All Jurgen Klopp could do was ask for forgiveness.
The final whistle had just been blown on what the Liverpool manager would later describe as the worst ever performance by one of his teams, and Klopp had walked onto the field and over to the club’s traveling fans.
Klopp put his hands together as if he was praying and bowed his head.
A 3-0 loss to Brighton on Saturday — in truth, the margin of defeat could have been twice as big — was a new low in what is turning into a season to forget for Liverpool, whose regression has come at a pace few could have imagined.
Last season, Liverpool came closer than any team in English soccer history to winning a quadruple of major trophies. The Reds won both domestic cup competitions, lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid in the wake of disturbing pre-match security problems involving the team’s fans, and was beaten to the Premier League title by one point — once again — by Manchester City.
So how has it got to the point this season where, in mid-January, Liverpool is ninth in the league approaching the halfway point and might be out of contention for any domestic title come Tuesday evening? Klopp’s team has exited the League Cup and faces a third-round replay against Wolverhampton in the FA Cup on Tuesday.
And as for winning the Champions League potentially being a salvation, Liverpool was drawn to play defending champion Real Madrid in the last 16. That’s hardly anything to be optimistic about, either.
“Of course we’re very concerned,” Klopp said after the Brighton game. “How can you not be after a game like this?”
Off the field and clearly on it, there’s suddenly so much wrong at Liverpool, which for the last few years has been the model for how a well-run club should function. It was a model that allowed Liverpool to somehow stay on the coattails of Abu Dhabi-controlled Man City – and even beat them to the league title one season – and remain one of European soccer’s top teams, reaching three Champions League finals since 2018.
Where has it gone wrong?
The future direction of the club has been clouded by Liverpool’s American ownership, Fenway Sports Group, saying late last year it was open to having new shareholders, amid speculation it was inviting offers from potential buyers. It leaves the club in a tough spot, because how can Klopp and the board make any plans — especially in the transfer market — when they don’t know in what position they will be in six months’ time, or who will even be the owner amid unconfirmed reports of bids from the Middle East? Adding to the uncertainty is the decision by sporting director Julian Ward to leave the club at the end of the season, only months after replacing Michael Edwards in the post. Klopp has worked well with both men, with Liverpool’s shrewd recruitment — especially under Edwards — allowing the team to keep pace with City despite its rival’s greater wealth. FSG bought Liverpool for 300 million pounds (then about $476 million) in 2010 and is sitting on a big profit, judging by the 2.5 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) Chelsea was sold for last year. The ownership needs to spend more on the squad than it currently is.
Has last season’s quadruple bid taken too much out of Liverpool? Has years of chasing down City finally taken its toll? The team’s sluggishness seems to suggest that, with Klopp’s message not appearing to be getting through. No team played more games than Liverpool’s 63 last season, and reaching the Champions League final gave the team a shorter offseason. Maybe the players are simply exhausted, mentally as much as physically. Certain key players like Virgil van Dijk, who has made more mistakes than usual, and Trent Alexander-Arnold are not performing at the same level as previous seasons.
Klopp’s decision to not refresh his midfield looks to be a big misjudgement. Fabinho’s form has dramatically dipped, as has Thiago Alcantara’s, while 32-year-old captain Jordan Henderson cannot cover the same ground as he used to. Klopp has maybe been too loyal to his midfielders, with backups James Milner, Curtis Jones and Naby Keita not at a good enough level. Liverpool has chosen to spend most of its money on upgrading its attack, bringing in Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and most recently Cody Gakpo over the past 12 months, but surely improving the midfield was a more pressing requirement? Indeed, when it comes to pressing — a part of the game Liverpool used to be so good at — that has dropped off this season, too, leaving the defense more exposed.
The biggest absences have been Diaz and Diogo Jota, who were injured before the World Cup and don’t appear close to a return. With Roberto Firmino also out, Klopp’s attacking options in the first season without the departed Sadio Mane have been hit, with Gakpo needing time to adjust to the pace of the English game. Van Dijk and Nunez were absent for the Brighton loss with injuries and were badly missed.
Liverpool might view a season without European competition as a chance to reset and build some new foundations. But not being in the Champions League might stop the club from attracting Europe’s top players such as Jude Bellingham, who has been linked with a move to Anfield for some time. Is Klopp, after seven years at Liverpool, ready for another rebuild?