We’re in it. I’ve been speculating about it all season, because so many matches had the telltale signs of what happened that season to Dortmund under Jürgen Klopp. There are differences, certainly, but the similarities abound: awful injury luck, regularly winning the xG and not being able to finish, etc. But the most telltale sign of all is a team that just doesn’t look like they understand where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing. Jürgen often says that it’s difficult to really make tactical adjustments from game to game because we’re usually playing matches three days apart and don’t really have time to implement broad changes. But this squad had a month-and-a-half during the World Cup, with the vast majority of them able to be present in Liverpool or Abu Dhabi, to make changes to the plan from the first part of the season which simply didn’t work on a consistent basis. And now we’ve come to a situation where every match since the season resumed looks worse than the one before it. There have been no changes and there has been no progress. If anything, there’s been regression to a state that we haven’t inhabited since Jürgen arrived here, if not worse.
Our offensive approach at the start of the season seemed to be trying to emphasize Darwin Núñez’s ability as a target man, since his talent for getting open and impressive size both trend in that direction. But the downside to that is that you’re often playing Route 1 football; simply sending a guy forward and launching balls at him in the hopes that he’ll come down with one and have a couple inches to operate. That continued to be the plan even when Darwin wasn’t on the pitch. Today it was: “Send the ball forward and hope that Mo can take on Brighton’s entire back line by himself and, you know… do something.” That’s not a plan. That’s a cover-up for problems that are much deeper. Granted, there was absolutely zero on the pitch to take pressure off of Mo, since the two playing with him on the line were the guy we bought two weeks ago (Cody Gakpo) and a converted midfielder (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.) Yes, in that respect, injuries have ruined our season, to date. But it’s also the inability to play the way we’ve played for the past five years. Brighton had 64% possession in the first half and would finish the match with 62%. The only times we’ve allowed an opponent to even approach those numbers in a league match since Jürgen arrived is against Manchester City, whom we’ve often allowed to play their game, knowing that we can disrupt it at a moment’s notice. This is Brighton & Hove Albion, whom we just allowed to totally perform a role reversal against us. Look at this match last season or two years ago or three years ago and they looked like Liverpool and we looked like Brighton; the former totally in command and constantly pressing the issue; the latter utterly disoriented and constantly trying things that don’t work.
Jürgen said after the match: “I can’t remember a worse game, not just at Liverpool, and that’s my responsibility.” So, yeah, even worse than the last season at Dortmund which is front-and-center on my mind. And this is beyond the acceptance that we just don’t do the high press anymore because the legs of our midfield aren’t in it or the change from our implicitly understood 4-3-3 to the 4-4-2 that we again reverted to in the second half, trying to make something work. Both of those indicated a loss of identity that we’ve carried for six years. But they also indicate a squad that just isn’t feeling it anymore, whether that’s due to age or a lack of interest. Captain Jordan Henderson said after the match that “there’s a lack of confidence and energy levels are low.” That’s a squad that no longer has interest in doing what they’re doing. Sadio Mané opted out last summer because he probably read those signs in himself. He just wasn’t interested in doing this thing with Liverpool any longer, so now he’s somewhere new and interesting and probably much happier. Much as I detest the man, there’s something to be said for Alex Ferguson’s approach to squad management, in which he’d often sell players who were still completely competent and even important to his squad, but whom he thought just needed to move on, for their benefit and for the squad as a whole. I think we’re there. I think Jürgen’s commendable loyalty to his players is coming back to haunt us and there might have been a few more moves made that could have brought back that energy that is now lacking. But, of course, this is all speculation and if our entire front line hadn’t been decimated since October and we’d been able to buy Aurélien Tchouaméni as we’d planned last summer, maybe we don’t run into this situation or at least don’t let it become this dire. But I think we’ve reached the point of drastic change on the pitch that has been occurring in the back rooms, with the departure of both Michael Edwards and his replacement, Julian Ward. There’s an atmosphere problem at Liverpool Football Club and it’s not just because we’re losing matches that we’ve become accustomed to winning. At this point, we have to begin looking at a situation that says no European football at all next season, to say nothing of the Champions League. That’s a rebuild, which is something clubs in our position hope to avoid (and was largely avoided by the aforementioned Ferguson) but which seems absolutely essential at this point. Dortmund missed their chance and fell away from the spot that Jürgen had brought them to, going from two titles and two second-place finishes, to finish seventh and have never been a serious threat to Bayern Munich in the following eight seasons. Here’s hoping that our future is different.
Brighton 3 – 0 Liverpool
What do you say to that other than “We got our ass kicked”? Obviously, we still had chances, but the dearth of them is what’s significant, based on recent results. Before this match, in most of our losses or draws, we’ve usually controlled the tempo and the pace of play and simply didn’t put away a lot of what we created and ended up losing to counterattacking play or saw our opponent taking advantage of the few opportunities that either side had, while we didn’t. This was a situation where we were simply outplayed from the opening kick. Brighton was the better side in almost every moment of this match, full stop. This was a situation where you could say that they’re higher than us in the table and fully deserve to be, based on what happened on the pitch today. A few people were also pointing out the case example that was Adam Lallana, who was let go from Liverpool a couple years ago because he wasn’t “good enough” (too old, his legs were gone) but who proceeded to run rings around all three of our starting midfielders today, all of whom he is older than by two, three, and five years, in Hendo, Thiago Alcântara, and Fabinho. That’s, um, kind of humiliating for everyone involved with Liverpool, players to supporters.
Look at that passing grid. We literally could not get out of our own side of the pitch in the first half, because every time we tried, there was Alexis Mac Allister or Moises Caicedo or Lewis Dunk or Pascal Groß or our old boy, Lallana, crawling all over whichever Red thought he was going to handle the ball for more than .5 seconds. Sound familiar? It should, because that’s what our press used to be like. You know, the one we never use anymore because apparently we don’t have the players to either engage or support it? And it’s ALL of the basics that we seem to be unable to produce. Brighton’s third goal came on a basic throw-in in our defensive zone. All Danny Welbeck (Danny Welbeck! Still playing!) had to do was loft the ball over Joe Gomez and he was in alone on Alisson. When is the last time you saw that happen to one of our sides under Jürgen? How about “never”? That’s what’s driving me back to the Dortmund theory. Not only are they tuning out the boss, they just don’t care about what’s happening on the pitch. The game is happening. Right there. In front of them. (And around. And over.) But that’s not good enough. Except for Mo, it seems like there’s no desire there. There’s no hunger. They’re just going through the motions because either their bodies or their minds or their spirits are too fatigued to react anymore, if not all three. All you have to do is look at this:
That’s an FBD, except that it came against us. Oh, and just to add insult to injury, our new guy, Cody, had fewer touches in the first half than anyone on the pitch and also failed to have a touch inside the opposition box (because, of course, we couldn’t get out of our end.)
So, where do we go from here? I don’t know. We have a squad that’s riven with injuries and which isn’t responding to the manager who also seems to be out of ideas for how to make said squad function in even the most remedial fashion. It sounds like I’m calling for heads to roll, but I’m not about to try to hold up Jürgen as the fall guy after what he’s done for us and barely six months removed from being thisclose to doing something that no English club has ever done before. Yes, it’s aggravating that in the one year that Man City decides to seem mortal, we do a complete faceplant, but that’s sports. Yay, sports! But the need for a housecleaning has never been more apparent. Players, coaches, staff, whomever. Something serious needs to happen if there’s any chance of seeing European play next year at all. If it can’t happen now, then this summer should be really active because that means that the entirety of next season will be solely focused on getting us back into Europe.
Meanwhile, we have a date at Molineux on Wednesday that should probably just be the province of the U23s. Then, a week from today, we get Chelsea at Anfield. They’re in the middle of their own tailspin, so it will probably end up being one of those “who can screw up the best” matches that only neutrals interested in schadenfreude will enjoy. And it’s the early game. Why am I going to drag myself down to Magee’s at 6:30 AM next Saturday? Because if nothing else is working, maybe psychic support from across the pond will. We always say You’ll Never Walk Alone. This is the time where that may be more important than ever for these players.