Innovation and motivation cannot disguise Liverpool's limitations
Deterioration. Change. Consolidation. Revival. Challenge. Plateau. Decline. Change. Repeat.
Liverpool’s cycle of failure is now so well established after 27 years that the dramatic lurches it causes no longer surprise. The difference now is how quickly they go from intoxicating high to demoralising low. It used to happen over the course of three seasons, but under their two most recent managers the oscillations have been much more dramatic. Rapid cycling has taken hold.
That debilitating process continued today with Jurgen Klopp contemplating whether defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers marked his lowest point as manager. Just four weeks after victory over Manchester City had prompted the Liverpool manager to publicly target Chelsea and subsequently chastise those who had questioned whether his club had done enough in the transfer market last summer, a less bombastic Klopp was, like everyone else, wondering where it had all gone wrong.
A run of one win in eight matches does that to a manager, of course, and whether you are in charge of Liverpool or Leyton Orient, it is almost as impossible not to become excited when things are going well just as it is unavoidable that introspection and doubt will follow when they don’t. The problem for Liverpool, though, is that they do not seem to be able to stop bust from following boom in the same way that they once were unable to stop themselves from winning trophies. A culture of success has been followed by a schizophrenic culture of progress and regress.
More than anything else, that is what Klopp has to change. None of his predecessors in the modern era have quite been able to do so, although there were times when each of them looked to have broken the cycle of hope and despair. Brendan Rodgers went from free-wheeling title challenger to busted flush within the space of 12 months. Rafael Benitez was able to maintain positive momentum for longer, particularly in Europe, only for his final season to unravel in acrimony after finishing runners up in the previous campaign.
Others have suffered similarly, which begs the obvious question whether it is the methods of the manager or the culture of the club which is being found wanting? As was the case with Benitez, Rodgers, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, though, the man who picks the team and chooses the tactics is always the one whose way of doing things is scrutinised most. Klopp has discovered this over the last month with the desertion of Liverpool’s form provoking criticism of everything from his training methods to his team selection policy.
That begs another question – what else should Klopp be doing? He does not have a squad of proven winners. Nor does he have strength in depth. He has a strong first eleven, albeit one that relies on three or four individuals and which can malfunction if just one of them is absent. He is not blessed with riches in reserve. He does not have a target man or a free scoring centre forward, he does not have an outstanding midfielder capable of controlling games and he does not have a quality left back, regardless of how well James Milner performed in the role before the season began to take its toll.
What he does have is his own ability to innovate and motivate and a group that is willing to run as hard as he asks them. For a time, it seemed that would be enough. The Liverpool of autumn was a whirlwind of a team, blowing opponents away with the intensity of their play, inspiring hope that they could be the side and this could be the season to end Liverpool’s long wait for a title. Innovation and motivation cannot disguise limitations forever, though, and as the fixtures came around faster and Klopp’s options became thinner, the decline that Liverpool’s critics had long predicted came to pass.
Not that Klopp is free of blame. After Wolves became the latest opponent to expose the weaknesses that he is still to address, Klopp took responsibility and rightly so. The team he had selected had failed, as had his tactical approach and a third damaging home defeat in the space of a week put Liverpool in crisis, even if it does seem an unlikely one given they remain well-placed to challenge for a top four place despite their recent form. But again, it must be asked what else could he have done? Should he play his first choice team in every game regardless of fatigue? Should he not be able to trust squad players and promising youngsters to perform at least adequately against a team from the Championship?
If there is a criticism of Klopp that cannot be ignored it is perhaps that he fell into the trap of believing Liverpool had done enough in the transfer market last summer to get them through an entire season without suffering the kind of slump they are in now. Like most top managers and most club owners, Klopp does not believe the January transfer window is a good time to do business, and recent history offers more evidence in support of that theory than it does against. But knowing this, Liverpool still signed only three outfield players who were ready to go straight into the first team during the summer and while two of those that they recruited - Joel Matip and Sadio Mane - have done particularly well, the feeling grows that not enough business of this standard was done.
Klopp rages against the idea that the market is the place to look for solutions, maintaining that as a coach his priority is to improve players on the training pitch rather than replacing them at the first sign of trouble. It is a noble approach and one which has served him well in his career to date, but unless he has the raw material to work with it is hard to see how it can be as effective as he wants it to be at a club which does not punch its weight in the transfer market. As with their refusal to lavish Academy players with excessive riches, there will be plenty in football who admire Liverpool’s stance on transfers, particularly their attempts to find value where little seems to exist, but there will be many more who wonder whether it is doomed to fail in an industry in which success is so often dictated by how much is spent.
Against Wolves today, Southampton on Tuesday and Swansea last Saturday, it was hard to make a case that Liverpool have spent enough. At the exact time when they needed their squad to prove that it has depth, it has been found wanting. Klopp has some very good players, but he does not have enough of them and while there is nothing positive about going out of the FA Cup to lower division opposition, the obvious consolation for Liverpool to take from their ignominious exit is that the fixture list will now become less demanding and the first eleven, when all are available, should be able to play more often than not.
Concentrating on the league will be good for Liverpool and it will give them the opportunity to reverse the cycle that they are currently in. But even should they do so, their priority next summer should be to examine why they keep on following boom with bust. An obvious conclusion will be that they don’t have enough good players for the good times to be maintained but even if that is acknowledged it will need a change of approach in the transfer market for that to be put right. Having prioritised quality over quantity, the events of the last month should tell Liverpool that they need both. It is the methods of the club and not those of the manager which are in most need of scrutiny.