IT becomes increasingly difficult to make sense of Liverpool’s season as the lurch continues from title contenders at New Year to current outsiders for a spot in the top four.
The commonly held current consensus is that the Reds can beat the good teams and not the bad; can beat teams who want to attack but lose to those who want to defend. It is a nice neat summary for the pub bore who isn’t particularly interested in exploring any further what the hell has happened to Liverpool over the last two months.
After the defeat at Leicester on Monday, another familiar narrative resurfaced that the players just aren’t good enough; that they exhibit a lack of nous, have character flaws and a losing mentality. Rewind just over 12 months and the same accusations followed away league defeats at Newcastle, Watford and West Ham during the early part of Jürgen Klopp’s management at Anfield.
In the meantime, the same players – with the addition of Klopp’s summer signings – reached League Cup and Europa League finals last season and topped the Premier League table this term. They did so amid a flurry of goals, were lauded for exciting attacking football and defeated some very good football teams along the way. It is worth remembering that Liverpool also dismissed plenty of lesser lights too, often registering four, five or six goals in the process.
Plaudits came and rightly so for the players; those bequeathed to Klopp plus his new recruits, and for the boss himself for abruptly turning a team perceived as ‘also rans’ into genuine contenders.
The alarming slump of January and February has reminded us of old deficiencies. The players are getting it in the neck again and the consistent theme is that they lack quality and will to win. After another anodyne, anaemic performance at the King Power Stadium these are the easy conclusions to draw. It is, though, far too simplistic to conclude that Klopp’s autumn charges are suddenly devoid of ability and desire.
Klopp hasn’t turned into a bad manager overnight but he clearly hasn’t been at his best since the turn of the year. Fans are reluctant to point the finger at such a popular figure, and perhaps this explains the willingness and preference to lay blame at the feet of the lads on the pitch.
Such is the universal belief in Klopp, allied to fear he represents the Reds’ last shot at a return to the top table, to pinpoint shortcomings amounts almost to sacrilege. But there is a sense that of late, Klopp has somewhat lost his mojo.
As ever, there are mitigating circumstances. Injuries have hit hard, depleting a squad already light on numbers. Like all managers, Klopp is at the mercy not just of fitness but also the vagaries of form.
In sequence, his key players have all hit the buffers; Jordan Henderson with a succession of knocks, Phil Coutinho absent for an extended period and only a shadow of the player since, and Roberto Firmino – a whirlwind before Christmas – eventually showing obvious signs of fatigue. In defence too, both Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren have succumbed too regularly to develop a regular pairing at the back.
However, in recent weeks Klopp hasn’t been the ebullient, charismatic presence we have come to expect. His touchline demeanour has changed; a constant cajoling presence has – perhaps understandably – given way to a surlier manner, often hunched on the bench for long periods; only getting to his feet in sporadic bouts of frustration.
Before results went awry his public annoyance over a glut of games across the holiday period seem to coincide with the first of several lethargic performances. At Sunderland the obvious option to rotate and spare some of those who had played 48 hours earlier was passed up and crucial points were dropped. Earlier in the season much was made of his faith in the whole group and younger players but when it came to the crunch, Klopp’s trust was restricted to the familiar cast.
The cup commitments during January saw opportunity for fringe players and wholesale changes but rest afforded to first team regulars realised no real apparent benefit when returning to league action. Continuity was lost; Liverpool exited both cups in dismal fashion and simultaneously fell away in the title race.
The decision to refuse all but long-term prospects in the summer, compounded by a lukewarm attitude towards the January market has left the squad threadbare. Klopp was insistent he was happy with his lot; that the personnel couldn’t be improved without compromising a requirement for the “right players.”
If the issue of required squad size was initially confused by the absence of European football, perhaps not enough consideration was given to the brutal slog of the domestic campaign. Certainly no contingency plan was put in place for the known absence of Sadio Mane.
The situation at left-back with James Milner slowly grinding to a halt after an excellent start exposes the folly of not recruiting further in the summer. If Alberto Moreno was deemed worthy of only the occasional cameo, trusting to Milner’s ability to last a whole season unimpaired was a basic error.
Klopp is renowned for being the arch motivator; a supreme momentum manager and much of his famed belligerence lit up Anfield during the first half of the season. It was apparent to all and sundry Jürgen had his sights set on the title and while the Reds were riding high his appetite for this particular fight clearly rubbed off on the team. That is the essence of the man; the exuberant leader whose troops blithely follow.
Since that impetus was lost in January, he has struggled to coax the same brio from himself and his players. Both have struggled to recalibrate ambitions and perform with the same gusto towards the prospect of qualifying for the Champions League.
A series of sluggish starts has seen Liverpool consistently fail to put the league’s cannon fodder to the sword. While teams have defended in numbers, questions have to be asked of the tempo set from the off, giving opponents time to settle. Never was this more apparent than during a vapid first half against Swansea. The trick was repeated in a ponderous first period at Hull.
For Liverpool, with the burden of 27 years and counting, it is always different. Jamie Carragher explained that after the title near miss of 2009, a couple of defeats in the opening matches of the following season were enough to plunge the dressing room into despair. The club now lives and breathes, like no other, for the league title.
Players and managers are handsomely rewarded for their efforts, but they are also human beings. With the title a promised land forever out of reach, an air of disappointment – of missed opportunity – always hangs over Anfield. As another chance has slipped by this year, frowns and despondency have replaced confident smiles – on the pitch and in the dug-out.
At a time when Klopp’s famed motivational powers might have been expected to arrest the slump, instead he has looked despondent. The Reds in turn have looked more lacklustre than ever. Some will prefer to pin this one on the players, but surely it is one of a manager’s prime responsibilities to have his men come out fighting.
Jürgen had his players bouncing out of the dressing room home and away for the opening five months of the campaign. It was a joy to behold, but something has gone seriously wrong since.
His job now is to bolster his own belief, build confidence and return that missing vibe to the dressing room. At every club it is the same. The manager is judged by the performance and results of his team.
With 12 games to go, it’s quite simple. Qualifying for the Champions League can still allow us to conclude on a successful season. Missing out will equal failure. Klopp knows and accepts that as much as anyone.