Jurgen Klopp's side show same old failings as size of task clearly apparent
Jurgen Klopp's arrival electrified Liverpool. But managerial charisma is no cure-all. This is the same squad, with the same deficiencies, that Brendan Rodgers trudged away from after being sacked.
The Messiah's personality cannot conceal a failure to defend corners or seize goalscoring chances.
Against Arsenal and Manchester United on their home turf, Liverpool have come away with one point and a barrel of disappointment. Joe Allen's late equaliser against Arsenal brought a melodramatic end to a thrilling contest. Against their biggest enemy, Klopp's men were dominant but lost the game to a Wayne Rooney goal from an old-school set-piece: the seventh time this season Liverpool have conceded from a corner. No Premier League team have a greater susceptibility to balls swung into the penalty box from the corner flag.
So good passages of play, plenty of industry and promise. Yet the Klopp revolution has faltered in January, with defeats by West Ham and United and a 2-2 FA Cup third-round draw at Exeter, which forced a replay here on Wednesday night. On the other side of the ledger they carry a 1-0 first-leg lead into the Capital One Cup semi-final home leg against Stoke. Klopp says Liverpool are on the "right way" but there are still too many days on the wrong path.
"We were surviving in the first half. We scored from one of two chances [in the second]," said Louis van Gaal, the United manager, for whom the honeymoon period in England ended long, long ago.
Only someone prone to hysteria would question whether Klopp was a good appointment for Liverpool. But were Liverpool a good appointment for Klopp? How much influence can he reasonably hope to exert, short of a major squad cull and mass shopping trip in the next three transfer windows?
To specifics: though Klopp claims there is "no problem" with his strikers, the most expensive of them (and the one bought with the bulk of the Raheem Sterling money), Christian Benteke, is clearly not trusted to start games of this magnitude.
Benteke, who has arguably not been given a sustained chance to adapt to Klopp's style of play, has become a conundrum who raises yet more questions about the quality of Liverpool's recruitment.
"The smallest problems we had were with a lack of centre forwards," Klopp said, seemingly bemused by a question on that subject. "[Roberto] Firmino can play this position. He played well today. He is a real centre-forward when he plays there. It's too easy to say that if we had another player in this position we would have scored."
Maybe so, but to have a £32.5m striker marginalised this way brings echoes of the Andy Carroll buy while stirring further painful memories of Fernando Torres, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush. Not that Klopp should have to bend his selections around the mistakes of previous managers or directors, if indeed Benteke was an error. The problem is that it creates an impression of a club still hampered by bad choices and unable to find a quick route back into the league's top four places.
For the fans, the evisceration of Manchester City (4-1) and Southampton (6-1) in November and December is becoming a remote and teasing memory: a brief demonstration of the effect Klopp might have if his impact on Borussia Dortmund were to be instantly replicated on Merseyside.
Those far off days when a cult was whipped up around him now feel like a cautionary tale about the unrealistic expectations heaped on managers, especially overseas ones.
Klopp has changed a lot about Liverpool, raising their self-esteem, buffing their self-image. To draw him out of a sabbatical in the face of stiff competition was a triumph in itself. There were those blissful early days of gegenpressing, when the team became a pack of hounds, and Klopp was busy sniffing out players he considered not to be good enough.
Trouble is, there are too many of those, by Champions League qualifying standards. Jordan Henderson, a solid citizen, had four long-range attempts on goal that either flew into the stands or landed in David de Gea's embrace. The fourth of those sent Klopp into a fury. Adam Lallana, meanwhile, remains unable consistently to impose himself on opponents, playing in bursts but too often failing to inflict real damage.
All this would matter less if Liverpool could organise themselves at corners. Here, Klopp must take responsibility, as the coach, for a problem that involves positioning, awareness and a lack of aggression in attacking the ball. Liverpool players are in the wrong starting positions and then freezing when a reaction to movement and danger is required.
Klopp blamed "mistakes around the goal" for Rooney's swivelling finish after Marouane Fellaini's header had struck the bar. It was a fine goal. But frankly you wondered what has happened to the greatest rivalry in English football. The club of the Seventies and Eighties, and the team of the next two-and-a-half decades, now generate nothing like the excitement felt when Cristiano Ronaldo and Torres were gracing these fixtures.
This one looked and felt like a battle between the ninth- and sixth-placed teams in the Premier League. There was a deadening mediocrity about much of the action; a void where individual talent used to be.
"It's a derby, and in a derby you only have one job to do - and that's to win it," Klopp said, displaying trademark realism. And his team should have done so. They committed the cardinal sin of making United look better than they are. Instead of a trip to hell they gave Van Gaal's side a present.