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Klopp under pressure to mend cracks before it all crumbles

Oliver Brown


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Rhys Williams. Photo: Getty Images

Rhys Williams. Photo: Getty Images

Rhys Williams. Photo: Getty Images

The chances are that Alex Ferguson, renowned red wine connoisseur, was last night uncorking one of his finer vintages from the comfort of his Cheshire home.

Seven years after Old Trafford's eternal leader stepped away, no meeting of Manchester United and Liverpool is complete without recalling his ambition to knock the Merseysiders "right off their f****** perch".

Now, thanks to the newly exposed flakiness of Jurgen Klopp's masterpiece, Ferguson is able to enjoy seeing his lifelong quest played out as a twice-weekly soap opera.

Liverpool supporters are fond of holding up six fingers to remind everyone of how many European Cups they have won. But as winter bites for the club, it also denotes how many games they have gone without a victory.

What began as a bump on a seamless road to glory is turning into the gnarliest pothole, with malfunctions appearing in the Liverpool machine faster than Klopp can repair them. On the surface, we should not be surprised at their premature FA Cup demise. In six attempts, Klopp has failed to propel his players beyond the fifth round.

For one of the most breathlessly lauded managers of the age, that is hardly an insignificant failing, given the four domestic cup triumphs that Pep Guardiola has amassed over the same period.

Where Guardiola's passion overflowed even after a win at a tiny League Two ground, arguing that "we all come from Cheltenham", Klopp, his mystique burnished by his feats elsewhere, has rarely felt any need to show the competition the same deference - to the point of sending Neil Critchley, the U-23s coach, to deputise for last season's fourth-round replay against Shrewsbury.

You reap what you sow, as his feeble FA Cup record attests. At least Klopp had the decency to field a full-strength side for this second duel with United in a week, but the worry was what such a line-up looked like in practice.

Barely a moment went by without Marcus Rashford versus Rhys Williams appearing an embarrassing mismatch, with the rampant United striker giving his 19-year-old marker twisted blood all evening.

If ever there was an occasion to highlight Liverpool's deficiencies at centre-back without Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, here it was, as United's counter-punching sliced the champions open at will.

Instinct

Even Liverpool's traditional strengths became weaknesses, as Andy Robertson's restlessness to surge forward overwhelmed his better instinct to stay back and marshal the threat of Mason Greenwood.

Roberto Firmino was less anonymous than of late, but far removed from his usual visionary self as the fulcrum of the attack, while James Milner, that hardiest perennial, misjudged his positioning to allow Rashford's assist for United's opener to sail over his head.

Perhaps the gravest concern for Liverpool, though, was the lack of heavy artillery in reserve.

No gesture symbolised the fragility of Klopp's squad better than his move to substitute Firmino and Thiago Alcantara, two world-class talents, with Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri.

At a time when they needed to dial up the firepower, to muster a response to Bruno Fernandes' wonderfully crafty free-kick, they showed merely how much their choices have shrunk.

Klopp, for his part, was unusually accepting of defeat, acknowledging that he was relieved to see two goals scored after four straight league games of firing blanks.

"We take that," he said. But there are deeper, unanswered questions behind Liverpool's dip. Is their inability to find reinforcement at centre-half a sign of a rift between Klopp and Fenway Sports Group, held up until now as the model of astute ownership? Does the alarming drop-off in his star players' confidence suggest that his inspirational qualities are faltering?

For now, we can resist any such diagnosis. Klopp is a force of nature, furnished with enough charisma to electrify an empty stadium. But increasingly, his signature toothy grin is being replaced by an exasperated grimace. Far from dancing along the touchline, he is more likely to be found chasing Sean Dyche down the tunnel.

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On the one hand, he is a victim of his own impossibly high standards, but on the other, he seems at a loss as to how to conjure an immediate solution.

At Borussia Dortmund, Klopp's task every year was to hunt down Bayern Munich. But as the man who has driven Liverpool to 197 points in just two seasons, he finds himself cast today in the role of the hunted.

That famous "perch" of which Ferguson spoke is crumbling as quickly as a rock formation in a Wile E Coyote cartoon. Klopp needs to work out, fast, how to avoid tumbling into the canyon beneath.

© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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