Liverpool face RB Leipzig with problems mounting and no obvious solution, and a defeat could threaten to derail their season entirely.
The club could claim to have spent the previous two seasons as, on average, the best in Europe. Winning the Champions League proved their superiority over two legs against the best that the continent had to offer, and their brilliant form in the league only improved the next season in the league. Winning the Premier League might not have the same cachet as the Champions League, but against Manchester City and the rest of the richest league in the world, in many ways it is a more impressive achievement.
There had been mutterings ahead of this season that with all the sport science used to get players to their very peaks, two seasons is the most that a club can play flat out without having to overhaul their playing staff. It appears that for whatever reason, fatigue or something else, the relentless verve Jurgen Klopp’s men used to have has now markedly dissipated.
- Liverpool and United to battle for defender in summer - Paper Round
- OpinionL West Brom draw highlights six transfer Man Utd must make
Clear reasons can be identified for all of the weaknesses at Liverpool right now. The exogenous shock of the coronavirus pandemic should not be ignored. Just because every club has to endure it, not every club will deal with it as capably. Perhaps the psychological strain of being in and around Liverpool, one of the hardest hit regions in the United Kingdom - which itself has handled the crisis arguably worse than any other country in the world - would take its toll on players who are compelled to form deep relationships with their fanbase. More obviously, Klopp has been denied the chance to attend his own mother’s funeral, and perhaps players have also suffered their own strains and losses.
More predictably, the club have been running at full beam for the past three years under Klopp. It’s something of a truism, but the three-year cycles of teams is the standard before they have to be broken up and refreshed. Klopp had a shelf life at Borussia Dortmund despite not becoming any worse a coach, perhaps something similar is happening at Anfield. If you take an extreme distillation of Klopp’s methods, you might come up with Marcelo Bielsa, and he manages about two seasons at a club, sometimes fewer, before players either become sick of his physical demands or too jaded to keep up with them. Liverpool have fundamentally the same team they have played with for a few years now, perhaps bigger changes need to be made to keep their focus and vim.
It would be too neat to suggest that Alisson’s increasing recklessness in goal is a symptom of that listlessness, but across the whole squad it would be no surprise if the constant state of anxiety that Klopp likes to use on the pitch has started to wear down his player’s concentration. As other clubs increase the turnover of their own first teams, they will have a relative advantage. It would be hard to make the case that Manchester United or Leicester City have better first elevens than Liverpool, but they have certainly shown more resilience.
Perez promises Mbappe and €100m to Zidane on one condition - Euro Papers
Klopp certainly has already tried to resolve some of these tensions. By signing Diogo Jota from Wolves he appeared to acknowledge that there was little chance that Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino would be able to maintain their same exceptionally high standards. Jota’s early promise suggests a way through that, but his injury has left them back with their usual trio. Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi are perfectly acceptable squad players, but they do not offer real competition as much as they are players to pick up the slack over the course of the season.
The arrival of Thiago Alcantara was presumably a similar attempt from the manager to change things up. Using Jordan Henderson, Giorginio Wijnaldum (himself clearly keen to move on), James Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield to win titles is an exceptional achievement, but the Spaniard offers something disconcertingly new. He has a sophistication and nuance that requires fundamental change from those around him, which will take time to come about, if it ever does. The obvious comparison is Juan Sebastian Veron at United, who in many ways was a superior player to Giggs-Scholes-Keane-Beckham-Butt, but who could not be properly integrated. Perhaps Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barcelona is another one, an excellent player who could not buy into a new way of playing. It would be easier for Klopp to make this admirable transition if he had his full complement of players, but he has needed to firefight almost constantly.
Henderson has been forced to step back into central defence after injuries to Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Fabinho have wrecked the back four. Kostas Tsimikas might have been able to spread the physical demands on Andy Robertson but he too has found it difficult to regularly find peak fitness. It was a mistake to attempt to go through the season with just three central defenders, but nevertheless no team could cope with such serious injuries to a specific part of the pitch. Liverpool are evidently no different.
Leicester City-Liverpool, Premier League 2020-2021: Ozan Kabak (Liverpool) (Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
The solution was obviously to move in the market. Ben Davies was set for a move to Celtic, but instead switched from the Championship to Liverpool. It is hard to gauge his talent for now, but there must have been a reason for not stepping up a level sooner than now, and the jump to the Premier League will be a shock. Klopp has to manage his promotion carefully so as not to wreck his confidence, but he has no choice but to put him in regularly.
Ozan Kabak poses a similar problem. He is highly rated but is just 20, and has spent the season in a woeful Schalke team. There’s no point reading too much into his collision with Alisson, but he will feel under huge pressure now, exacerbated by the fact he is playing for a permanent transfer which is far from guaranteed. Davies and Kabak in ordinary times could prove to be astute signings, but in a crisis they both represent gambles. Klopp does not have much time to make sure they pay off.
Liverpool have no chance to keep their Premier League, but a season in which they make a go of a Champions League tilt would give them the hope for making a better fist of next season, in what all of us would hope is closer to a normal one. Leipzig, though, are a side who are equipped to obliterate anyone who turns up and underperforms, and a defeat might give Liverpool months of hopelessness, that could bleed into next year.
Emotional Klopp concedes title