THE midweek defeat at Leicester underlined the myriad problems facing Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool continue to languish in eighth place in the Premier League, 11 points adrift of Champions League football. With each passing week, and every uninspiring performance, it becomes harder to escape the reality of a depleted squad lacking severely in quality.
Even during the dark times under Graeme Souness, there were the stellar names of the ageing John Barnes, Steve Nicol and Ian Rush complemented by the promise of the emergent Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.
When Gerard Houllier encountered difficulties in his first season, there was still the promise of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen.
More recently, Kenny Dalglish, in his second stint as manager, had the unfulfilled genius of Luis Suarez in his locker.
Klopp’s squad, while containing a number of solid Premier League performers who are consistently failing to reach levels exhibited elsewhere and only sporadically in a red shirt, lacks class and personality.
The season as a whole though remains a paradox. The league form is depressing. The lack of goals and entertainment is a disappointment for supporters paying through the nose already, with the prospect of pockets rinsed further next season. However, there’s still a lot to play for.
There is a cup final on the horizon; and we still have the FA Cup and Europa League to aim at.
It would be easy to admit this season — especially in terms of the league — is a write off. Some would argue that was the case when the owners, in their infinite wisdom backed the previous manager in the summer only to bail on that misguided plan as early as October.
Klopp was parachuted in without the benefit of a summer of recruitment and time to work on fitness and ideas.
No-one can argue that change wasn’t required, and few would claim that Klopp isn’t a grander managerial name than Brendan Rodgers, but the strategic timing was poor and we’re suffering for it now. A chance to begin the rebuild has just been passed up — a whiff of neglect in the air during the January transfer window.
Worryingly, we appear to have gone backwards since November. What can Klopp do to arrest the decline that has followed the exultant early promise of those landmark wins at Manchester City and Chelsea?
With so much still at stake for those of us who refuse to write off seasons, despite this being the very definition of a transition period, are there some short-term fixes available that will give us a platform from which to build next year?
If we’re realistic enough to accept a lowly league finish, how can we put some gloss on things with success in the cups?
Klopp’s true Anfield project can only really begin next season, but the job begins from day one and he has to rediscover the feel-good factor that accompanied his appointment if there’s to be a silver lining to this bizarre campaign.
First of all, it would be nice to see Jürgen back with a smile on his face. His affable demeanour has given way recently to quizzical looks and impatient responses to questions during press conferences. He looks increasing vexed and puzzled on the touchline.
Maybe he’s just realising the scale of the job in front of him. His furrowed brow and raised eyebrows are perhaps a symptom of his anger that his passion isn’t being mirrored on the pitch.
Sadly, far from motivating players whose Liverpool futures are on the line, Klopp’s growing dissatisfaction appears to have had the opposite effect.
Either way, there’s no question he’s struggling to enjoy the job now that the honeymoon period has ended.
He is clearly very frustrated by the demands of the fixture list, compounded by our involvement in every conceivable match we could have played this season.
Two-legged semi-finals in the League Cup, and replays in the FA Cup have robbed him of midweek recovery time and the opportunity to work on shape and organisation. It shows.
He rightly points out that players are tired but fickle creatures that they are, footballers need no excuse to pick up on such things and exhibit their fatigue in the shape of the lethargic performances we’re seeing.
The high pressing seems to have gone out the window, and there is a lack of intensity at the start of games. Can Klopp address this with some fresher legs from the outer reaches of the squad?
The FA Cup ties have seen some promise from Cameron Brannagan, Sheyi Ojo and Brad Smith. Would it hurt to try these lads out in a stronger XI?
If the form of a heavy-legged Lucas Leiva, an erratic Emre Can and a lobotomised Alberto Moreno is anything to go by, it’s worth a risk giving them a start in the league games that look increasingly irrelevant. We can afford to rest the more experienced performers for the cups, as sacrilegious as that sounds.
With the midfield offering little in terms of creativity, and no discernible pattern to Liverpool’s play, should there be a place for Joe Allen?
Lumbered with the “Welsh Xavi” moniker, Allen’s quality is often overlooked. He receives and keeps the ball well, knits the play together through the middle, and can provide a much-needed link between defence and attack.
He’s even been on the score-sheet recently and deserves his chance.
God knows, we need some goals from midfield.
The midfield conundrum has been exaggerated by the recent fitness issues surrounding Jordan Henderson who seems incapable of completing 90 minutes without his heel playing up.
However, he’s no wide midfielder (where we saw him at Leicester and at Watford before Christmas). If he isn’t fully fit, give him time to recover. As it stands, picking him half-fit, in an alien position isn’t doing anyone any favours.
The lack of goals (the anomalies of Arsenal and Norwich notwithstanding) is chronic. Is it now worth dispensing with a front three comprising no strikers to give Christian Benteke a run in the side?
On the face of it, he isn’t suited to the players around him, but there’s no obvious shape to fit in with in this Liverpool team at the moment. The “false nine” set up had some early validation, particularly at Man City, and more recently against Arsenal, but the lack of presence up front is beginning to tell. Three games without a goal is testament to that.
Tell Benteke he’s important, stick him on the pitch and charge him with one thing. Get me a goal. Shoot on sight.
Indeed, stick that on the dressing room wall and tattoo it on heads.
Our reluctance to shoot is criminal; the basic requirement for registering a goal, forgotten.
If we can somehow get back to basics, then Benteke can still play a part. If we’re forced to cut our losses on him at the end of the season, we’d be protecting some of his value giving him the chance to bag a few goals.
If winning Benteke over and showing at least some of his worth is a challenge that Klopp must rise to, perhaps there is a similar task in the rehabilitation of Jordon Ibe. The lad looks frightened to death.
We’re criminally short of pace; pace that Ibe can offer if he can rediscover the fearless, direct running of earlier in the season.
Think of his two goals, away to Rubin Kazan and Southampton, both drilled in without a second’s hesitation, from a central position. Klopp’s job with Ibe is to instil him with that confidence and remove the fear of failure; to tell him to just go out and enjoy it.
Adam Lallana, too, needs reminding of the player we bought for £25million.
No-one works harder for the team in pressurising opponents; and no-one has improved fitness levels as much as Lallana. But where is the footballer?
What has happened to transform him from thoroughbred to workhorse?
A word from Klopp to be brave, and stress that intensity and creativity aren’t mutually exclusive wouldn’t go amiss. He’s probably already been told, but Lallana needs to express himself before the manager looks elsewhere for his invention.
There’s a lot for Klopp to weigh up in terms of priorities, personnel and philosophy. For the moment perhaps, pragmatism is the only way forward.
Behind the charm offensive, it’s a testing challenge for him — as it would be for any manager working in a new league. The coming months are crucial though if we want to go into next season with the same sheen that accompanied his arrival.