Liverpool struggling to score without production from their No. 9s
Liverpool's 0-0 draw with Manchester United at Anfield on Saturday was almost an exact replica of last season's fixture. Much like last year, Jurgen Klopp's team played quite well and on the balance of play deserved to win, but despite having the bulk of the play they didn't do enough and were left to bemoan Jose Mourinho's spoiling tactics.
While it's true that United rarely looked like they had any interest in trying to go for the win, Mourinho's side earned the right to take that approach by taking care of business against the so-called lesser sides. When you're winning the games you're supposed to win, anything you get against the rest of the big six is almost a bonus.
This was a good point for United, less so for Liverpool. If the Merseysiders had not already dropped six points to Watford, Burnley and Newcastle they too could have looked upon this draw as a point gained rather than another two points lost.
If there is one straw for Kopites to cling to in recent weeks it's that Liverpool's players do not appear to be feeling sorry for themselves despite having virtually nothing going their way. Liverpool aren't getting any luck but they aren't making their own either. Nobody played badly against United and there were encouraging signs defensively, where concentration levels were high and there were none of the mistakes that have so often plagued Klopp's men this season.
It wasn't vintage in attack though. The closest they came to a breakthrough was Joel Matip's close-range effort that brought a brilliant save from David De Gea. Aside from that it wasn't a difficult afternoon for the United keeper. There was much to admire in the approach play of Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah and Georginio Wijnaldum, but once again there wasn't much cutting edge to Liverpool when they got into the penalty area.
It's just not clicking up front for the Reds at the moment and predictably the lack of a prolific No. 9 in the mould of a Harry Kane or Romelu Lukaku has once again come into focus.
Klopp sees Roberto Firmino as being integral to how he wants to play and when Liverpool are firing on all cylinders you can see why he has such faith in the Brazilian. He doesn't need him to be a 30-goal-a-season man when the team are playing at their best. Firmino's performance in the 4-0 win over Arsenal earlier in the season was the perfect illustration of how he makes Liverpool's front three look so fluid and effective.
Over the course of a season you'd expect Firmino to get 15 goals if he's playing through the centre every week (this was not the case last year and his goal tally reflected that). That may be half of what you'll likely get from Kane or Lukaku, but if Salah, Coutinho and Sadio Mane are contributing a similar number -- helped by the unselfish play of Firmino -- then Klopp is happy with that.
The issue at the end of the season is unlikely to be how many goals Liverpool have scored. They'll score plenty, but it's the streaky nature of their goalscoring that threatens to undermine them, especially with a defence that struggles to keep clean sheets.
Not having that ruthless assassin who can turn tight draws into wins is certainly contributing to their struggles of late. Manchester United were in that position last year, missing chances and drawing far too many games they had dominated. Since they've added Lukaku those draws have turned into comfortable wins.
Klopp showed no interest in signing a star striker last summer. He was, and no doubt still is, happy with Firmino as his main man. That decision was not being questioned much in the opening weeks of the season when the goals were raining in from all angles, but over recent weeks it has become clear that the Reds are not getting enough production from the No. 9 position, especially when you see how Kane, Lukaku, Alvaro Morata, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are banging in the goals for Liverpool's rivals.
There's not much Klopp can do to change things at this point even if he wanted to and none of this is the fault of Firmino directly. He has never been a prolific scorer and he isn't a natural striker. Overall he's done an excellent job leading the line and when other players were putting their chances away the glare on Firmino was far less intense.
When the team isn't scoring enough though, rightly or wrongly the first person everyone looks at is the striker, even if he is doing everything his manager is asking of him. Firmino needs a goal but more than that, he needs some help from those around him.
Despite this run of just one win in their last eight, Liverpool are still handily placed in terms of a top-four challenge and the damage to their chances of qualifying from their Champions League group has been minimal too.
That will no longer be the case if they fail to beat Maribor home and away though. That would really make it an uphill struggle to get out of the group, so Tuesday night's game is now of paramount importance to get Liverpool's season going again. It's a game they should win, but those are often the ones they find most difficult. They have to start scoring again soon though, surely?
Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.