Valid reasons for slump but Klopp can’t allow poor form to run into next season
When Jurgen Klopp said he expected this season to be the most challenging of his career, even he would not have realised how rapid or extreme the deterioration of his team would be.
Liverpool were still top of the league when he made those comments, their class compensating for the loss of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez as they extended their three-year unbeaten domestic home record and were more focused on keeping Manchester City at bay than worrying about preserving Champions League status.
Since Christmas, the drop-off has been calamitous, with top-four hopes more perilous than ever. So, how and where has it gone so wrong?
‘A football team is like building a house: if the foundation is not right then it’s always a little bit shaky’
– Jurgen Klopp, February 2021
For any football team at any level, everything starts at the back. When Fabinho was paired with Ozan Kabak against Chelsea on Thursday evening, it was Liverpool’s 19th central-defensive pairing this season.
Read that again and ask yourself how and why the question of where it is going wrong can still be pondered with a bewildered expression. NINETEEN.
No partnerships can form, nor relationships evolve. Classy opponents have been adept at taking advantage, especially as the chain reaction means the midfield engine which purred so effortlessly for the previous two seasons has been compromised as first Fabinho and then Jordan Henderson were forced into the backline.
Many have pointed out how effective they have been in their emergency roles, but it has come at a cost further up field.
Ally that with Klopp’s insistence on persisting with his high-line defence, no matter who is available and what the opponent, and the result is goals such as that by Richarlison in the Merseyside derby, or the build-up to Mason Mount’s winner when N’golo Kante had to do little more than send the midfielder into acres of space.
Klopp has a plan A, and his idea of a tweak is more plan A + than a pragmatic plan B. The attacking philosophy trumps the personnel, Klopp giving the impression he would play the same way even if he had two 15-year-olds from the academy playing at centre-back.
It may yet work in the final 11 games, when Liverpool have more games against clubs in the bottom half, but we’re not talking about this going wrong in one or two games. Even Burnley and Brighton exposed these shortcomings. That has been more difficult to accept than the recent home defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea.
‘The boys themselves know that goals aren’t flying in from the right and left at the moment, but you just have to work on it. There will be a moment where we score again’ – Klopp, January 2021
For three years, Liverpool’s front three were the envy of Europe. Since the start of this season there have been ongoing questions as to whether time has caught up with them, or they have been worked out. Klopp has batted away the fatigue questions, but individual cases require deeper scrutiny. Sadio Mane, for example, does not appear to have had a break since he joined Liverpool, his international commitments meaning he has barely enjoyed a full pre-season since being at the club.
Mane has not been himself lately, lacking a yard of sharpness, but he goes into every game with two man-markers and no longer has the reinforcement of a high-pressing midfielder.
As with the rest of the line-up, we cannot yet be sure if this is more of a system malfunction or longer-term a cause for concern. Klopp certainly attributes it to the personnel around his front players, which is why he says he has no plans to start again next season.
Roberto Firmino has never been a prolific goalscorer, which is why his inconsistency has been a talking point. Mo Salah, on the other hand, has been immune from criticism as his strike rate is consistent, although he has taken more penalties than usual this season.
Salah’s demeanour when being taken off on Thursday was not new. He reacts the same when he is subbed in the 91st minute, although his agent choosing that moment to tweet a full stop is curious. Salah gave a strange interview to a Spanish newspaper in December, which was deliberately ambiguous in allowing us to see it either as an appeal for a new deal or an invitation for offers.
If Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions League, the Egyptian’s body language – and his representative’s social media output – will continue to grab headlines.
‘Not having much of a pre-season was hard. Then it was straight into the deep end with the most intense league in the world. The body is not ready’ – Trent Alexander-Arnold, November, 2020
Like Liverpool’s front three, Klopp’s full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were critical to the success in 2019 and 2020. And like the front three, the duo have suffered from the knock-on effect of the changes in midfield and defence.
Last season, the pair could surge forward secure in the knowledge Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho or James Milner would cover their run as ‘false full-backs’. Beyond that, they had the added layer of security of Van Dijk’s or Joe Gomez’s pace.
It gave them freedom to play as extra attackers. Their overlapping runs meant Mane and Salah could evade markers, or create space for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
This year there has been more caution and hesitancy, the pair more aware of their defensive responsibilities because they have gone from junior partners to the senior figures in the back four.
People forget Alexander-Arnold is still only 22. Occasionally the shackles have been released – Robertson played further forward against Chelsea, for example – but generally teams have focused more on nullifying their threat.
Carlo Ancelotti told Seamus Coleman to man-to-man-mark Robertson in the recent Merseyside derby. As well as that, the defensive duo have also not had a break for three years, Klopp unable to rotate because he cannot afford to sacrifice his most experienced defenders.
‘The situation [with Thiago] was far from perfect when he joined – injured and then ill’ – Klopp, February 2021
When Thiago Alcantara moved from Bayern Munich he was meant to be the cherry on the cake. Little could he have known how the ice beneath would melt. Thiago was signed to enhance, not radically alter, Liverpool’s midfield. He is a majestic footballer, his weight of pass putting one in mind of a golfer who intuitively knows the right club.
His first couple of appearances away at Chelsea and at Everton – back when Liverpool were still at full-strength – offered a tantalising glimpse of what he was supposed to be. Instead, he has never been part of a trio with Henderson and Fabinho, making the judgement about his debut season tainted.
Claims he slows Liverpool’s passing are wrong, as does the use of those statistics which show he harries, tackles and covers as much ground as Liverpool’s midfielders last season. Thiago’s physical attributes are not his strength. He is not as quick as Henderson and Fabinho, nor does he press as high up the pitch.
That’s not what he was bought to do, but has been forced to adapt, while expected to be the main playmaker alongside the exciting novice Curtis Jones and Wijnaldum, who despite being on course to leave in the summer is the only midfielder well versed in the rhythm Klopp wants from his midfield.
‘In good times everybody thinks our owners are really generous – ‘my, what big signings!’ or whatever – and in bad times everyone thinks they are really tight’
– Klopp, January 2021
As ever, if anyone needs a convenient scapegoat for Liverpool’s problems, look no further than the men in suits. The Fenway Sports Group self-sustaining model was the envy of most Premier League clubs a year ago. That same philosophy is used as the stick with which to beat Liverpool’s board now the title defence has gone wrong, particularly given it took too long to sign replacement centre-backs and of those signed, one [Ben Davies] has not yet played and the other [Ozan Kabak] looks a long way off the required standard.
Clearly, that delay and inability to field world-class centre-backs has wrecked the season. Should FSG take the hit for that? How much of what has happened in the last year could it have foreseen?
Thiago and Diogo Jota looked astute purchases in September. But the back-up players assembled whose contributions were minimal in the last two years have been a let-down; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain not yet the same since serious injury, Xherdan Shaqiri inconsistent, Divock Origi anonymous since his legend was secured in the 2019 Champions League run and Naby Keita too often injured.
When Liverpool won the title last summer, Klopp and his players said all the right things. “This is just the start,” was the recurring theme, no-one anticipating the imminent catastrophic injury list or for how long the pandemic would last, de-weaponising Anfield.
This season has demonstrated how unless every detail is perfect – from the signings to injury luck – dreams fall apart quickly. If FSG decides as it often does to keep quiet rather than offer soothing words to the public, reassuring actions will be needed to back the manager in the summer.
‘Anfield, with people and without, is completely different’ – Pep Guardiola, February 2021
People appear to be sick of hearing it from Liverpool, so maybe the words of the Manchester City manager about how lockdown football has impacted the champions will resonate.
There will come a time when Klopp and other leading managers will talk more freely about the challenges he has referenced over the past years, especially as the emotional element of his football is so fundamental to it.
For now, every time he speaks on his Zoom calls, you sense his lip biting until it bleeds. There must have been times when the Liverpool manager has felt like pausing, staring into the mini-camera and reminding the world, “You do know what you are watching is not real football, don’t you?”
And that’s before we delve deeper into the injury list and the more serious trauma of the personal tragedies he and some of his players have endured.
But he cannot, because that is not what the watching public, nor media, want to hear, and even mild efforts to highlight unusual circumstances are ridiculed as ‘an excuse’ for underperformance or being so-called ‘bad champions’.
So we are willingly engaged in this prolonged experiment of pandemic football because the alternative of nothing is too tedious to contemplate for viewers, too barren for those of whose jobs rely on the game continuing, and too expensive to tolerate for the executives who need the broadcast revenue.
It’s no excuse for Liverpool toiling in seventh place, of course. And yes, every club has to deal with it. If Liverpool are as bad as this a year from now, they will be in more serious trouble. Until then, we are judging them amid the illusion of normality in these most abnormal circumstances.
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