Losing six successive games at Anfield was unimaginable for Liverpool as recently as January. The dramatic loss of form should force everyone at the club to think the unthinkable.
Sunday’s 1-0 defeat by Fulham was the latest instalment in the collapse of the reigning champions. Jurgen Klopp’s side were dreadful. Injuries have had a massive impact but the problems run deeper. At the end of the last month the Liverpool manager said the club does not need to rebuild. That gets harder to believe with every game. There is no guarantee that the walking wounded will come back at the same level as before.
One of the telling comments Klopp made after the game was that “there are a lot of players who are not on the pitch at the moment who are leaders.” The absence of Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk has left a void of leadership but Alisson Becker, Andrew Robertson, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Mohamed Salah started the match. There should have been enough experience and battle-hardened nous in this group to see the team through. A lack of direction is not the root of Liverpool’s problems.
The squad is not good enough and there were signs in the first half of the season that the manager’s first-choice XI may have passed their peak. Part of this is a result of the rest of the Premier League coming to terms with Klopp’s tactics. It may not be a simple matter of a healthy group of players being ready to go again in August.
Which brings the seemingly preposterous question. Is Klopp the right man to oversee any overhaul?
The turning point for Fenway Sports Group (FSG) was employing the German. The owners learnt the lesson of Brendan Rodgers, who they engaged before the Northern Irishman was qualified to work at a club of Liverpool’s stature. With Klopp they went for proven talent.
The 53-year-old was – and remains – the best manager available to the club. The codicil to this is his stated intention to take a sabbatical from football when his contract ends in 2024.
The team selection against Fulham suggested that Klopp prioritised the Champions League knockout tie second leg against RB Leipzig. The top four was slipping away before but now, with Liverpool in seventh place and the quartet of teams above them holding games in hand, there is probably too much ground to claw back.
Only a fool would discount a Klopp team from winning the Champions League. An even more improbable Liverpool side once won the competition in Istanbul, the venue for this year’s final. The likelier scenario is that the club will be outside the continent’s elite next season. In the space of two months, Anfield has backslid five years to Klopp’s first full campaign.
That will have a knock-on effect on recruitment – and holding on to players within the squad. Klopp last week answered questions on this subject with the classic manager’s spiel: “If a player wants to leave us because we don’t play Champions League, I don’t want him.”
The reality is more complex. Unhappy players are disruptive. Angry wantaway stars can be harnessed, as Luis Suarez was in 2013-14, but even that had an unhappy ending. His value plummeted after the biting incident at the World Cup and the Uruguayan’s replacements were inadequate.
By the time the new season begins, the squad will be top heavy with 29 and 30-year-olds who might have an eye on a last big contract. They are professionals. Loyalty to either the manager or the club is rarely a factor in these situations. Players stay for two reasons - money and trophies – and most of them would get a pay rise elsewhere.
This means that Klopp, six years into his tenure at Anfield, will not quite be starting again but the job will be bigger than it should have been. Given the position of strength Liverpool have been in during the past two summers after winning the Champions League and the title, recruitment should have been much better.
Underperforming squad players have wasted Klopp’s time as well as their own. What is the point of Divock Origi? Or Xherdan Shaqiri? Players like Wijnaldum are running on empty, exhausted, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been seriously underworked. If Naby Keita cannot stay fit enough to contribute more often it is pointless keeping him on the books.
The other conundrum is whether FSG will be prepared to back the manager in the summer. Right from the start of his involvement as principal owner, John W Henry has been concerned about the level of spending in English football. The American was the driving force behind Project Big Picture, the blueprint to revamp the finances of the domestic game. The failure of the plan, which has been a long-term ambition of Henry, caused chagrin in Boston, as does Manchester City’s dominance. It would be surprising, especially as the effects of the pandemic rumble on, if FSG authorised a spree in the transfer market.
Klopp has a multitude of issues to negotiate. He needs to be fully committed and have complete belief that there is adequate backing. When all was well, the sabbatical sounded a distant, trophy-laden way in the future. Now it seems like it could be an arduous period when three years slip by too fast. An even worse situation would be if he reached a point where he decided to take the break unexpectedly early.
FSG should consider the unthinkable and then do everything they can to make Klopp’s life easier. If the owners get things right, the manager can walk away in 2024 with more trophies under his belt.