A DIP, A BLIP, OR THE END? JURGEN KLOPP FACES TOUGHEST TEST YET TO GALVANISE LIVERPOOL
As Liverpool know to their cost from their past, when eras end, it can be suddenly, almost without warning. A sense of permanence can give way to a feeling of decay. In 1990, few thought their 18th league title would be their last for three decades. Rewind a few months and a quadruple-chasing Liverpool were often branded the best team in Europe. Now Jurgen Klopp applied that description to Napoli.
Perhaps Liverpool can see their past selves in an unbeaten, all-conquering free-scoring side. But a few months have effected a swift change. They have suffered more defeats in the whole of last season. They have produced what Klopp himself deemed the worst performance of his seven-year reign in Naples. They have lost successive league matches to Nottingham Forest and Leeds, who kicked off in the bottom two, each with two points from their previous eight games. They have been outrun at times, a team that relied on its ferocious physicality looking old and tired. Their pressing game has broken down. Shifts in formation and personnel have worked for a game or two, before it has unravelled again.
What seemed a dip, a blip threatens to become something more seismic. Liverpool are eight points off the top four; Tuesday’s rematch with Napoli threatens to be Anfield’s last Champions League group game for some time. Klopp admitted on Saturday that if Liverpool maintain their current inconsistency, they will not get a top-four finish.
And, with many of his group in their thirties, perhaps it would be an anticlimactic end for an extraordinary team. Klopp can sound defiant at times but now he accepted and understood the criticism. He entertained the notion it is a team in decline, merely citing their injuries in midfield and attack and asking for the verdicts to be delayed until the end of the campaign. If Liverpool are staring their mentality in the face, they have six months to illustrate they are not finished.
“I think the judgement for this will be later in the season or maybe at the end of the season where we say, ‘OK, obviously now that is it for this group of players or whatever. For this manager if you want.’ The question will be asked then but in the moment it is not 100 percent fair to judge the team,” he said.
It was instructive he brought himself into the conversation. He cites his age with increasing regularity. His new contract, agreed earlier this year, lasts until 2026 and carries a commitment to build a second team. He is not shying away from his responsibilities, vowing to stay for the bad times as well as the good.
“My job is not only being here in the moment when the sun is shining and someone gives us a trophy,” he said. “We are all out there to be judged. It is completely fine: manager, players, that is how life is in professional football. We expect more from ourselves, the boys expect more, I expect more from them. It is a rough moment, no doubt about that, and no one is flying here like life is great. It was never a quick fix and now it looks not a quick fix. That is proven.”
If it is a long-term fix, it raises questions about Klopp, given Borussia Dortmund declined in his seventh year there and his players, about their suitability as well as their durability. Rewind three decades and age crept up on Kenny Dalglish’s team. Klopp can be a loyalist but Roberto Firmino, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner are in the last year of their contracts. The form of Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah and Fabinho this season invites questions if their best days are behind them. Joel Matip, Thiago Alcantara and Jordan Henderson are all the wrong side of 30.
Most have been rightly lauded, heralded for winning the Premier League and the Champions League, praised for winning two trophies and getting agonisingly close to two more last season. So, too, was Klopp. He does not object to the scrutiny or the fault-finding analysis now; just the results.
“I used to say press conferences are like a holiday but I cannot say that any more because facing your questions when you lose is really tough,” he said. “After a game when you lose and you still haven’t sorted everything you think about it is real torture. Again, that is part of the job. I had another a look at my payslip and that is what I am paid for, and it is pretty good as well. It’s okay. You can criticise, absolutely right.”
He is not hiding, but nor is he winning often enough. He was tormented by the thought of Leeds’ winner on Saturday. It kept him awake at night. Was this, he was asked, a new phenomenon? “I am 55, I go a couple of times per night on the toilet,” he replied. “That is why I wake up usually. But this time the goal was in my mind.”
He has not lost his gift for one-liners. But the season amounts to a test if he can still galvanise Liverpool and if this team can respond and revive themselves, or if, after a dramatic downturn, decline has set in.