Losing to Brighton in the cup makes finishing the season trophyless more likely than not. If Liverpool are in a transitional season, what are they becoming?
The winning goal in the FA Cup fourth-round match between Brighton and Liverpool may have come 90 seconds into stoppage-time, but it spoke a truth about the game that a draw would not have conveyed.
It had only been a fortnight earlier that Liverpool had made the long journey to the south coast to play Brighton and returned completely outplayed. This result and performance wasn’t quite as bad as that one – as if it could have been any worse – but if Jurgen Klopp was hoping for the narrative arc of Liverpool’s season to start curving towards something more positive, he’ll have to wait.
The lateness of Kaoru Mitoma’s winning goal couldn’t mask that for the second time in three weeks, Brighton thoroughly deserved their win. And that sense of this match having continued a theme extends to Liverpool’s calendar year. They’ve played six matches in 2023, with their only win coming narrowly against Wolves at Molineux in a replay in the previous round of the FA Cup.
And with only Cody Gakpo arriving in the January transfer window – unless there are any late surprise announcements to come from Anfield on deadline day – Klopp faces a salvage exercise for the second half of this season from players already at his disposal.
Against Brighton it felt like Klopp was seeking to avoid the issues surrounding his troubled midfield by bypassing the middle third of the pitch as much as possible. Liverpool sat deep and hit Brighton on the break. When they took the lead after half an hour through Harvey Elliott, it felt as though they might even have found a tactical structure that might pay off against a team who already knew that they had to make their home advantage count. This optimism lasted for nine minutes before Lewis Dunk brought Brighton level.
The last 12 months have been a period of dizzying change for Liverpool, but that sense of things moving on has come in unusual ways. Luis Diaz arrived from Porto a year ago, and this was the start of a reshaping of Liverpool’s attacking options throughout 2022 which came in an unusual order, with Darwin Nunez joining Diaz shortly before the confirmation of Mane’s departure for Bayern Munich and the announcement that Mo Salah had signed a contract extension.
That feeling of change being a bumpier experience for Liverpool than expected has been hanging around all season, and it was further accentuated by the autumn announcement that the club was being put up for sale.
This may or may not turn out to be good news for supporters when it is all completed. In the meantime it’s more unsettlement and transition without a final destination clearly visible. Questions even continue to be asked of Klopp himself, whether he’s done as much with Liverpool as he can, and even whether it might be time for the club to roll the dice again and see if someone else can get a better tune out of the players.
But even if the club was to consider this a viable option, the ultimate question remains: who on earth would they ever get in to replace him? Who would know the strengths and weaknesses of the players better than the person who’s been managing the team for more than seven years, or would be able to galvanise the supporters to make Anfield feel like a fortress again?
If anything, the decline of Liverpool over the course of this season has been so rapid as to suggest that the manager alone is unlikely to be anything like the biggest problem at the club, so what would getting rid of him achieve, beyond making an empty statement to the terminally impatient, while putting the club into even greater turmoil at a time they can least afford it?
Liverpool aren’t the only big Premier League football club undergoing change this season, but the shape and structure of those changes is very different at each club. Chelsea have changed vast swathes of their personnel over the last 12 months, and the results of their social experiment won’t be known until the end of this season.
Manchester United have finally employed a competent coach and have brought in new signings to fit a playing system rather than a marketing style. Manchester City have signed a goalscoring machine but needed to make significant changes to their playing style in order to accommodate him.
It does feel like Liverpool’s period of transition is the most chaotic of all, with the decision to put the club up for sale giving the distinct impression of a power vacuum within the club, all the more so when it was followed by the news that Sporting Director Julian Ward, who’s only been at Anfield since the start of July, will be leaving his post at the end of this season.
Chelsea’s transfer business may have been scattergun, but at least Todd Boehly is the public face of it all and, although form hasn’t been great since Graham Potter took charge, the club seems to have a long-term policy to support him. Manchester United are set to change ownership, and they will do so with the team having improved more than at any previous point over the last decade. Erik ten Hag has taken control of a club that has seemed rudderless for years.
At Anfield, no-one has really taken control of this downturn. Klopp appears flummoxed by it, and if the body language displayed by the team upon the full-time whistle blowing on Sunday afternoon, the players are too. This seems to be the heart of Liverpool’s current malaise. The ownership will be changing, but no-one knows who the new owners will be or when this will be completed. The Sporting Director is leaving and no successor has yet been confirmed.
There is a fin de siecle feeling around the club at the moment, but exactly what any new era for club might look like remains shrouded in mystery. The benefit of hindsight affords us the luxury of being able to see that the rebuild that should have been undertaken was botched, and the result of that is that further work seems necessary halfway through the season, when it’s more difficult and more expensive, and in this particular case with the club having been put up for sale.
While the FA Cup is unlikely to be the be all and end all for a club the size of Liverpool, their elimination from both this competition and the EFL Cup in recent weeks has certainly reduced the vista for the rest of this season. They’re still in the Champions League, but the draw for the round of 16 paired them with Real Madrid. Win that tie, and the atmosphere around the club for the remainder of this season would surely change dramatically.
But it’s difficult to see where that win would come from on the evidence of much of the last six months, and otherwise the second half of their season now only offers them the likely futile chase for fourth place – they’re ten points off Manchester United at the moment, and that already looks like too big a bridge to fill in half a season – or, more likely, a chase for a place in the Europa or perhaps Europa Conference League. The issue with Liverpool isn’t so much that they’re in transition; plenty of other clubs are in a similar position this season.
The issue is that the clarity of vision that took the club to the Premier League title and a Champions League win seems to be evaporating without anything coherent coming in to replace it.