ANFIELD: With his eccentricities, his passion on the sidelines and his quirky comments to the media, Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp has quickly established himself as a cult figure at Anfield and a darling of English soccer in general.
Liverpool’s American owners were so sure that Klopp was the perfect man for the club, they handed him a six-year contract in July.
But as another title challenge sputters in the Premier League and even Champions League qualification looks in doubt, questions are being asked about whether Klopp can make Liverpool – England’s biggest team in the late 1970s and 1980s – great again. And front of line is Klopp himself. “It’s getting more serious now. We all play for our futures, myself included,” a dismayed Klopp said after Liverpool’s 3-1 loss at Leicester on Monday, its latest setback in a forgettable 2017.
The team, first-place Chelsea’s nearest challenger over Christmas, has earned only six points in seven games since the start of the year. The Reds have dropped to fifth place and are only a point ahead of resurgent Manchester United, which has played a game less.
The 2-0 win over Tottenham two weeks ago proved to be a false dawn. Liverpool’s players put in one of its worst performances of the season at Leicester: They were out-ran, out-fought and out-thought. Liverpool’s squad spent some time at a training camp in La Manga, Spain, during its recent 16-day break from competitive activity. The trip was meant to refresh the players ahead of the Premier League run-in, but it felt at times as if their heads and legs were still in Spain.
“It looked like a friendly game,” Klopp said when describing his players’ sluggish reactions during Leicester’s build-up to the first goal by Jamie Vardy. As the recent firing of Leicester’s title-winning coach, Claudio Ranieri, has proved, a manager will always take the hit when a team underperforms even if the players are as much to blame.
Klopp, who has been manager for 17 months, has to take his share of the increasing criticism coming Liverpool’s way.
He doesn’t seem to have a “Plan B” if the team’s high-energy pressing game isn’t working. When Liverpool’s players are on their game, they can blow opponents away – see, for example, how they overwhelmed Tottenham and the fact they scored more than four goals in a single game on eight occasions from August to December – but otherwise they are easy to play against when their intensity drops.
There’s also an alarming trend of losses to lower-ranked teams. All five of Liverpool’s losses in the league have come against teams in the bottom eight, including four who were in the bottom five. Is it complacency? Are they too easy to pick off on the counterattack?
“What has happened here, has happened too often this season,” Klopp said at King Power Stadium.
Liverpool simply wasn’t ready for Leicester, despite having two weeks to prepare. The defense left space behind for Vardy – one of the league’s quickest strikers – to exploit, which is unforgivable. And Liverpool didn’t match the work rate of an opponent from whom there would obviously be a reaction following the criticism of Leicester’s players because of their perceived role in Ranieri’s departure.
“We didn’t adapt well in the game,” Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said. “We were not ready at the beginning of the game.” And then there’s the seemingly annual concerns about Liverpool’s defense, which featured two midfielders – Lucas Leiva at center back and James Milner at left back – against Leicester.
Klopp’s failure to significantly improve Liverpool’s defense in the three transfer windows he has had at Anfield might be his biggest mistake. No other team in the top eight has conceded as many goals as Liverpool (33) so far this season.
Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius are mistake-prone goalkeepers who have been in and out of the side, Milner isn’t a long-term solution at left back, and they are too weak at center back no matter who plays out of Joel Matip, Lucas, Dejan Lovren or Ragnar Klavan.
There is no immediate threat to Klopp’s position – he is too highly thought of at Liverpool – but there is a sense of deja vu at a club that hasn’t won the English league since 1990 and cannot compete financially with other heavyweights in English soccer.
In the six-team race for the four Champions League spots, two big teams will miss out.
Liverpool increasingly looks like being one of them. – AP