Listless Liverpool remain devoid of their familiar spark

Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgin van Dijk react after Brighton's equaliser - Listless Liverpool remain devoid of their familiar spark - GETTY IMAGES
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgin van Dijk react after Brighton's equaliser - Listless Liverpool remain devoid of their familiar spark - GETTY IMAGES

Liverpool were 3-2 up and Jurgen Klopp was celebrating the successful execution of a bone-rattling James Milner tackle when his mood instantly turned.

The manager started pointing and yelling at midfielder Fabinho, who initially stood impassive before shouting back as Klopp’s discontent extended for another 20 seconds.

This heat of the moment exchange in the 3-3 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion spoke to the genesis of Liverpool’s enduring problems this season - Klopp irked that he was again forced to turn to his 36-year-old understudy to demonstrate the vigour so lacking elsewhere.

Fabinho was in the firing line but Klopp’s fury could have been directed at others as he witnessed more disturbing evidence of a malfunction in the system which has worked so harmoniously for most of the last five years.

How ironic that a season which began with a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the Liverpool coaching staff’s work entitled ‘Intensity’ has preceded a sequence of fixtures which have been the antithesis of everything this team has represented. A similar overview of the first seven Premier League games would need to be called ‘Lethargy’.

Klopp sounds as baffled by the deterioration as the spectators and - to his credit - sugarcoats nothing. This week’s adjectives of choice were ‘horrendous’ and ‘horrible’.

When a spectator shouted ‘what the f--- is going on, lads?’ as Alisson Becker was forced to make another save to deny Danny Welbeck, it was an accurate summation for everyone with Anfield sympathies.

After so many years when the manager needed to find new means of heaping praise on his stars to keep them hungry, now he is seeking fresh answers to alarmingly repetitive questions.

The most obvious, visible problem is out of possession. Liverpool have been the best team in the world without the ball since Klopp’s Anfield vision took shape. Currently, they look vulnerable each time they lose it and Brighton had the skill and courage to punish them, especially given Leandro Trossard’s hat-trick form. Welbeck should have had a couple of goals, too.

As the chances frequently came and went, there was a natural inclination to focus on Liverpool’s back four, where Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil Van Dijk have struggled for their best form. Kostas Tsimikas, deputising for Andy Robertson, was correctly replaced for Milner on 59 minutes after a poor afternoon.

Juergen Klopp - Listless Liverpool remain devoid of their familiar spark - GETTY IMAGES
Juergen Klopp - Listless Liverpool remain devoid of their familiar spark - GETTY IMAGES

But pinning all the responsibility on the defenders is wrong. There is currently zero protection ahead of them, hence Klopp’s finger-pointing at his anchorman Fabinho on Saturday.

At 28, the Brazilian - so influential in Liverpool’s transformation from a team which nearly won trophies to that which has won it all since he signed - should still be at his peak. His attempts to track back at the weekend put one more in mind of the veterans in the legends’ game a week earlier. It was not just him. Liverpool’s midfielders looked physically incapable of shadowing Brighton’s deep runners, giving the bizarre impression that Roberto De Zerbi’s side were fitter and fresher.

This has been a recurring feature of Liverpool’s games, most notably against Napoli, Fulham and Manchester United. No wonder the upcoming trip to Arsenal brings such a sense of foreboding.

Liverpool’s most reliable midfield trio of Fabinho, Thiago and Jordan Henderson excel when making the pitch smaller and congested, before hunting in packs high up the pitch. One would have thought Anfield had been turned into Wembley given how chaotically open Saturday’s game was.

Further upfield, Mohamed Salah is as dangerous as ever and Roberto Firmino is in the midst of a goalscoring renaissance, although it was not the plan for him to play so much when £85 million was committed on Darwin Nunez. But there are problems here, too. According to OPTA, Liverpool are regaining possession far less in the final third in comparison to last season (14.6 in 21/22 compared to 13.3 in 22/23). All over the pitch they are completing fewer tackles and conceding more chances and goals.

Even when attacking, thriving on-field partnerships have given way to individual, less synchronised patterns - the skills of Luis Diaz, Salah, Thiago or Alexander-Arnold producing thrilling moments rather than the sense of a team working in tandem.

There appears to be no easy answer or quick fix.

Klopp has tried clear-the-air meetings and one-to-one debriefs with his stars. He says his sports scientists have found no reason for a physical drop-off. The tactical plan is so well rehearsed it is strange so many are fluffing their lines. The injury list is no longer a major issue, either.

After Napoli, Klopp said Liverpool needed ‘re-inventing’. The sentiment felt correct, but Klopp has rolled back since injured players returned, as if it is only a matter of time before everything clicks back into place. He is pinning hopes on regeneration more than reinvention - understandable since it is too late this season for wholesale personnel changes.

But the longer this continues, the more difficult it will be for Klopp to avoid the conclusion that established players no longer have the capacity to play the high-pressing, dynamic 4-3-3 he wants.

If the first nine games are a true representation of Liverpool’s season, there is worse to come before Klopp solves his side’s (lack of) energy crisis.