Klopp was right: Liverpool ‘are already on the way down’

Matt Stead
alisson klopp liverpool

As Jurgen Klopp said when Liverpool won the title: “When you think you have reached the pinnacle, you are already on the way down.” Quite.


“We have been playing at the limit for six years. Every year we have to raise the level of the previous year. If you have to stretch like that, every downward deviation is emphasised.”

Jurgen Klopp went on to stress that any backwards steps for a squad that thrives on taking annual, tangible strides forward damages the confidence – “scratches the conviction” – more than it would for a team whose progression fluctuates regularly from brilliant to terrible. If the German’s managerial career was a weight loss journey he would prefer to lose two pounds each week rather than shedding five before putting on one. The destination remains the same but the journey is more satisfying and sustainable.

It was after relegation with Mainz in 2007 that Klopp spoke of “playing at the limit” of a team constantly determined to “raise the level of the previous year”, of one at an almost permanent “stretch” to keep improving, keep growing, keep ahead. It remains one of only three seasons in a coaching career that has spanned two decades when his team has finished in a worse league position than the previous campaign: from 11th to 16th with Mainz; from 1st to 2nd in 2013 and 2nd to 7th in 2015 with Borussia Dortmund.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that he tends to leave his post soon after that linear path becomes less predictable and easy to plot. Klopp had come to naturally and inevitably outgrow Mainz after seven years, while that same period of time at Dortmund ended when he concluded that “as long as I am here, we will always be compared to our past successes”.

After little over half a decade at Liverpool, that “20kg backpack” of history he spoke of at his unveiling weighs heavier than ever, not only with the club’s burden of success but also his own. Expectations have grown with glory. Klopp has taken the fans to heights that were unfathomable when he was first appointed; they have developed a taste for champagne after many dry years. More pertinently, he has scaled those peaks with the same group of players since 2018, for whom there is no longer that motivational and metaphorical carrot to dangle.

This has been an entirely unique challenge for Klopp at Liverpool: a manager and team at their best in pursuit of something but now wholly unaccustomed to being pursued.

They went from being out of the Champions League altogether in 2015/16 to qualifying on the final day of 2016/17, reaching the final and losing in 2017/18, winning the whole thing in 2018/19 and exiting at the first knockout round in 2019/20.

That mirrored their Premier League progress from 8th in 2015/16 to 4th in 2016/17, 4th again in 2017/18, 2nd with the most points of any runner-up ever in 2018/19, distant champions in 2019/20 and ten points behind after 23 games of 2020/21.

Seven managers have retained the English championship in the post-war era and few would bet on the German making that eight come May. Injuries have decimated them and they have not been “bad champions”. But perhaps he, they and we were guilty of overlooking the impact of the psychological shift from challenging for the crown to defending it. It is perhaps impossible to avoid, that imperceptible subconscious change from hungry players to ones complacently gorging on major honours without noticing their plate is about to be snatched away by someone even more ravenous. It is also entirely and demonstrably real, a contributing factor to Arsene Wenger’s inability to win successive titles despite his obvious brilliance. Sir Alex Ferguson never let him; nor will Pep Guardiola in this instance.

The dynamic is irreversibly different and it will be intriguing to see how – if – Liverpool adjust.

As Klopp himself said in the summer: “I have learned when you think you have reached the pinnacle, you are already on the way down.” He added that “we don’t feel that” but it has proved prescient. Throughout his managerial career, and now with these Liverpool players, the thrill has always been in the chase. Having been caught already, it is time for us to rediscover their limits.

Matt Stead