Jürgen Klopp is facing the most difficult challenge of his Liverpool career

It is hard to overstate the enormity of the challenge facing Jürgen Klopp and his staff right now.

Already, there has been a shift in mindset as it regards the current season. It’s a mess, but all will be well once the season ends and the team can re-group, the theory goes. This season stinks. No fans, the injuries, all the challenges that have faced the club. This squad is burned out. They need a break. Like Man City last season, this will be a sabbatical. It remains one of the most gifted squads in the world. Next year, with Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez back from injury and fans back at Anfield, everything will be back to normal and Liverpool will be title contenders again.

But that obscures a pretty significant fact: Manchester City did not bottom out during their sabbatical year. They were bad. They played pedestrian football. The squad and style was in flux. What was once a side built around a vigorous press had morphed into a hodge-podge of poorly fitting pieces without a coherent defensive structure or strategy. They lost nine games in the league and were bounced out of the Champions League by Lyon.

But it was never this bad. Never did City look devoid of ideas. The interest flagged, yes, but never to the point of total utter disillusionment. It was never a certainty that City would crumble once falling behind in matches. Never did their season devolve into a true farce. They played badly in spurts and lost. They then evolved, adapted and laid the groundwork for the following season — a season in which they have blitzed everyone.

Even during City’s down season, the signs of a quality team were there, tucked away under the surface. They scored 102 goals. They had the best goal difference in the league. It was a team in trouble, one that struggled to navigate through specific games, but it was not a club in crisis; they were a team caught in a transient state.

What is happening at Anfield, what is happening with Klopp, is something much different and more alarming. It all feels a little more long-lasting, even set against the backdrop of the injuries, dodgy VAR calls and other issues.

Liverpool are currently on course for the worst title defence, numerically, in Premier League history. Even David Moyes’ Manchester United were ahead of Liverpool at this stage of the season. The year after Sir Alex Ferguson walked away, United entered free-fall. Yet Moyes’ side managed to cobble together 45 points from their opening 27 games, an embarrassing total for a champion and a number that would doom Moyes. At the same stage, Liverpool have 43 points.

Surely, nothing can frustrate Klopp more than the passivity of his team. What was once their calling card, a feisty, potent, fire-breathing press, has been tamed, whether by design or a lack of desire. It jumps off the screen, and the numbers are damning.

And while it is fair and accurate to point out all of the issues, to make reference to the injuries, to find explanations as to why things have fallen apart, it would be going too far to say those things will magically flip back overnight.

There is no telling what Virgil van Dijk will return to the lineup. The same is true for Joe Gomez. And what about a team that has failed to play with intensity for 18-months, stretching right back to when they first wrapped up the 2019/20 Premier League title. What happens when the light goes out? Is switching is back on as simple as an extended break in Marbella? Perhaps; perhaps not. Even Klopp’s old lieutenants have their doubts. As noted recently, those in the dressing room at Borussia had different thoughts on how things slipped into mediocrity (then into a catastrophe) at the end of Klopp’s reign: The management team pointed to luck, injuries and the loss of Robert Lewandowski; the dressing room pointed to the taxing demands of the playing style.

The playing style demands don’t hold a ton of water this time around. Klopp and his staff have evolved the style — quite a lot — it just hasn’t worked. Even the structure that has been run in the last two games was been different from the one that was run the month before, which was different to one that was run the month before that. None of the changes have triggered any kind of spark from the side — save for trips to West Ham and Sheffield United.

It is a puzzling quandary. Perhaps it all will be fine in the summer once the new players have settled in and the manager has a full list of options to pick from. That is the fair reading. The manager and his staff can only be judged on the second cycle once they actually have the players to pick who they decided to build the second phase around.

There is an issue, though: More damage can come as Liverpool flit through this final eleven-game run.

In a crisis, resentments fester. Taking off Mohamed Salah while down 1–0 in any normal situation with the forward leaving the pitch in a huff? Fine. If anything, it’s preferable; you want your best player to be homicidally competitive. In this situation, with not only the season but legacies on the line, that can compound resentment, foster new grievances and reawaken old wounds.

The same is true for Andy Robertson’s post-match comments. “We have nowhere near been good enough to what Liverpool team should be,” Robertson said after the game. “We are dropping further and it is not good enough.”

It was an honest, correct, assessment. It is leadership. And it plays well to the online brigade who like to see such anger, passion and vulnerability from players; the emotions inside the dressing room, they hope, mirror those on the outside.

But how does that play in a dressing room? Who is Robertson talking about, each member will be thinking. Does he have his house in order before he questions us? Was he not the one who fractured the defensive line for Timo Werner’s oh-so-close, ruled-out-by-VAR-but-probably-shouldn’t-have-been goal?

In normal circumstances, nobody cares. They’re the words of a player, a leader, who cares, delivered at a time when this team is crying out for leaders and players who care. In a crisis, it can leave long-lasting scars, splintering a side that has always been a bastion of togetherness.

That’s off-the-pitch. On the pitch, bad habits continue to set in. A flick-the-switch line of thinking would have you believe that with a four-week break (and there are set to be international tournaments this summer) the spark that defined Klopp’s group of old will return. The speed in the press will be back. The Roberto Firmino of old will return. The squad and shape may continue to evolve, maintaining the 3–2–5 look and possession-heavy approach — the latter being just as much about what oppositions will allow as any Liverpool plan. But after 12-plus months of blah, stuck-in-the-mud, tired, frustrated football, how realistic is it to expect a side to be — bang! — back on it by the time 2021/22 rolls around?

Add to that: Areas that were supposed to be a strength this season, like the depth in midfield, start to look like an old, creaking, issue once you project into the summer. Suddenly the idea of a deep group that allows you to toggle between styles and set-ups looks both limited and brittle.

You would most certainly rather bet on this squad, on this manager, on this coaching staff, on this club, than bet against it. They will, this writer believes, return to the title race next season with a new, evolved style, the kind that the manager had tried to put into place this season but that was submarined by the injuries. But while that’s an opinion, a belief, it should not play down the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Klopp has faced major challenges before — relegation, building historical contenders into champions, rebuilding a flagging Dortmund squad — but he has faced nothing quite as substantial, as legacy-defining, as the current situation.

Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on March 5, 2021.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.