Fabinho’s disgraceful butchering of Evan Ferguson was a gruesome illustration of why Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp era may be nearing an end.
It was just one of several key moments which suggested the manager’s problem is less the quality of players at his disposal than the general air of lassitude enveloping the club.
Too often these days it appears Liverpool players can’t be a**ed to do the right thing.
The Brazilian had no reason to put in the kind of tackle which almost seemed designed to cause serious injury. With his back to goal near the halfway line, the Irish striker posed little threat.
If it was an attempt to intimidate a young player, the 85th minute seemed pretty late for that. The simplest explanation is that Fabinho wasn’t bothered about making a proper challenge. Referee David Coote’s decision not to show red beggared belief.
Ferguson, again shining like a player of much greater experience, had been given little protection throughout. Both Ibrahima Konate and Andy Robertson got away with blatant fouls on the Meath teenager who left the stadium on crutches.
There could have been red for Konate just three minutes before Ferguson was kicked out of the game. Chasing a long ball with Alexis Mac Allister the French defender opted to push over his fellow World Cup finalist rather than compete for it.
Already on a yellow, Konate looked to be in a last-man situation. Yet Coote, the VAR official, who was on duty when Jordan Pickford got away with putting Virgil van Dijk out with a long-term injury in October 2020, didn’t even award a free.
He did award one when Robertson hacked down Mac Allister as the game moved into injury-time. That foul also seemed the product of carelessness and was punished by Kaoru Mitoma scoring the winner soon afterwards.
The visitors’ devil-may-care attitude wasn’t confined to defensive duties. When the excellent Harvey Elliott’s pass put Mohamed Salah through in the 25th minute, Liverpool fans must have felt a pleasant sensation of déjà vu.
This was Salah’s Greatest Hits territory. But he scuffed his shot badly wide with just ’keeper Jason Steele to beat. It typified the season of a player whose seven goals from 19 Premier League games is his worst strike rate since Chelsea loaned him out to Roma seven seasons ago.
Once the inspirer of fear among defences and exhilaration among spectators, the Egyptian is a shadow of his old world-class self. The familiar moves are there but the snap and sparkle is absent. He looks like a Mohamed Salah tribute act. An unconvincing one.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s fortunes are also at a nadir. A player who’s contributed at least a dozen assists in three of his last four league campaigns has just one with over half the season gone. His attacking contribution no longer seems sufficient to compensate for his defensive eccentricities.
Klopp’s decision to replace his right-back with James Milner before the hour mark felt like an admission that his patience has run out. There’s an air of exasperation about the manager at the moment.
Alexander-Arnold looked dejected. His full-back colleague Robertson looked tired as he has done for most of the season. Robertson and Jordan Henderson’s loss of energy has been disastrous because energy was their most important attribute.
Cody Gakpo, like Darwin Nunez, has struggled and already been derided as a possible flop. Yet the Dutchman’s problems may throw light on the Uruguayan’s. If two big signings who’ve regularly found the target elsewhere are both floundering, perhaps the problem is with the team rather than these particular players?
The nightmare scenario is that they’re two new Naby Keitas. Claims that the Guinean will eventually come good are like forecasts that the Irish Labour Party is on the way back.
Losing Virgil van Dijk and Luis Diaz through injury hasn’t helped but Liverpool appear afflicted by something more fundamental than personnel deficiencies. Berating the Fenway Sports Group for not buying a new midfielder feels oddly beside the point amid such general underachievement.
The fault lies not in the stars who aren’t there but in the stars who are.
Liverpool’s performance was much better than in the league match between the sides which seemed a historical low point of Klopp’s reign. You could even argue they were the better team yesterday.
But where’s the comfort in that? Klopp’s Liverpool were experts at eking out wins in games when they weren’t the better team. They kept going until they found a way.
For them to be knocked out by an injury-time goal seems a reversal of the natural order. They have become the kind of team which loses rather than wins close games.
Klopp has pulled them out of nosedives before, to win an unlikely Champions League spot two seasons ago and to mount an even more unlikely title challenge last season. Yet this season feels different. He cuts an increasingly puzzled and frustrated figure.
The German has been one of the very greatest managers in the history of a club which has been managed by some of the greatest. It’s hard to imagine Liverpool without him.
But even The Beatles broke up in the end. This season might be Klopp’s ‘Let It Be’. It’s not as good as the earlier work and there won’t be anything to follow it.
Should he get back to where he once belonged, Liverpool may face a long and winding road back to the top. If Klopp doesn’t get a little help from his players, he’s got a good reason for taking the easy way out.