The last of us

We’re done here. This was the final nail in the coffin, as it were. I don’t mean that we should be doing something outrageous, like showing Jürgen Klopp the door or just giving up and starting a full squad of the U23s, but it’s now plainly evident that anything that remained of the previous regime is gone. This wasn’t collapsing, 3-1, to Brentford where some solid performances couldn’t prevent “one of those days” or simply getting outplayed, 3-0, by a Brighton that’s just better than us right now. This was not showing up against a side that’s struggling to stay out of the relegation zone until the second half, when the game was already basically gone and then giving up another on a textbook counterattack, right through the middle of the pitch. That’s three of our last four league matches, giving up 9 and scoring 1, and getting a miserable draw in the fourth. All of that comes after the World Cup break where we were supposed to reset, with the majority of the squad having been cooling their heels for a month-and-a-half. We’ve been talking about how the problem is systemic for some time now; how the team resembles the Dortmund squad in Jürgen’s final year: checked out and not interested in listening to what the manager is asking them to do. Clearly, it’s not able to respond in a physical fashion, either. We’ve been getting beaten to every loose ball and even players of the quality of Thiago Alcântara aren’t looking anything like what everyone has come to expect. It might be different if we looked at two seasons ago, with the rash of injuries that sent us into a tailspin, as our fitness issues have been similar. But this is well beyond that, in terms of performance. We’re not losing 1-0 squeakers. We’re getting shoved off the field because we have a squad that looks disinterested in even playing, much less winning.

Melissa Reddy, long-time reporter on Liverpool for several outlets (currently Sky Sports), had a great piece a couple days ago looking at the departures from the club on the staff end. It’s not only Michael Edwards, who decided to take a break from the game last summer, but his direct replacement, Julian Ward, who was in his position for a grand total of five months before handing in his resignation. And then it was Dr. Ian Graham, the man who basically invented Liverpool’s player analysis system, giving his notice. Right before the season started, the head of the medical department, Jim Moxon, didn’t even give notice, but simply quit. Reddy states that the common thought is that both Ward and Graham departed because “they no longer feel empowered to do their jobs to the best of their ability.” She not-so-indirectly points the finger at Andreas Kornmayer, the head of fitness, as being the major issue, as he’s a Klopp favorite. Given the ridiculous fitness problems we’ve been having and the “get more from less (aka the same guys)” approach that the club has been running for the last few years, it’s pretty easy to tumble to certain conclusions. The results on the pitch tend to back up those conclusions. The squad looks tired. It has since August. We’re getting beaten to second balls so much they might as well not be considered “second” in our case. That was evident all over the pitch again today. Almost every time one of our midfielders accepted a pass, there was an Old Gold shirt on them and they found themselves unable to turn or do much with the ball until they lost it or played it right to another one of those amber jerseys. The lone exception in that respect was Stefan Bajčetić, who continues to look like the sole light in the darkness but whom obviously still doesn’t have the endurance to last longer than about 70 minutes. He’ll get there (he’s still only 18) and it’s great to think about what he’ll become next season and the one after, but it’s not so great to think about how he’ll only be playing once a week since we won’t be getting near European play if Jürgen can’t stop the bleeding and the rest of the system has been so crippled by “brain drain”, as Reddy cites, that we’re running into as many philosophical walls as we are real ones.

For a club of Liverpool’s stature, having been a few minutes and a couple goals away from doing something unprecedented just nine months ago, this is pretty close to the bottom of the barrel. We’re not talking about relegation just yet, which is the actual bottom, but going from reaching the final of every cup competition and the final day of the league race to being out of two of the three and with fading hope of even reaching the Champions League next season, which Real Madrid will easily knock us out of this season in the next couple weeks, is frankly astonishing. It’s an almost complete implosion and, again, apologies for all those tired of seeing me make the comparison (believe me, I’m more than tired of making it), this is Seventh Year Dortmund, 2.0. But, in some ways, it’s even worse, since we weren’t steadily raided for our players the way they were after two 1st-place and two 2nd-place finishes. We still have most of the same guys that led us to three CL finals, one league title, and two second-place finishes by one point. That, in itself, may certainly be part of the problem. The few who have moved on haven’t gone on to shining glory of any particular sort, but it’s the ones who left who never saw the cameras that may have signaled what a poor situation it was for those who remained behind. Are we bereft of hope? No. As long as we’re still playing, there’s something to watch for. But it’s getting more difficult to watch what we’ve become in so short a period. Like most apocalyptic stories, it all seemed to happen overnight.

Wolverhampton 3 – 0 Liverpool

Michael Caley’s caption for this one was “yeah Liverpool don’t look right.” Granted, Michael watches a lot of different teams and games, so he can be forgiven for not seeing what we’ve been seeing for the whole season, to date. That offensive performance isn’t actually that different (a lot of attempts, not much in the way of success or big chances) but the defensive one… well, really isn’t that different, either. It’s probably just the shock of seeing a squad as offensively inept as Wolverhampton having such huge chances. And finishing them. And, for an even worse perspective:

That’s, um, bad. It basically means that the expected goals for the opposition have been steadily rising in the last several matches while our own xG is just kind of meandering along in its usual format. That latter point means that, for all you Darwin Núñez haters out there, it’s nothing about what he or Cody Gakpo have brought to the club that’s really impacting our fortunes. Finishing could be better, of course, but a lot of that is often down to luck. But the inability to defend is just killing us. The hilarious part is that, once it was acknowledged that our midfield was getting run through like it was nonexistent, we changed our play patterns in the middle third to stop that. But now we can’t defend set pieces, as Wolves’ second goal today displayed in perfectly-timed fashion. And, once Naby Keita was subbed off in the second half, one Joe Gomez turnover was all it took for Wolves to execute a typical counterattack right up the middle of the park and score. Again, a lot of those seemingly obvious changes come down to luck or isolated incidents, but there are tendencies in performance and we’ve been seeing a lot of the wrong ones lately. As I was saying on Twitter, the “Just sign a midfielder!” brigade were out in full force during the match because, to them, everything is simple. If it’s more complex, they just wave it away because it’s tough for the simple-minded to think in more than one dimension. No midfielder in the world would solve this issue alone and especially not those who a current top-of-the-table rival wouldn’t sell to us (Caicedo, Brighton) or those who would demand outrageous prices (and salaries!) that the club isn’t in a position to afford (Fernandez.) Yes, they’re great players and it would be great to have them, but our current problems go much deeper than that.

Would one midfielder have kept us from losing more Premier League matches this season than ’18-’19, ’19-’20, and last season combined? Come on. Jürgen refused to talk to James Pearce at the press conference after today’s match (I have no idea why) and Pearce is among those who’s been dismissing the transfer window as the solution to all of our problems. At this point, it’s certainly fair to wonder whether Jürgen can solve this because he’s not making excuses, either. Someone asked if this is still a holdover from the 63-game season and he pointed out that it may have an overall impact, but “it’s February and we had a week to prepare.” He keeps talking about how we “make our own problems” and yet those problems keep getting made. That’s a team that’s either in disconnect from the manager, no matter how well they respond to halftime talks, as they did today, or just physically incapable of still doing what the manager wants which, again, leads us back to the questions that Melissa Reddy posed about Kornmayer. Of course, it’s also fair to remember Dortmund saying that they would have sold their whole squad before letting Jürgen leave.

Positives? Well, uh, despite the ominous undertones of the above table, Darwin is still in the 98th or 99th percentile in Europe for shots, xG, xG + assists, and penalty box touches (HT: Liverpool Offside.) Just not in goals. All of those are good things but the last one and they also bring up, again, the dreaded Seventh Dortmund comparison, as many of their forwards were in similar situations that year. A lot of that is down to randomness in the most random of major sports, but when so much randomness is working against you, it’s certainly fair to wonder if there may be deeper issues (We’re kinda past the wondering stage, really.) In a similar vein, anyone who expected Cody to blow up the scene when he arrived was expecting way, way too much. He played well today, controlling the ball in the middle third and always trying to advance it. It’s clear that his understanding with Andy Robertson on the left (where Jürgen finally played him, thank Fowler) has begun to blossom and they had more than one deft exchange in that left corner. But he’s not the counter-pressing monster that Sadio Mané was and doesn’t have his speed, either. He was brought in because our front line has been devastated by injuries and because, as a 23-year-old, he should be part of that rebuilding plan that the club is obviously struggling through.

It’s also worth citing Stefan’s work again. He’s an 18-year-old in only his second league start and he was easily our best player on the pitch today. The ease of control that he has and his passing touch is on display again and again. Fabinho was out with illness today, but I can’t help but think that Stefan needs to be the nailed-on starter at the 6 right now, which is also disturbing for all of the obvious reasons. Also also, it is worth noting that for the first 20 minutes of the second half, we looked like a reasonable facsimile of Liverpool. The pressure was constant and Wolverhampton barely came out of their half of the pitch. We just couldn’t close the deal and then one mistake put the game out of reach and, well, yeah.

Nine days off to try to stanch the bleeding, then it’s the derby with (heavy sigh) new Everton boss, Sean Dyche, returning to the PL and having just knocked off the league leaders with a prototypical Dyche performance. If there’s any match I’ve wanted to see less in the Klopp era, I can’t think of it.

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