Liverpool's top four hell: Is Henderson's injury the final straw?

Liverpool’s title defence evaporated long before their makeshift backline suffered its latest setback with Jordan Henderson’s injury… but with Ozan Kabak not settling and Ben Davies yet to play, now even their top-four hopes are fading fast

  • Liverpool are suffering their worst injury crisis in recent football history
  • The reigning champions have seen their title defence dissolve throughout 2021 
  • Three first-choice centre-backs are out for the season and numbers are low 
  • Stop-gap Jordan Henderson was injured against Everton and Fabinho is out 
  • Henderson is facing six to eight weeks on the sidelines after a groin operation 

The sight of captain Jordan Henderson clutching his leg in agony, grimacing face pressed into the Anfield turf during the Merseyside derby, came as little shock to Liverpool fans.

Many are simply numb to it now. This kind of thing has become expected in the cruelest of seasons.

Jurgen Klopp’s side have had an injury-ravaged campaign like no other. Liverpool’s entire defensive line has been torn apart, causing midfielders to play emergency stopgap roles with the rest of the team struggling bitterly with the knock-on effect.

Indeed, the reigning champions who so ruthlessly swept away the entire division last season have seen their title defence come to a brutal end following a miserable string of results since the start of the calendar year.

Jurgen Klopp’s team are in serious danger now, with a mounting injury crisis like never before

If you were to form a league table comprising just the matches played in 2021, Klopp’s Liverpool would be in 16th place – just two points above the relegation zone.

The form over the past two months has yielded the sort of football which sees a team nosedive down the table and rapidly lose control of their own destiny.

With the Merseyside giants having now made peace with the fact their title will not be reclaimed, are they now in very real danger of missing out on the Champions League altogether? Sportsmail takes a look at the current torrid situation… 

The manner in which Henderson left the field on Sunday captured much of the essence of Liverpool’s season.

With pain contorted across every winkle on his face, Henderson grit his teeth and tried in vain to push through the barrier and continue on despite his groin problem.

It was no use, and yet again Liverpool players had to stand by and watch as one of their most influential team-mates was assisted from the field by medical staff.

In losing Henderson – who has been ruled out for between six to eight weeks after an operation on his injured groin – the Reds were not only robbed of a makeshift central defender – who had been performing admirably in the role – but also their main communicative tool on the field.

Jordan Henderson couldn’t continue in the Merseyside derby after going down injured

Henderson wears the armband proudly for Klopp’s team and makes his presence known on a weekly basis. The absence of crowds over the past year has highlighted just how vocal the former Sunderland man is across the pitch.

Henderson talks his team-mates through matches, so it came as no surprise to see Klopp trust his No 14 to play alongside new boy Ozan Kabak and settle him into the Liverpool way of life on match days.  

On the horizon Liverpool have their Champions League knockout round second leg with RB Leipzig, in which they worked so hard to put together an initial 2-0 lead.

In domestic duties, the games in the immediate future are simply must win.

Clashes against two strong relegation candidates – Sheffield United and Fulham – lie in wait, along with a showdown with rivals Chelsea under the fresh guidance of Thomas Tuchel.

The captain was left wincing and his absence soon compounded the defensive crisis further

New-boy struggles

Since his deadline-day arrival from Schalke on loan, plenty of praise must go to Kabak for the way he has conducted himself.

The youngster was included in the matchday squad after just a few training sessions with his new team-mates, and found himself on the pitch soon after.

It’s a huge ask to come in and play for a team ofLiverpool’s stature, particularly when they are in the midst of a crisis and every new face is held up as a potential saviour.

It is easy to overlook the fact Kabak won’t turn 21 until the end of next month.

New boy Ozan Kabak had a baptism of fire against Leicester and is still trying to settle in

The Turkish defender has endured what can only be described as a baptism of fire. After just a few days living in England he was thrown in at the deep end against an in-form Leicester City – with the pace and aggression of Jamie Vardy bearing down on him and the trickery and guile of James Maddison just behind.

Kabak, alongside an ever-screaming Henderson, gave an astute account of himself… until the latter stages.

His mix-up with goalkeeper Alisson Becker has been well documented, though most of the blame has been apportioned to the out-of-luck Brazilian whose uncharacteristic errors in recent weeks have summed up Liverpool’s demise.

Kabak’s collision with Alisson was a very ‘look away now!’ moment, yet the emergency recruit still managed to turn this around by putting in a man-of-the-match performance against Leipzig on the European stage.

Kabak was off the pace in the opening moments against Everton as Richarlison span in behind

Liverpool appear to have a highly potential-laden player on their hands, yet the start to the derby against Everton revealed exactly why settling in periods are ill-afforded to central defenders.

Kabak was just marginally off the pace when James Rodriguez picked up the ball in the opening minutes. The former Real Madrid man knew immediately that a delicately threaded pass to Richarlison was on, and Kabak was promptly taken hook, line and sinker.

By the time the Turkish youngster had turned back on himself, Richarlison had cushioned the ball and fizzed it past his countryman Alisson.

Alarmingly, had Henderson not departed later in the match, he and Kabak would have amassed the joint number of matches together as first-choice pairing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez – with a total of three games. 

The Davies dilemma

Right now Klopp knows there is no more room for half measures. So many points have been leaked in recent weeks that the safety cushion is no longer there.

A total of 13 Premier League matches remain; 39 points on offer.

Given how tight the table is and how shock result after shock result has been served up, Liverpool need to claim the lion’s share of these points to put beyond all doubt their credentials for once again securing a place at Europe’s top table.

Klopp, therefore, is faced with a very real dilemma when it comes to player selection.

Alongside Kabak last month, the Championship’s top-performing defender Ben Davies was also brought on board.

Ben Davies was signed from Preston North End but is yet to pull on the Liverpool shirt

Liverpool surged in for the signature of the 25-year-old after a string of impressive performances, thwarting Scottish giants Celtic in the process, who already had a deal in the pipeline.

Davies has yet to play for his new club, after a settling in period was initially complicated with the picking up of a minor injury.

The former Preston man has settled for a place on the bench since, but calls have started to grow louder for Klopp to let his newcomer plunge into Premier League waters and pit his abilities against the best.

This, however, is a risk-and-reward strategy which could go quite dramatically in either direction.

Any group of managers will be in agreement that starting two new central defenders together is likely a recipe for disaster, let alone two defenders who have never played in the English top flight before.

Davies has trained with his new team-mates for several weeks but is yet to play in a match

Fielding Kabak and Davies at the heart of defence in the coming weeks would no doubt hugely energise the likes of Fulham and bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United, and allowing either of these opponents to leave with a share of the spoils could be fatal for Klopp’s side.

At present, the likelihood remains that Kabak will retain his place alongside the returning Fabinho, should the Brazilian be passed fit in time for Sunday’s upcoming clash with Chris Wilder’s Blades. Again, this would become another new partnership.

The second-half combination of Nat Phillips and Kabak during the Merseyside derby will however have provided food for thought, given Liverpool held a dominate share of possession throughout and saw their back line rarely troubled. 

These are testing times for Liverpool and Klopp, amid the backdrop of one of the most difficult global situations in recent memory.

The 25-year-old was a top performer in the Championship but hasn’t featured in the top flight

If last season was a euphoric wonderland for the red half of Merseyside and their charismatic manager, this is now quite violently the opposite.

Klopp must now fashion a defensive line which is capable of securing a top-four finish in the most competitive league in world football.

Liverpool’s injury crisis may be past the point of obscene, but their future trajectory depends heavily on remaining in the Champions League with the riches and opportunities this brings.

Klopp will forever be held up as a hero for bringing home the title after a painful 30-year wait, but overturning these odds and bringing Liverpool back from the injury-ridden depths may yet be his crowning glory.

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