When it was all getting a little too much for Jürgen Klopp at Mainz, when the defeats began to accumulate and the negative thoughts began to spiral, he would clear the schedule, jump in the car and take his squad on an adventure holiday. Long walks in the Hunsrück. Mountain biking in the Black Forest. Two or three days spent knocking back beers, sleeping in tiny huts, having the sort of honest conversations you couldn’t really have in an office. This was Klopp’s terrain, the land where he grew up, and in times of crisis it also became his sanctuary.
For Klopp’s players, the occasional jolting change of scenery became not simply invigorating but desperately necessary. The training drills would frequently change, but the rasping cigarette-hardened voice delivering them never did. The limbs and the lungs would be worked to exhaustion from July until May. With every passing year you could feel yourself getting stronger, fitter, harder, tighter. The football was thrilling and relentless. The camaraderie was bracing and intense. Everything worked and worked and worked, right up until the moment it stopped working.
“That’s your ball! That’s your ball! You go fucking out to him!” James Milner screamed at Virgil van Dijk at Old Trafford on Monday night. As Manchester United celebrated Jadon Sancho’s first-half goal, Liverpool were beginning their inquest into a defence that had quite literally stopped working. Trent Alexander-Arnold simply stopped chasing Anthony Elanga. Joe Gomez was nutmegged. Milner dived in on Sancho with all the elan of a firefighter turning up at a christening.
Finally came Van Dijk who, given the chance to close down the six yards separating him and Sancho, simply stood stock still, arms behind his back like a frightened hostage. In which context, that furious exchange between the 36-year-old Milner and the 31-year-old Van Dijk felt like a quietly seminal moment in the trajectory of this Liverpool team under Klopp: a magnificent fighting machine with whom time may just be catching up.
This is not so much a reflection on results but on mood. Yes, results this season – as in, the three of them that exist – have been underwhelming, but it’s possible to offer up mitigation for all of them. Fulham: an early kick-off, a promoted team and a sleepy start. Crystal Palace, a red card and a packet of missed chances. Losing 2-1 at Old Trafford: the sort of freakish one-off result that often occurs in local derbies. Liverpool enjoy home fixtures against Bournemouth and Newcastle on Saturday and Wednesday and it would be entirely unsurprising if they went on a 10-match winning streak from here.
But in any case the broader picture would remain unmistakable: a team that have never felt more sorely in need of a refresh, a reboot, perhaps even some respite and an injection of simple joy. This is a club that has spent the last three or four years operating at the very outer limit of its capabilities: athletically, financially, emotionally. And it has done so with the same man and the same voice, virtually the same players operating at the same intensity, the same challenge and the same challengers, a far richer opponent with a far greater margin for error. This was always going to be a product with a limited shelf life. The only real question is how much.
There is a temptation to see the current travails at Anfield as part of the natural life cycle of a Klopp team: an extension of the Béla Guttmann curse that seems to afflict all Klopp sides after five or six years. In Klopp’s seventh season at Mainz they were relegated from the Bundesliga after a stirring period of ascent. In Klopp’s seventh season at Borussia Dortmund there was a dramatic collapse that left them in the relegation zone at Christmas and eventually precipitated his departure from the club where he won two consecutive titles.
Both times Klopp tried to struggle on, continued to insist – often in curt and cantankerous tones – that better times were just around the corner. And in a way, Klopp’s demeanour is the big tell here, a man whose drawn features and basic air of world-weariness feel jarringly at odds with the sunny, bouncy coach who walked in through the door seven years and a lifetime ago. Here he is, rounding on critics of Darwin Núñez. Here he is, grumbling about United’s time-wasting. Here he is, driving home and getting unnaturally angry at Gabriel Agbonlahor on TalkSport. For Klopp to be in this frame of mind after seven years in the job is perhaps understandable. For it to happen in August feels faintly alarming.
The closest parallel here is with Dortmund’s 2014-15 campaign, where a poor start, a World Cup-truncated pre-season, the departure of a star forward (Robert Lewandowski) and an autumn injury crisis sent Klopp’s side into a tailspin from which they could not extricate themselves. “Our football makes no sense,” Klopp moaned after a meek 2-1 defeat at Köln, and yet even as Dortmund went into freefall there was still little appetite for a change. After all, Klopp had enthusiastically signed a contract extension only the previous season. There were new forwards such as Ciro Immobile and Adrián Ramos who needed time to bed in. The footballing message remained the same. In retrospect, perhaps this became part of the problem.
No team as good as Liverpool can ever be truly “worked out”. What has changed is form and execution, confidence and sharpness, the little one-percenters that make all the difference when you are playing a high-energy, high-wire style of football. And the early evidence of this season suggests that on the simple measures of running, challenging and creating, Liverpool have sharply regressed. Not only that, but in many cases these are an acceleration of trends that were already becoming evident last season.
Pressures in the final third have dropped from 45 to 36. Carries into the final third have dropped from 18 to 12. Even fouls – a measure of the aggression and prejudice with which Liverpool sought to stop you playing – have dropped 25% from last season. And yet Liverpool are seeing more of the ball: 70%, compared with 62-63% in each of the last four seasons. All over the pitch, and indeed off it, Liverpool have traded safety for risk, entrenchment for engagement, conservatism for enterprise. Much has been made of the fact that Liverpool have barely made a misstep in the transfer market over the last few seasons. Which is a lot easier, of course, for as long as your strategy is so rigid and risk-averse that you barely make a step at all.
Perhaps the story of this Liverpool team is one that hit unimaginable peaks but has since failed to move forward, that haven’t really had the time to move forward, that haven’t had the time to do very much at all except keep the engine running, keep the lights on, keep turning up every three days. Were this a smaller or a bigger club, Klopp might have had greater scope for reinvention: time to implement new ideas, time (and money) to refresh the squad, perhaps simply time to whisk everyone off to some gladed idyll and shoot the breeze in front of a roaring campfire. But here and now, this is all there is: a puffing red engine operating at the very limits of its capacity.