Jurgen Klopp promised the Reds would "attack" the defence of their Premier League title, but things could hardly have turned out worse this season
Jurgen Klopp must have sensed what was coming. Then again, how could he?
It was the morning after the night before; June 26, 2020. Klopp, tired, smiling and wearing a ‘Champions 19-20’ hoodie, was speaking via Zoom to the world’s media.
He was happy, of course. Liverpool had won the Premier League, their 30-year wait ended in quite dominant fashion. At that time, the Reds were champions of England, champions of Europe, champions of the world.
Champions of everything.
And then the questions came. 'How does it feel?' 'When did he know it was going to happen?' 'What was the biggest obstacle he had to overcome?' 'What were the celebrations like?'
And, most pertinently, 'what would come next for this team?' Sure, to win it once is great, but what about retaining it?
“Defending the title? That’s really a funny thing,” Klopp said, incredulously. “I have heard people say it is only a real thing if we win twice in a row. That’s obviously an English thing, but it’s very funny!”
Later, he would insist that Liverpool would not look to defend their crown at all, that they would instead look to “attack the next one”.
“This team will not stop wanting it,” he stated. “We have space for improvement, and I think there is a lot to come.”
That was only eight months ago, but it already feels like a different era. The world has changed for everyone, but for Liverpool it has started to cave in in recent weeks. The dream has become a nightmare.
Their title defence – or attack – is in tatters, done and dusted with frost still on the ground. Worse still, recent results, including Saturday’s seven-minute car crash at Leicester, mean doubts about their ability to secure even a top-four place are growing.
Maintaining the standards of the last two years, in which they enjoyed 97 and 99-point campaigns, was always going to be difficult, but Liverpool’s fall-off has been quite remarkable.
“Bad champions,” Roy Keane called them recently, questioning the mentality and character of Klopp’s team. He is wrong, but the statistics are damning nonetheless.
Liverpool had 70 points and were 19 clear at the top after 24 games last season; this time around they have 40 and sit 13 behind league leaders Manchester City, who have a game in hand for good measure.
Back on their perch in June, reeling on the floor in February. That is football for you. Klopp ‘conceded’ the title after his side’s collapse at Leicester, and by Saturday night rumours had spread like wildfire on Merseyside regarding his future.
To be clear, he has not resigned and will not be any time soon. He will hold a press conference on Monday to preview the Reds’ Champions League last-16 tie against RB Leipzig, and will be on the touchline for Saturday’s Merseyside derby against Everton at Anfield.
He has had it tough, on and off the pitch, but he is still there; fighting, working, committed and determined.
How, though, have we got to this point? How has the dream of 2019 and 2020 turned into the nightmare of 2021?
Rivals begin to re-tool
If Liverpool wanted a reminder of just how tough it can be at the top, it came just a week after they were crowned champions.
They went to Manchester City, the team they had dethroned so comprehensively. They got a guard of honour, a pretty pathetic one in all honesty, and then lost 4-0, punished ruthlessly by a side determined to regain its crown.
Within a fortnight they had lost again, beaten 2-1 at Arsenal, and drawn at home to Burnley, ending their hopes of both a 100-point season and a flawless Anfield league campaign.
Such blips could be excused, of course. They were bound to drop off having scaled their Everest. They still won the title by 18 points, and they would surely be back strong for the 2020-21 season.
The trouble was, so would others. City would regroup, spending big on Ruben Dias in a bid to solve their defensive issues. Manchester United had improved markedly in the second half of the campaign, post-lockdown and post-Bruno Fernandes. Chelsea were aggressive and eye-catching in the transfer market, Tottenham, Leicester and Everton all looked like they could move forward.
And as for everyone else, well how much would they love to land one on the champions’ jaw? That's the trouble when you're back on your perch, everyone wants to knock you off...
The Villa debacle
It is easy to forget now, given all that has happened since, but Liverpool actually started the campaign well.
Sure, they were a little lax in beating Leeds in a thriller on the opening weekend, but they were convincing when winning at Chelsea a week later and wiped the floor with Arsenal at Anfield next up. After three league games they had nine points and nine goals, with three decent sides disposed of.
They had also signed Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota, key arrivals designed to ensure a great team continued to evolve and improve. Thiago shone on his debut at Stamford Bridge, Jota scored on his league bow against Arsenal.
Then came Villa.
Earlier that day, Manchester United had lost 6-1 at home to Tottenham. The previous week, Leicester had put five past Manchester City at the Etihad. Results to send shockwaves through the league, and examples of how football had changed post-lockdown and in the absence of supporters.
What happened at Villa Park was even more incredible.
Liverpool’s cloak of invincibility was shredded as they lost 7-2. Ollie Watkins scored a hat-trick while Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley ran amok.
The Reds were without Sadio Mane and Alisson Becker, with Adrian enduring a night to forget in goal, and were on the end of some rotten luck. Three of Villa’s goals were deflected and Mohamed Salah should have had a penalty at 1-0 but they were humiliated, their flaws exposed in front of a prime-time Sunday night audience. It was their worst league loss since 1963.
Klopp was philosophical in defeat. “It’s not nice but it’s life and it’s football,” he said. “We have to deal with it and we will.”
Something changed that night, though. Klopp did not know it, but things were about to get really messy.
If the Villa defeat knocked a layer off Liverpool, then their next fixture would cut deep.
They travelled to Goodison Park determined to bounce back. Instead, they dropped two points and lost two key players to injury in one of the most damaging derby matches of recent times.
Virgil van Dijk lasted just 11 minutes, his season ended by a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament courtesy of Jordan Pickford’s ill-judged (and unpunished) challenge.
Thiago completed the full 90 minutes of a pulsating 2-2 draw, but suffered knee damage late on after a rash tackle from Richarlison. The Spain international would not play again until Liverpool’s final game of 2020.
By that time, things had unravelled further. Less than a month after the Van Dijk blow came another, with Joe Gomez suffering a serious knee injury during a training session with England. His season was done, too.
Suddenly Joel Matip, as fragile as he is talented, was Liverpool’s only fit, senior centre-back. Fabinho was pushed back from midfield, while untested duo Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams were handed unexpected opportunities as autumn became winter.
The Reds muddled on, but the team’s foundations had been weakened significantly. The defence was disrupted and so was the midfield. It did not happen immediately, but at some stage, and with a spate of muscle injuries following, it would surely cost them.
Losing their aura
It is remarkable to look back on Liverpool’s title-winning campaign and see the number of tight, closely-fought games they won.
They picked up 32 victories, 14 of which were by a single-goal margin. Home or away, they found a way even when short of their best.
“F*cking mentality giants,” Klopp christened them the previous season, and few could argue as they laid waste to their Premier League rivals.
Not this season, though. Bit by bit, week by week, their aura has disappeared. They play the same way and they try the same things, but things have changed. Those tight games have started to go against them, their mistakes pounced upon and their ruthlessness deserting them.
Suddenly, everyone feels they have a chance. Liverpool have dropped points against six of the bottom eight teams in the Premier League, and their form generally has unravelled since Christmas.
They were top of the table after beating Crystal Palace 7-0 on December 19, but they have picked up just nine points from a possible 30 since, losing five of their last seven league matches.
The last two defeats, in particular, have been brutal. From positions of strength, Liverpool conceded three goals in 10 minutes against City and three in seven minutes at Leicester at the weekend. They remain fourth for now, but could fall as low as eighth if games in hand are won.
When the winter transfer window came, Liverpool got their business done on the first of the month.
The problem was, the month was February, not January.
It was clear from the moment Gomez, if not Van Dijk, went down that a centre-back would need to be recruited. Matip’s fitness could not be relied upon, while the sight of Jordan Henderson alongside Fabinho in defence in the second half at Fulham spoke volumes. Phillips and Williams did what they could, but they were simply not going to be able to carry a title challenge.
But while most expected the Reds to act, they instead waited. They started 2021 with Henderson and Fabinho at the back in a defeat at Southampton. It was not until another season-ending injury, this time to Matip, on January 28 that it was accepted that something had to happen.
That led to a frantic end to the window, and two signings which could, at best, be labelled as “surprising”.
Liverpool took Ben Davies from Preston North End, paying an initial £500,000 ($700,000) for the 25-year-old, and loaned Turkey international Ozan Kabak from Schalke, with an option for a permanent £18 million ($25m) deal in the summer, should he impress.
By that point the damage had been done, though. Liverpool dropped eight points in January and exited the FA Cup at Old Trafford. Since the window closed, they have lost three in a row.
Kabak made his debut alongside Henderson at Leicester, the 17th different centre-back pairing Klopp has used this season, but was involved in a horrible mix-up with Alisson for the Foxes’ second goal. “A misunderstanding,” said Klopp. “That can happen when you’re new together.”
Fair point, though many will ask, with good reason, why Liverpool did not act sooner in the market. It might not have saved their title challenge, in all honesty, but it certainly could not have made things much worse.
The salvage job
So what happens now, then?
Liverpool’s week is a big one, with Leipzig away on Tuesday and then a home fixture against Everton on Saturday evening. A chance for things to get worse, sure, but also an opportunity to step out of the darkness of recent weeks.
Two wins would certainly brighten the skies over Anfield, and Klopp will hope for better news on the injury front, particularly in terms of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Diogo Jota, whose absence with a knee injury since December 9 has been felt keenly. Jota is still a few weeks away, according to Klopp, but Fabinho, Keita and new arrival Davies are all closer.
It is hard to look positively at recent form, but Klopp is not wrong when he points to the good signs Liverpool have shown at times. They were in the game before individual errors undermined them against City, and dominated for 78 minutes until the same happened at Leicester. Sometimes, you really cannot plan for things.
The Champions League represents a chance to reignite the campaign, as well as, potentially, an opportunity to secure a place in next season’s competition. It is an outside chance at the moment, of course, but stranger things have happened.
As for the league, well the plan is just to keep on swimming. “We are not worrying about the title, we are not silly,” Klopp said on Saturday. “In the moment it’s tough, I know the only way out of the situation is to play good football, to fight, to work hard.
“We are still able to do that and we will keep doing that. We have to.”
There's no doubt that Klopp is still the right man for the job, and that he still retains the backing of those who matter within the club, as well as the vast majority of supporters. Ignore the rumours and the betting odds and the attention seekers on social media.
Who knows, maybe come May he will be smiling again? It would certainly be nice to see, given what he has been through.
The trouble is, it just does not seem likely right now. If 2020 were Liverpool’s year, 2021 has been a quite brutal comedown.