Is Liverpool’s malaise a blip or something bigger? ‘Pretty much everything’ is in need of improvement
The most infamous tweet in Manchester United history stemmed from the club’s official account: “David Moyes says [the team] must improve in a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending.”
ine years on, Jurgen Klopp produced his version of it, albeit inserting the punchline that everything is wrong, rather than leaving others to supply it. “We have to improve, we have to play consistently better, defend better, attack better: pretty much everything,” the Liverpool manager said.
If it is not the kind of verdict a coach with six defeats in his previous 82 games usually delivers, nor was it the sort of analysis most produced a few months ago when the quadruple beckoned for Liverpool.
And if that illustrates how quickly things have unravelled at Anfield, if the statistics reflect the sustained spell of superb form that preceded the current problems, it leaves Liverpool searching for answers. Is this malaise or decline a blip or something bigger?
Klopp’s answers took in comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and a reminder of the time when Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams were his unlikely rescuers.
“It is only two years ago we had a very similar situation for different reasons where we lost all our centre-halves and we had to find solutions,” Klopp said. “We lost our game completely; nobody could recognise us anymore. We wore the same shirts but couldn’t react as quick as people would wish, but we found a way out because we worked on it and this is what we will do this time.”
Yet then identifying the problem – an absence of senior specialist centre-backs, with a knock-on effect when midfielders were chosen in defence – was simpler, even if it presented a challenge to solve.
Two years on, injuries have been an explanation, especially when Liverpool were without ten players, but now Andy Robertson is the only member of the strongest side who is absent. Klopp was able to pick his first-choice midfield of Thiago Alcantara, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson against Brighton on Saturday, but where he wanted control, he got chaos.
There is the troubled beginning of Darwin Nunez, limited to a solitary start in the last seven games by a combination of suspension, a minor injury and, more pertinently, Klopp’s selections.
In seven years at Anfield, he has arguably never had so many of his pivotal players out of form as now: Mohamed Salah, Fabinho, Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold top the list.
Maybe only Alisson, Luis Diaz, Roberto Firmino, Fabio Carvalho and Harvey Elliott have had even moderately good seasons so far and only two of them rank in Liverpool’s best team.
Theirs has been a stop-start season, with postponed games, when encouragement then seems a false dawn. The thrashing by Napoli represented rock bottom, a win over Ajax showed some positive signs, only for difficulties to recur against Brighton. With each setback, confidence takes a kicking. Even the immortals are not immune from it.
“People can ask, how could it happen that these players are not full of confidence?” Klopp said. “Do you think Cristiano Ronaldo at this moment is top of his confidence levels? He was for ages the best player in the world and now it is not going his way and it is not exactly the same. That happens to all of us. Lionel Messi played last season where it was not exactly the same.”
Yet with Liverpool, much is the same: Nunez and Carvalho apart, it is largely the same personnel. “We do exactly the same the previous years with the same players,” Kostas Tsimikas said. “It is not possible everybody forgets the tactics and the gameplan of the manager.”
Rather than forgetting them, however, they simply have not implemented them as well. Klopp’s temptation is to double down on his strategy; his use of the word “reinvent” in Naples was deceptive when he intended to restore and revive the essentials of their previous success.
“We can play exactly the same and do better; that is already a fix,” he said. And yet there is also a temptation to change. “We cannot always start something completely new but if we can help the boys with a way to defend differently we will do that,” he pledged.
Liverpool always relied on chemistry and cohesion. They have lost them, which makes a rebuilding job tougher than just reconstructing one player’s game. “In individual sports maybe you can fight yourself through it, but in a team sport, we all have to do it together and that makes it a bit more complicated,” Klopp said.
The Premier League’s longest-serving manager will bring up his seventh anniversary this week. Klopp has often railed at short-termism. Now he suggests Liverpool’s issues cannot be fixed in the short term.
“Always in life when you spot a problem, you think about it, think you have a solution and then you expect the solution to be instantly influential, sorted,” he added. “That in football is never the case and it would not have been the case had we won the [Brighton] game 3-2.”
It leaves him looking for repetition to rejuvenate Liverpool, hoping playing the percentages will get the right results. “Patience is not 100pc the right word, but we have to be patient to do the right thing again, and again and again until it works out again and then we will be fine,” he said.
“We have to increase the amount of good moments and decrease the amount of not-so-good moments. That is how you get out of every situation in life until you can make mistakes again and they are not as impactful as they are in the moment.”
But for now, as Klopp indicated, the mistakes are not confined to defence, midfield or attack. Because everything is quite a lot.