Wednesday 13 December 2017

COMMENT - Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool still have a fundamental problem - not enough good players

James Milner of Liverpool looks on after he clashes into the ad boards during the EFL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Southampton at Anfield last night
James Milner of Liverpool looks on after he clashes into the ad boards during the EFL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Southampton at Anfield last night

Chris Bascombe

There’s a reason the phrase about a season ‘being a marathon rather than sprint’ is a cliché.

The architect of the expression must have seen the 19th century equivalent of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, dipped the quill in the ink pot and remarked how there is no point coming out dashing after the starting pistol if your head is wobbling and you’re scrambling to find a water stop halfway through the race.

Klopp is never short of belief, nor is he short of emotionally charged speeches. His response ahead of Wednesday night’s EFL Cup semi-final was to ramp his positivity up several notches, reminding players and supporters how much the team has developed and to ignore the hysteria that shadows every setback.

“It is not blind faith. It is a belief built on what I see from them each and every day,” Klopp wrote in his programme notes.

Not for the first time, his passion and conviction can’t hide the fundamental question that has lingered since he was appointed 15 months ago. Is the talent really there?

We’re not talking about the talent to finish in the top six - or the talent to reach two cup-finals and one semi-final in less than two seasons - but the talent to become trophy winners?

The talent to ensure Liverpool stop teasing and start delivering. The talent to switch the conversation from what might be to a celebration of what is happening now. The talent to prevent the insufferable mood swings, when for a few weeks Liverpool sweep aside every unambitious team visiting Anfield, only to demonstrate the same weaknesses when the moment of truth arrives.

Amid the debris of the defeat to Southampton - and the recent league and cup performances that have so far yielded just one, wholly unconvincing win at Plymouth in 2017 – it can not be ignored that Liverpool’s squad looks well short of the necessary quality to challenge on three fronts, let alone four if they had beaten Sevilla in last year’s Europa League final.

The most critical assessments argue that recent games have been a reminder of the latter days of Brendan Rodgers’ reign, where Liverpool dominated possession but lacked the necessary dynamism and imagination to overcome packed defences.

It is hardly a surprise this team looks like Rodgers’ because it still is.

Of Wednesday night’s starting line-up, only goalkeeper Loris Karius (who we should point out has been excellent in his last few appearances) and centre-half Joel Matip are Klopp signings.

Rodgers was dismissed because the club felt he was not getting enough from those who had been recruited, and for a while the improvements in Roberto Firmino, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne and, to a lesser extent (much lesser this year) Emre Can proved that.

But we saw in Basel last May that Klopp could only do so much, and of those he signed last year only Matip and Sadio Mane have demonstrated they can have a transformative impact. Two players. It is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

The consequences of this lack of depth – accentuated by the fact Daniel Sturridge is no longer the player he was and Divock Origi is currently regressing – is Liverpool falling short.

Assuming they will never go the aerial route to bypass Iceland-inspired defences, they need a pacey, tricky winger who can dribble past defenders or drag them out of position. Mane was doing that at the start of the season, and it was so obvious they’d miss him when he joined his country it is odd there was no plan executed to compensate for his absence.

But that’s Liverpool for you since 1990 - always one or two players short.

It is not the fact Liverpool lost over two legs to Southampton that is demoralising, but the fact that since their last trophy in 2012 they have reached six semi-finals and failed to win the competition each time. On many of those occasions the message has been ‘these setbacks will make us stronger long-term’. There is only so much character development you can take before disillusionment sets in.

If feels like Liverpool have been a team in development for six of the last seven years (and the majority of the last 27), the 2014 title challenge a freak campaign inspired by a freakishly talented striker.

Where a sense of calm is needed is this perpetual promise is not Klopp’s fault – he’s not even managed for a full English season yet for God’s sake.

At times you sense his bewilderment when supporters get irritated so quickly, but to understand that he would be advised to spend an hour in the company of those who have sat through the last 27 years.

This impatience was not always there, but when you’ve lived through so many campaigns where a decent side momentarily played like a good one, only to immediately drift back into mediocrity, you’ll have to forgive the cynicism when not everyone organises a house party when contract extensions for star players are announced.

Liverpool’s is an educated but tired and now, sadly, a more petulant crowd than it used to be because they are caught in a Westworld-style loop.

Change manager; give him time; wait for the new signings to bed in; see the improvement; win the occasional cup; participate in at least one title bid every six years; get overexcited; watch as it is not sustained; grow disillusioned; change manager.

That is what Klopp has walked into and it’s not entirely clear what he or anyone else can do to change that. Other than win the league title, that is, and as he remarked himself any who thought that possible so soon can’t be helped.

Liverpool are not falling off the pace now because they have been overworked or they look exhausted. It is because they are not as good as we, or even they, thought they were when they went top in November.

They bought well last year, but evidently they did not buy enough.

At the start of this season – and on occasions during the last one – Liverpool were so thrilling because even though they were not Klopp’s players, they resembled a Klopp team.

If there is one lesson he and everyone has learned since the turn of the year, it is this: for Liverpool to truly to become a consistently good Klopp team, they will need to sign more Klopp players.

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