out on top in his battle with James Justin, the talented Leicester left-back who may not receive adequate support from Harvey Barnes. If the match does descend into a more chaotic and entertaining spectacle, then Justin will probably find himself too isolated. It is worth noting that Leicester's back four has been easily carved open by the league's best attacking sides this season, most recently in a 3-1 defeat to Leeds United.
Vardy, Ndidi, & Barnes point to Leicester win
But it ought to alarm Liverpool supporters that the most optimistic view of Liverpool's chances relies upon an uncontrolled game and a predictable set of attacking circumstances. Rodgers will have grand plans for the Liverpool front three, and what's more is likely to hold a deeper defensive line on Saturday – cautiously holding off on the press in order to create the restrictive and clumsy pattern that has characterised Liverpool's recent performances.
Plus Jamie Vardy and Wilfried Ndidi are back, which makes Leicester's patchy form all but irrelevant. With Ndidi's defensive shielding and quick first pass for the counter, and with Vardy's runs causing panic, the hosts are in a strong position to take the three points.
Harvey Barnes has been in superb form, and his ability to slip in between the opposition lines to pick up the ball and drive at the heart of the defence will be crucial once again. The narrowness of Liverpool's midfield is becoming a major problem, particularly down that side of the pitch where Thiago looks too slight to cover the spaces. Consequently, with Trent Alexander-Arnold caught ahead of the ball and Vardy's runs pulling defenders away, Barnes can flourish.
As can Vardy, because whether Klopp picks midfielders at the back or throws in his new signings Liverpool will be vulnerable here. Historically, Vardy makes excellent runs on the outside of Liverpool's two centre-backs, pulling them about the pitch and taking advantage of the high full-backs, while Rodgers instructs his team to hit long balls over the top of the high line.
This strategy ought to be particularly successful while Liverpool endure an injury crisis – and the resulting crisis of confidence. Whether through Barnes or Vardy, Leicester have the upper hand against a top-four rival that looks increasingly predictable.