Liverpool lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous and that is a Jurgen Klopp problem
In losing to Bournemouth at the weekend, Liverpool offered a reminder of the fact that their biggest consistency this season has been their inconsistency.
Well, at least full highlights weren’t shown on the BBC. After the giddying high of putting seven goals past their biggest rivals without reply a week before, Liverpool returned to the ground with a bump on the Dorset coast on Saturday lunchtime.
A 1-0 defeat against Bournemouth, who’d started the weekend bottom of the Premier League, couldn’t quite undo the memories of the weekend before, but this defeat may serve as a timely reminder of the amount of work that Jurgen Klopp still has to do with a squad of players whose successes this season have been intermittent at best.
While Liverpool could hardly have been said to have been unlucky, they had chances, most notably when Mo Salah shanked a second-half penalty wide of the post after Adam Smith’s contentious ‘handball’. Salah’s miss felt like a summation of Liverpool’s afternoon. A golden opportunity spurned, a reminder of how brittle confidence can be when it hasn’t been working week in, week out for a while. After the game, Klopp seemed mystified at how his team could have gone from such an extreme to another in the space of less than six days. You and the rest of us, pal.
At the top of Klopp’s list of issues to fix seems to be Virgil van Dijk. The defender was criticised after the game over his reaction – or lack thereof – to Bournemouth’s goal, when he seemed to allow Bournemouth’s Dango Ouattara to drift past him to send over the cross from which Philip Billing scored the only goal of the game before throwing his arms in the air as the ball hit the back of the net in frustration. An understandable reaction in one sense, but hardly the sort of display that a manager will want to see from their captain.
Van Dijk will be 32 by the start of next season, and it is beginning to look as though Liverpool have had the best years of his career. He’s been with the club for just over five years now and has racked up more than 200 appearances, but he isn’t getting any younger. While changes in diet and fitness training are managing to extend the careers of many players, some will simply plateau at a certain age and then start to tail off.
Having been a strong contender for the best defender in the world at times over that five years, Van Dijk may well be falling into that category. There comes a point at which slips in form start to make a pattern rather than being just a series of blips.
Replacing him will be expensive, certainly if he’s to be replaced by another defender of a similar calibre, and it would be somewhat unfair to leave the impression that this particular defeat rested on his shoulders and his alone, because it was quite clear that this defeat was a collective failure of nerve.
In short, there seem to be few areas of the Liverpool team which really have been firing on all cylinders this season. Questions over the attack seemed answered after the Manchester United game; Darwin Nunez, Cody Gakpo and Salah all performed brilliantly in this match, all showing their very best versions of themselves, but against Bournemouth that strange feeling of uncertainty descended again. Salah’s glaring miss was his first penalty in the league this season; it might have been the worst of his career.
The midfield remains in need of a major rebuild. They weren’t able to simply bypass it by moving the ball very quickly, as they had for 40 minutes against Manchester United. And the defence, which had hardly been tested a week earlier, was again soft-centred against moderate opposition. Gakpo missed in the closing seconds but was otherwise anonymous. Nunez remains a raw mineral of a player, with obvious abilities but still an air of the unpredictability that under-pressure managers could probably do without.
If beating Manchester United had one positive effect on Liverpool beyond the immediate mathematical benefits of such a win, it was to serve as a reminder of what they’re capable of doing to teams. And this narrative back story also explains why losing their very next match to Bournemouth matters.
Football moves in patterns, and in the days between these two matches the punditocracy expended considerable energy on discussing where this would lead. Were they moving into gear for a late assault on a Champions League place for next season? Might they even be able to overhaul the three-goal deficit they shipped against Real Madrid in the first leg of that tie? The possibilities, in the warm afterglow of those seven goals, felt boundless.
The fall of the fixture list had worked their way, too. Kicking off before Spurs on Saturday lunchtime gave them the perfect opportunity to Send A Message. A win against Bournemouth would have put them in fourth place for the first time this season, while also turning up the heat on a Spurs team which has been undergoing an identity crisis of its own of late.
But Saturday lunchtime kick-offs have had a hold over Liverpool for some years. They’d failed to win any of their previous Saturday lunchtime kick-offs this season, and had failed to score in any of them since drawing 2-2 at Fulham on the opening weekend of the season.
Jurgen Klopp has complained about lunchtime kick-offs before – their record in them is famously poor, and that’s a problem that pre-dates this season – but this was in the context of having to play one after a Champions League match the previous Wednesday. That couldn’t be used as an excuse this time around, but by five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon which might have ended with Liverpool in a Champions League place for the first time this season, their defeat coupled with Spurs’ comfortable 3-1 win against Nottingham Forest had somehow left Spurs six points clear in fourth place again.
There’ll doubtless be a lot of talk about the ‘reaction’ we might expect from Liverpool to this result, but this in itself seems to have been the leitmotif of their season. The reaction to the reaction to the reaction. They now travel to Madrid for that Champions League second leg with yet another one expected, and that sense of drama, of a team veering from the brilliant to the dreadful, might well not survive a trip to the Bernabeu.
Liverpool have scored at least seven goals in a game on three occasions this season, but it is their apparent ability to go from absolutely ripping a team to shreds to the sort of supine, just got out of bed performance that we witnessed at The Vitality Stadium that really defines them.
Changes to the playing staff are out of the question before the end of this season, so Jurgen Klopp will have to work with what he’s got, but he can at least do so in the knowledge that this group of players are as capable of destroying Manchester United as they are of having done to them what Bournemouth did.
The truth of Liverpool is somewhere between these two extremes, and Klopp’s job for the summer will be to iron out the latter while accentuating the former. Everybody knows that further rebuilding is both coming and necessary. Liverpool can’t afford to drop the ball in the summer 2023 transfer market in the same way that they did in 2022, but between now and then, they can’t really afford many more Saturday lunchtime performances like those we’ve already witnessed this season.