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.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo
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Well put and echoes the concerns of many supporters the bravado and brio evident in the first half of the season has only been seen sporadically since the Bournemouth debacle.
Quite frankly it’s not good enough and if the decline is not arrested now we will fail to get into the top four with all the ramifications around recruitment and income.
Mistakes have been made in selection ( e.g. persisting with the ponderous Can ) tactics and squad depth
I still hope that Klopp is the man to do it but don’t have the faith of 12 months and suspect I share this with many others.
I don’t want to be disloyal but I am beginning to have doubts about his ability to keep the motivation and tactics right over a whole season of Premier League, never mind the cups we have meekly surrendered. Your point his rant about the Xmas programme and the weakness at Sunderland is well made.
I hate to sound like a boring old fart but I do worry about the readiness to make off the cuff comments, even more so when the players do it. How many times have they been quoted as saying “We will learn from this defeat/disappointment etc” and then fail to put their money where their mouth is in the next match.
Lets learn from the only serial winner the club has had and remember his saying “We do our talking on the pitch”
Good article Mike. And for me I take from your piece this –
“At every club it is the same. The manager is judged by the performance and results of his team.”
And I think the poor performance at Leicester has forced us fans to reluctantly take an inventory of past tactical mistakes beginning with the Two-cup defeats, as well as the baffling lack of signings.
However, We remain faithful, We remain in position to challenge for *top four* and there remains plenty of the season still to go. Up The Reds
I think it’s just a mixture of all the points being raised. I’ll bang on about my favourite point which is Liverpool need a decent centre half pairing or they’ll achieve nothing, but I fully believe it.
When I played football we often had weak managers but hung over or tired I was the same in every game – crap – but apart from that I came out fighting. I wound up the opposition and I took pride that no one would beat me in a challenge or they’d be getting kicked. Point being, regardless of what Klopp has or hasn’t said I didn’t need to be told to give my all. Have our players in those slow starts you mention? No.
I’m happy to blame the character of the players. Are those players mentally tough? Did they cope well with the set backs? No. You only have to look at them. They’re all fragile. Yeah, it’s great when we’re winning but they have no metal.
Klopp has made mistakes – no doubt about that. Some decisions have been baffling which is fine if they pay off but when they don’t it’s natural to be left wondering what he was thinking.
In some ways though, I can understand his January decision. I know the term quick fix gets bandied about, and I don’t believe there was absolutely no player who could have improved us but I have the hope that it’s all down to wanting a brighter future. We need to start targeting players properly. I’d sacrifice this season if it genuinely meant we’re going to challenge long term. I’m sick of us buying crap players.
So, personally, I think it’s right to blame the players. Some in key positions are not good enough to challenge for a title. They’re probably at the level to achieve 6th place. Most don’t have enough fight in them. That obviously comes down to recruitment as much as anything but I’d have a better attitude than them. Klopp is learning and I trust him to keep doing so. He’ll now need to realise the effects of not having a break in winter. I trust he’ll want a far bigger and better squad. We just need to buy ready made first team players now. None of this potential shite. He did get them over achieving on their ability level for a while but it can’t last indefinitely. It’s only fair to agree we’ve had injury issues too but again, that’s down to the squad not being good enough.
One question I’m not sure on is why he can get his first 11 over achieving but his bench players are all under achieving.
To conclude, I keep looking back to 13/14. I simply refuse to accept we came so close because of Rodgers. I know people hate this argument but I don’t really care. For me, it was all about Suarez and not because of how good he was. I think it was down to his mentality. If we’d have had a player as good as suarez but without the absolute desire to win that he had we wouldn’t have come back in games like Cardiff away, Fulham away and Swansea at home. The run in wouldn’t have happened. I know Gerrard gives his all and always has but Suarez drove him on even more. Sterling can sulk or let his head go down but Suarez drove him on. Sturridge relished the challenge of competing with him. No one dared go out on that pitch and not give 100% because they feared getting a chunk bitten out of their cheek. He was a born winner and it rubbed off. We simply don’t have that anymore. The closest we have is Henderson and I feel he picks them up to a much lesser extent. Our fortunes often seem to be aligned to his well being and I’d go back to 13/14 even with that. I’m convinced, this team needs leaders on the field. They need two strong centre halves behind them and winners down the spine amongst them. I’ve played with quiet players. They can be brilliant but they often need a kick up the arse when things aren’t going to plan.
Hiya Robin, how you doing? I agree with you, most of all re that 2013/14 season. Suarez goes from biter to unbelievable striker had in my opinion to do with his leaving for Barca. My guess is he and the club must have just discussed it with BR and LFC and it seemed the only way out for him.
Re our current crop and Klopp, do you think that Klopp is capable of handling star players whom we think are readymades? Which players do you think would fall under this category?
Btw Conte inherited the inglorious bastards from Mourinho and things could have gone very wrong as we started to see at the beginning but managing those egos must take something special.
What’s your take if we fail to make CL next season? (Thinking about it even BR made it to CL in two years)
Hope we do well against the gunners but without lovren, and sturridge it’s a worry.
Up the Reds!
Hiya Sash mate.
I definitely think Klopp can manage star players. I was speaking to LFC staff recently who’ve attended parties with him. They said he has a real aura about him. I think any footballer could respect him.
Don’t ask me about players, haha. I’ve absolutely no idea. Got enough of my plate watching my lad play for the school, Chester schoolboys, Saturday league and Sunday league. Add LFC to that and I’ve got no desire whatsoever to watch other teams. Don’t play FIFA games either which seems to be the media that people use to judge and scout players these days.
I wouldn’t worry about missing out on the top 4 either. 18 year old lads doing well at an unheard of club probably won’t be too concerned about CL footy so it shouldn’t affect us too much, haha. No, joking aside I’m fairly confident of getting both top 4 and some ok players in the summer. I expect us to spend close to £100m net and £130m gross. Sounds a lot but there could be trouble if we miss out on top 4 and spend £30m net. I think we’re all getting sick of treading water now. A little push and we could be the best in England. I’m convinced of that. I’m not too despondent. Gutted about Jan and Feb but overall I’m forever optimistic good times are just around the corner. We just need to do the right things in the summer.
I think Lovren is fit for tomorrow.
Does anyone but Liverpool fans look at that squad and think it’s “failure” for it not to be in top 4? It’s the 5th best squad at best.
The players did not show any hunger / desire to me. Think they knew the excuse was there re Ranieri sacking if they lost. Obviously Klopp has to take responsibility for that too, but the players definitely need to look at themselves. The least they could have done after their break away in Spain was to chase every ball down like it mattered.
As ever Mike, Great writeup ant straight to the point. And Robin’s dead right too about Suarez’s winning mentality at literally any cost! You see recruitment is key, managers and scouts knowing when they’re in the presence of a player who has that metal, who has experience of winning as well as the stomach for a scrap when things are going a bit tits up. Start from the keeper and go get Joe Hart, according to many accounts he’s desperate for the opportunity to play for LFC and he’s been round the block as a Winner and a fighter. IMO hes ready made and would relish the challenge. Lovren is showing positive signs of maturing and cutting the crap from his game so I’d stick with him. A worrying sight against Leicester was Matip shitting a brick, maybe it was the personnel by his side. And let’s get another thing straight, I couldn’t give a shiny shite about nice fellas and all. In fact isn’t that our problem, winners often aren’t nice people when they’re working, we should know we’ve had a few over the 40 + years I’ve been watching, but nice or not they lead by example when getting stuck in, which is contagious and spreads to the quieter players. I’d even go as far to say they’re an essential ingredient like salt and pepper.
I said it back in 2009, Rafa lost us the Title by playing a young Lucas instead of sticking with Alonso, Mascerano and Gerard in midfield. Over the years at best Lucas has been a competent 2nd string stand in. What does he bring to the party, he’s slow and needs a Taxi to make it to a tackle on time, consequently ALWAYS giving away needless free kicks in dangerous areas around our box, his assists or goals stats are none existant and lower than a snakes nuts, he doesn’t create, latterly admittedly for me his maturity made him bearable as a makeshift holding CM but now he’s obsolete at LFC and is regularly at the scene of the crime when things go badly wrong as was Skyrtl.
Then there’s the wide positions which done right will open up the middle. For me it’s gotta be Mane with Trent down the Right next season, we know the Left needs looking at, and RF and PC go missing January to March in the cold. So that’s a problem.
But this is my biggest gravy, we need a mobile predatory Striker who’s pivotal to the Team, a spearhead if you like who gives focus to those around him, especially when when we’re struggling. I’d go as far to say let’s break the bank to get our man. Answers on a postcard please. Showing me age there. Ha!!