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Jurgen Klopp (file pic).
Jurgen Klopp (file pic).
Image: PA

Where has it all gone wrong for Liverpool?

Alex Ferguson set the template for transitioning successful Premier League sides ahead of the 1995-96 season.
Mar 5th 2021, 3:01 PM 23,188 55

IT IS increasingly starting to feel as if the current Liverpool side are coming to the end of their cycle.

Yes, there are caveats. The pandemic has created some freakish conditions and results.

Liverpool have been hit badly, particularly at centre-back, with Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip among the long-term injuries.

The many makeshift replacements — last night it was Fabinho and Ozan Kabak — are not of the same quality as their predecessors, with the Reds’ backline badly exposed on more than one occasion by Chelsea’s swift counter-attack.

Yet blaming all Liverpool’s problems on injuries seems overly simplistic.

Even with Van Dijk in the team, they were beaten 7-2 by Aston Villa earlier in the season, and any assumption that they would be challenging for the title were it not for the Dutchman’s absence seems fanciful at best.

Against the Blues, the Reds had their three key attacking players of recent years starting — Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino. And yet, they rarely looked like scoring, registering only one shot on target in the entire 90 minutes.

The return of Van Dijk will certainly boost confidence levels, yet it will not imminently rectify a problem that has seen Liverpool fail to score in seven of their last 12 matches.

They have now also lost five successive league games at Anfield for the first time ever, while there appears to be growing doubt as to whether they will seal a coveted top-four spot come the end of the season.

They are four points off fourth-place Chelsea, while they could be six points behind fifth-place Everton if the Toffees win their game in hand.

With the business end of the season approaching, a number of teams around them seem to be picking up momentum, while Klopp’s men are showing few signs of arresting their slump.

Sky pundit Roy Keane memorably labelled the Reds “bad champions,” and as things stand, they are on course to produce one of the weakest title defences in history in terms of points accrued.

In the Premier League era, Leicester (2016-17) top the list on 44 points, ahead of Chelsea (2015-16) on 50 points, Blackburn (1995-96) on 61 points and David Moyes’ Man United (2013-14) on 64 points.

With 11 games to play, Liverpool sit on 43 points and will need a really strong finish to avoid being remembered in a similar fashion to the aforementioned teams.

There is no doubt their title chances are over — if they win all their remaining games, the Anfield outfit will finish on 76 points. Table toppers Man City are currently on 65 points and so need only to win four of their remaining 11 fixtures to make it a mathematical impossibility for Klopp’s men to retain the title.

While securing a top-four finish will be the priority, in the back of his mind, Klopp must be thinking about the summer and how he can replenish his ailing team.

If you look at the history of the Premier League, the very best sides usually have no more than three years at their peak, which is a big reason why even the most successful managers normally don’t stay too long in the top jobs.

This Liverpool team has been one of the most impressive Premier League sides ever, continually challenging for the title and racking up astonishing points tallies, eventually ending the 30-year wait to win the league last season.

Yet this May will be the three-year anniversary of Klopp’s side’s first Champions League final.

Consider the starting XI amid that 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid: Loris Karius; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgin van Dijk, Dejan Lovren, Andy Robertson; James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum; Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino.

With the exception of Alisson — arguably the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle — the spine of that team remains in place at present.

For large parts of this season, Liverpool have looked stale, particularly in an attacking sense.

Perhaps this predicament has been accelerated by the pandemic, but they look exhausted, both physically and psychologically, after an incredible couple of years.

Consequently, it feels the time is right for Klopp to take a page out of the book of the most successful manager in Premier League history — Alex Ferguson.

After the first of his 13 title wins, the Scottish coach was asked by Sky Sports if he could maintain this dominance in the long term.

“We have the players, as long as they’re hungry, because if they’re not hungry you can never achieve anything,” he responded.

“What I would be saying to my players now is, ‘go on, the door’s open for you. If you really want to do it, you can do it’.”

Like Liverpool last season, the 1993-94 Man United side were considered trailblazers at the time.

They were just the fourth team in 20th century to win the domestic double of the Premier League and FA Cup, while they fell narrowly short of the treble, with a depleted Red Devils side losing 3-1 to Aston Villa in the League Cup final.

Yet within two years of that remarkable triumph, important players such as Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis had all left the club. Eric Cantona was also coming to the end and was suspended for a large part of that period too.

After an indifferent, unsuccessful defence of their crown in the 1994-95 season, Ferguson’s subsequent decision to place his faith in a number of young players paid off as they claimed the title in six of the next eight campaigns.

The Scot’s ruthless move to cast aside a number of ageing, underperforming and in some cases, wantaway players, provides a lesson for Klopp.

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Ferguson was able to start new cycles on numerous occasions. Aside from the 1994 team, his various other sides probably peaked amid the Champions League wins in 1999 and 2008.

The only manager in Premier League history to rival Ferguson’s longevity was Arsene Wenger, and even he was not as adept at reinvigorating ageing teams, which partially explains why all his title wins came in the first eight seasons of his 22-year reign.

That is not suggest Klopp’s current team needs to dispense with every star player — Ryan Giggs, for instance, was part of all the above-mentioned great United sides. But certainly, the Reds could do with some significant refurbishment ahead of the 2021-22 campaign.

One of the toughest decisions Klopp will likely to make surrounds his acclaimed attacking trio, all of whom are aged 28 or over.

There is an inevitable suspicion that all is not well behind the scenes, and one of the most curious calls last night was Klopp’s decision to withdraw Salah after just 62 minutes, which prompted an angry reaction from the Egyptian star.

A cryptic tweet from Salah’s agent, Ramy Abbas Issa, seemingly in reaction to the substitution, did little to alleviate speculation that his days at Liverpool could be numbered, with rumours of an end-of-season exit intensifying over the past few months.

If you focus purely on individual stats, Salah has had a good season. He is the current top scorer in the league with 17 goals. Yet too often, at crucial times in big games, the Reds’ talisman has been as ineffectual as the rest of the team.

If reports that the forward is unhappy are true and assuming Klopp seeks to build a dynasty at Liverpool, then as harsh it may seem, he could be left with no option but to at best make Salah the Ince/Kanchelskis-like figure of this particular scenario.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures:

Saturday

Burnley v Arsenal (12.30)
Sheffield United v Southampton (15.00)
Aston Villa v Wolves (17.30)
Brighton v Leicester (20.00)

Sunday

West Brom v Newcastle (12.00)
Liverpool v Fulham (14.00)
Man City v Man United (16.30)
Tottenham v Crystal Palace (19.15)

Monday

Chelsea v Everton (18.00)
West Ham v Leeds (20.00)

Originally published at 14.08 and updated at 15.00

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Paul Fennessy

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