The question facing Jürgen Klopp is whether five defeats in 17 Premier League matches for his Liverpool team is just a flash or the end of a good team’s cycle.
That they have trouble losing possession is obvious: they have conceded 51 clear-cut chances this season – twice as many as the five teams who have the advantage over them in the Premier League.
Combine that with Darwin Núñez’s exciting but stark need to push their conversion rate above 22 percent, and the reason why they have to fight for a top four spot is clear.
The broader problem, however, is not deficiencies as a full-throttle attack turns into a fallible defence, the fragility of a once formidable structure revealed in this week’s recent meek defeat to Brentford. This is an overall change from a side that was beaten just four times in all competitions last season to a team that needs a revival to return to being title contenders.
A smooth transition is rare. Who in English football, other than Sir Alex Ferguson, has successfully gone from one triumphant era to another in the last 30 years?
Arsene Wenger couldn’t do it, neither could Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea successors. Manchester City also had to change manager to keep the trophies. Even Ferguson oversaw a brief period of setbacks, suffering a four-year wait from 2003 before regaining the championship.
Unlike Klopp, whose people management is considered his greatest asset, there were times when Ferguson seemed to revel in the coolness required to abandon those who decorated the plaque of honour, distancing himself from emotion as he ordered Paul Ince, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane left when they felt they had more to offer.
Klopp has yet to be so brutal with title winners, a ruthlessness reserved for the early years of rebuilding with Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho, Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius. Those who deliver for him are led out the front door across the red carpet.
Georginio Wijnaldum’s contract expired, the club wisely decided that he should receive no more at 30 than when he was 26. Adam Lallana was given a farewell interview and an open letter when he became surplus to requirements.
Sadio Mane was in the same category, he was allowed to leave when a new contract would mean a salary in excess of £300,000 a week and Divock Origi was given an honor guard to wave goodbye.
Even those who have barely contributed due to injury, such as Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, are expected to end their Liverpool careers when their contracts expire at the end of this season, amid warm managerial hugs when others may have tried alienate them by forcing them in hopes of raising funds to bring in that much-needed midfielder last summer. That’s not Klopp’s style.
The final contract dilemma concerns Roberto Firmino, who inadvertently becomes a test of the current state of Fenway Sports Group’s “Moneyball” strategy, given how many of its supporters have left or are leaving Liverpool. Klopp wants him to stay, although Firmino would have to accept reduced terms like James Milner with any contract extension. It is fair to assume that Klopp sees more value in keeping Firmino well into his 30s than some of those who have analyzed the data. With Firmino being Liverpool’s top scorer in the Premier League this season, it’s no wonder Klopp prefers to use his eyesight over the contents of a spreadsheet.
Another Brazilian, Fabinho, was far from his usual form. At 29, he is still an asset that can be sold. Would Klopp choose to cash in to fund a restructuring of his midfielder, or, as with Jordan Henderson’s deal in need of an update and some at the club advising caution, would the manager find it unthinkable to lose one of his most successful players? History points to the latter, and Klopp’s decision to use his January resources to sign another striker in Cody Gakpo rather than a midfielder proves he believes in his core options until the summer, believing Fabinho will overcome recent inconsistency.
He has to because there is an appetite around Anfield for Klopp to get Liverpool back to what they were upon his arrival, when his team ran harder than any team and hunted in packs. Even when performances were erratic at the start of Klopp’s reign, there was an overwhelming feeling that Liverpool were on the right track.
Memories can play tricks. This initial block sprint was fun but largely unbalanced. Liverpool flew to fourth place by a single point in Klopp’s first full season, having been beaten six times in 38 league matches. Reason to celebrate, but it should be considered a reflection of the decline if it is the best that Liverpool can do in 2022-23.
“Heavy metal football” remains a popular term for Klopp’s style. From his third season, Liverpool brought in a touch of Johan Cruyff to match Arrigo Sacchi’s more obvious tactical influence, with exciting results overall. They were much better both in and out of possession, adept at controlling volume and making complicated chord changes when needed. But their best moments always came when they went back to Klopp’s tried and trusted method of getting the ball back as high as possible in the opponent’s half.
Experience the most spirited performance against Barcelona in the second leg of the 2019 Champions League semi-final. Liverpool made 154 fewer passes than Barcelona that night, but Fabinho, James Milner and Trent Alexander-Arnold regained possession 47 times, most of them in the opposition half.
Whatever else Klopp achieves at Liverpool, it will always be an exemplary, challenging performance. When the season resumed after winter camp in Dubai, news from Anfield suggested he would try to reclaim that identity. The remaining 21 Premier League games will show if he has the right players for it.
Like many great managers, Klopp is learning how there is greater understanding – certainly external – when a club is undergoing a complete rebuild after a period of infertility, rather than experiencing a period of reorientation after success.
We all welcome the bloody revolution. Evolution? Not so much.