The World Cup was a welcome pause for Liverpool Football Club. A moment to reset and reassess after a torrid start to the season. Defeats and lackluster performances had made it an unpalatable autumn. Surely, the reasoning went, things could not get worse.
But they have. As the European soccer season restarted, the same issues have surfaced for Jürgen Klopp’s team and now not only is there no chance of winning the English Premier League, there is little chance of finishing in the top four, thus securing qualification to next season’s Champions League.
Admittedly, Liverpool could feature in European soccer’s showpiece competition next season if it wins the Champions League in June. It still isn’t mathematically out of the equation for the English Premier League title – but that is only because there are so many fixtures remaining.
In truth, Liverpool was out of the title equation in October, so dreadful have the results been, and now, barely into a new year, Klopp’s men find themselves 10 points behind a resurgent Manchester United who are fourth.
How did Liverpool get to this position? This was a club fighting for all four major trophies last season, missing out on the Premier League title by one point on the last day of the season, and losing to Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League.
The other two trophies, the FA Cup and League Cup, were secured in a season that Liverpool played 63 matches, with a win rate of 73%.
This is a club that has, since Klopp’s arrival in October 2015, become accustomed to winning, to competing for the title, to going deep in cup competitions, to recruiting the right players at the right time.
‘I can’t remember a worse game’
Liverpool has dropped 26 points in the league this season – four more than it did during the entirety of last season – and have scored fewer goals, conceded more, and won fewer points than any of the previous seven seasons at this stage under Klopp’s tenure.
Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Brighton in the league was Liverpool’s worst performance of the season, and there have been plenty to choose from.
Speaking to BBC Sport after the match, Klopp said: “I can’t remember a worse game. I honestly can’t … Of course we’re very concerned. How can you not be after a game like this?”
Captain Jordan Henderson admitted: “It hasn’t been right for a little while now. Everybody knows that. I’ll take responsibility and the lads will too. We have to try to put it right.”
But the big question is: how? One of Liverpool’s major problems is the lack of energy in midfield, a necessity if the team is to play the high-octane pressing game which is the Klopp template.
Captain Henderson, now 31, and Fabinho, 29, looked heavy legged in the middle of the pitch against Brighton and have failed this season to add the thrust needed.
The two have played admirably for Liverpool during the Klopp tenure – they were key cogs as the club won its first league title in 30 years in 2020 – but does this season signal a need for long-term change. Is this the end of an era?
On Saturday, Klopp substituted Henderson, Fabinho as part of a quadruple change. It was too late to change the course of the match, but perhaps is a sign that a major shake up is needed if the team is to return to the levels of previous seasons.
The Reds have been linked with a summer move for Borussia Dortmund’s English midfielder Jude Bellingham, a teenager of extraordinary talent who is wanted by most of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Would the midfielder choose a Liverpool team that isn’t competing in the Champions League next season when the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City are also likely, possibly more lucrative options?
It depends on how strong the lure of working with a manager like Klopp would be. He would certainly be guaranteed plenty of football given how Liverpool’s midfield has been exposed this season.
But midfield isn’t the only issue. The defence is porous. Defensive leader Virgil van Dijk is injured, but his time on the sidelines is only recent – the backline was poor this campaign even with the Netherlands captain in the center of defence.
Confidence is clearly low, which would happen to most when opponents, even those lower in the league, cut through with ease.
‘We’re pretty low on confidence,” said Henderson. “The energy level is low. We have to keep fighting and hopefully we can change it sooner rather than later.”
And to the attack, a forward line that isn’t scoring, isn’t causing mayhem in the opposition half. The departure of Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich in the summer is certainly one explanation for the demise of a once feared frontline, while injuries to more recent signings, Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota, have reduced the Reds’ options in attack.
Darwin Núñez, who could become the club’s record signing, was bought to replace Mane and though he has the potential to become a superstar, he has made an indifferent start to his Liverpool career.
While few could have predicted that a team scoring with ease last season, with an in-form Mo Salah leading the way, could end up in such a position, the departure of Mane perhaps signaled the end of a cycle and the need for a total refresh.
Last month Liverpool signed Cody Gakpo, one of the most coveted young players in Europe, from PSV Eindhoven, but it would be too much of an ask to expect a 23-year-old to make such an impact that it turns around the club’s fortunes immediately.
But it has been reported that Liverpool’s owners are exploring the possible sale of the club which leads to another question: how much are they willing to invest in revamping a team which has so dramatically slipped behind its competitors?
If this team is still the Liverpool of old, the ‘mentality monsters’ as Klopp liked to call them for their refusal to wave the white flag, then there is still hope for the season, hope of a turnaround and a string of victories to put them back in top-four contention.
But this season’s performances so far suggest that is a highly unlikely scenario. Only time will tell if Klopp and his men can turn things around for what would be an incredible resurgence.