Sean Duffy on how squad deficiencies should now be crystal clear for Jurgen Klopp as familiar failings leave Liverpool exposed on biggest stage.
I had fallen into the hype trap. For the previous 15 minutes, I’d spent the half time interval of Liverpool’s Europa League final against Sevilla marvelling at the transformation of the team under Jurgen Klopp.
Earlier in the year I was struck by the notion that this was the least likeable set of Liverpool players I could remember. They simply did nothing for me. A type of knowing dismay would creep over me whenever they performed one of their predictable capitulations or failed to turn up just when it looked like momentum was building.
So it was that the team’s run to the final had confused me somewhat. The sparkling, exhilarating nature of Liverpool’s route to Basel was such that I feared it may colour the manager’s view of many of those within his ranks.
For all the glory of those amazing night against United, Dortmund and Villareal, there lurked the spectre of a league campaign which had drifted away miserably. It was clear that these players could turn it on intermittently; the problem was that they simply weren’t good enough to do it consistently.
At half time on Wednesday I wavered. In hindsight, the chat was rather amusing: “It really is amazing what he has done. A lot of these guys were a waste of space a few months ago. He has given them a backbone I don’t think they even they knew they had”.
On Alberto Moreno: “I guess he’s worth keeping around. I know he makes mistakes at the back but it’s probably worth putting up with considering what he gives you going forward.” What a difference 17 seconds makes.
I spent the rest of half time pondering what it was Klopp might be saying to his charges at halftime. His sprint down the tunnel was a vivid display of the type of enthusiasm we have all come to know and love.
Whatever the message, it was completely undone by those inexplicable 17 seconds. The manager’s rallying script in tatters, his side imploded spectacularly.
When Manchester City exited the Champions League in such meek fashion last month, it felt like a fitting end to a campaign in which the players in the squad had abdicated responsibility for the vast majority of the season.
They had managed to navigate their way to the semi-final having spent a huge portion of the campaign in second gear. When they needed to raise their game on the biggest stage of all, there was nothing for them to draw on. They were effectively found out.
For their part, Liverpool had shown a good deal more appetite in their run to the Europa League final. Yet the lingering sense that this was a brittle bunch of players was always difficult to shake.
Klopp and the fans had managed to imbue them with the notion that they were on the cusp of something truly remarkable. They seemed to have finally discovered the belief required to cut it at Liverpool Football Club.
Alas, the second half ruthlessly exposed this new found optimism as an exercise in charlatanism. What’s worse, after the first goal- the fans knew it, Klopp knew it, and out on the pitch, the players knew it. The collective meltdown looked excruciating.
For the manager, defeat will bring the realisation that positivity and enthusiasm can only take you so far. There has been a clamour at every upturn to highlight the “revolution” underway at Anfield since Klopp took over.
The reality is that the restructuring job requires much colder analysis. Thankfully, Klopp’s post game comments about “a different team” going forward appear to indicate that he possesses the cold eye necessary to undertake the overhaul without sentiment.
Not that the manager was blameless himself on Wednesday. With Liverpool floundering in possession of the ball, the team needed to get a hold of things in midfield. Klopp’s answer was to swap Roberto Firmino for Divock Origi. The new approach moved Sturridge to the flanks, and resulted in the team hoofing the ball in Origi’s direction for the last half hour of proceedings.
With Henderson struggling for fitness, surely the wiser move would have been introducing Lucas into the fray as a calming influence. It would have provided some solidity against the rising Sevilla tide, and perhaps offered a platform for the front three to get back into the game.
Instead Liverpool went long; Origi spending his cameo grappling with defenders and giving away free kicks. The sight of Christian Benteke for the final ten minutes was the clearest possible indication from the bench that the game was well and truly up.
The manner of defeat to Sevilla offered proof it were needed that Klopp is far from infallible. The pervasive need to convey messiah status upon his arrival was a mantle the manager neither wanted nor needed.
There have certainly been individual signs of progress with Dejan Lovren, Emre Can and Firmino showing vast improvements since the German’s arrival. Yet Klopp’s win percentage ratio stands at 46%, exactly the same as his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers. There have been some unexpected highs along the way, but the reality remains that with this current crop, Klopp’s record is about par.
The impending overhaul means that a better appraisal can only be gleaned this time next year. The hope is that in the interim the manager can identify who he can trust to take the side forward, and who in the current squad is likely to wilt once the pressure begins to tell.
Klopp spoke of turning Liverpool and the fans into “believers” when he arrived on Merseyside. It worked for a while, but Wednesday night exposed a club riddled with Doubting Thomases both on the pitch and in the stands.
If the German can finally rid his Liverpool squad of the overwhelming self-doubt that has lingered like a malaise through successive generations at the club, he will indeed deserve messiah status.
For now, it best to let him get on with his business- expectations suitably tempered by a chastening night in Switzerland that few will want to remember but which will prove difficult to forget.