‘How bad can it get?’: Why Liverpool’s alarming decline may still get worse

Defeat at home by Fulham marked a new low for Jurgen Klopp’s side - but it was far from a surprise

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 08 March 2021 11:33
<p>Xherdan Shaqiri reacts during Liverpool’s defeat</p>

Xherdan Shaqiri reacts during Liverpool’s defeat

The question from some in the Liverpool set-up sums it up.

“How bad can this actually get?”

It is remarkable how every week seems to bring yet another low, another shock that is no longer actually a surprise.

It isn’t completely unprecedented, of course. There was Chelsea 2015-16. There was, even more pointedly, Borussia Dortmund 2014-15.

Liverpool are amid something similar now. Whatever about the differences in reasons for those collapses, there are tangible parallels in the actual games.

Like Dortmund, and especially Chelsea after them, there’s been that sense of frustrating toil to so many Liverpool matches. All opposition sides feel they can be got at. The 1-0 defeat to Fulham encapsulated this. Liverpool had a strange kind of unconvincing control, where they were in possession and always on the brink of a breakthrough, but it was if some kind of deeper angst was preventing it. At the other end, they always looked susceptible to disaster.

Mario Lemina scores the winner against Liverpool

It has all added up to a real crisis, where there is little suggestion of this getting any better.

It is all the more striking because Liverpool started the season relatively well, and continued that way for some time. That is why the scale of collapse has been so extreme.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that this all started after what might have been the finest single performance of the Klopp era. That was the 7-0 win away to Crystal Palace, where it was as if everything lauded about the club – from the attacking to the recruitment and secondary players stepping up – came together in one statement victory.

Far from a crowning display that summed them up, though, it may well be one that finished them up – a last stand.

That’s where the discussion is right now, as talk incredibly grows over whether Jurgen Klopp will even be manager that much longer.

The German certainly looks like a man taking the weight of all of this on his shoulders, but it hardly just comes down to him.

The crisis has naturally prompted all manner of inquests and interrogations about what is going wrong, but there’s probably no great mystery. It is a number of individual factors that wouldn’t necessarily be so bad on their own, but coming together have added up to so much more than the sum of their parts.

There was first of all the primary issue that this team had been together for three years – exactly the point where top sides traditionally require a shake-up to sustain that winning chemistry. Klopp attempted this with Thiago Alcantara, but the Spanish international has only briefly played in anything like the usual Klopp Liverpool.

That potential for mental jadedness was quickly exacerbated by the strangeness of the situation, as well as the lack of fans, with the schedule causing more mental and physical fatigue. That has prevented training-ground work that can remedy growing problems, while also increasing minutes played. That has directly led to some absences, to go with freak key injuries like those suffered by Joe Gomez and – above all – Virgil van Dijk. All of this has had a cumulative effect, that has just sapped confidence, and cohesion – to the point we see these kind of ghost Liverpool performances that we witnessed against Fulham.

It is a team going through the same motions, but not moving in anything like the same way. It is also here where more searching questions need to be asked. This is where Roy Keane’s brutally cutting description of “bad champions” becomes more true by the week.

Because, while the situation explains a drop-off, it doesn’t explain the extent of the drop-off. Whatever about the injuries, Liverpool still shouldn’t be losing home games to teams like Fulham so easily, without so much as a fight.

They have recently been making poor to average sides look like top defensive units. They shouldn’t be so bad in attack, where they are barely creating opportunities.

It is also notable how we aren’t seeing the same praise for Michael Edwards, or even seeing some of his signings so much. The relative “weakness” of the squad has suddenly become a problem. If anything, at least at the level of the top coaches, it illustrates that the “great man” theory of football remains true.

Jurgen Klopp reacts during Liverpool’s defeat

The qualities of the great managers amplify the effects of good structures. The men themselves are still by far the most important part of it, though, rather than just being one interchangeable element.

And, right now, Liverpool aren’t seeing the effects of Klopp. His system has been compromised by the loss of Van Dijk, and he has struggled to find a solution, while failing to have the same motivational effect on the team. They just aren’t responding… to anything.

This is where the jadedness is so relevant. It is also just possible this team is mentally spent – even temporarily. There is merit to the idea they would have changed one of the attackers by now, for one.

None of this should be seen as an argument to replace Klopp, however. Manchester City’s recovery proves the folly of writing off a modern great too early, of dismissing their ability to turn things around.

This is not like Dortmund in that regard, either. Klopp doesn’t feel he needs a change. It is not like he wants to go to a Real Madrid or Barcelona, say, even though the Catalans are said to be considering him for the future as a potential change of direction for themselves.

Klopp has more than earned the chance to rebuild, even if it takes a bit. He is one of the game’s great managers. Faith and trust should be total, even if results are temporarily testing.

Some at Liverpool even remain relatively confident that normality will be restored once the main injured players return – especially Van Dijk. Such a mood, and such calmness, runs so contrary to the atmosphere around Anfield right now.

The most ominous part is that, right now, it can still get much worse.

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