LIVERPOOL, England – It’s every week now that Liverpool seem to be losing another little piece of themselves. An unbeaten home record dating back more than three years vanished in January, won by Burnley. The feeling of Anfield as a fortress collapsed shortly thereafter, quickly stormed by Brighton and then Manchester City.
The golden afterglow of the long-awaited Premier League crown, which arrived last summer, has faded for some time, but it darkened for good last week as Jürgen Klopp conceded the Premier League title as he was still in the grip of winter.
And then, as the fireworks went off and car horns sounded across Merseyside on Saturday night, came what could be the most hurtful change of all. Everton hadn’t tasted victory at Anfield this century. He hadn’t won a derby at all for over a decade. For Liverpool, the helplessness of their neighbor and rival had been such a source of unbridled joy that it had long since been fused into part of his personal identity.
But now all of that is gone too. Richarlison put Everton in the lead after just three minutes. Carlo Ancelotti’s side held Liverpool at arm’s length with some comfort, ruffled only by flurries, for the remainder of the evening.
The only clue the Everton players knew they were about to make – or, perhaps, end – to the story came in their celebrations when Gylfi Sigurdsson settled the game from the point of penalty with 10 minutes remaining, completing the score line 2-0. The reactions were loud and definitive, the sound of a curse being lifted. On the sideline, Duncan Ferguson, who has been part of Everton’s fabric for almost all of those 20 years, first as a player and now as a coach, bounced back and roared.
Of course, Ancelotti and his players deserve praise and admiration for the precision and balance of their performance, but the approach that won them the victory hinges on a confluence of factors. First of all, of course, your team needs to be focused, disciplined and organized: not far from perfect, in fact.
Second, you must be, if not lucky, at least not unlucky: even the most intricately worked out plan can be undone by an unfortunate bounce of the ball, an arbitrary deflection, a moment of wonder.
And third, you need your opponent to be judged insufficient. A team full of confidence, energy and ideas will, more often than not, choose a path through even the most masterful defense. Liverpool absolutely and absolutely lacked all of these things.
It’s not hopelessly hard to understand why Liverpool have worked so hard this season. Klopp certainly doesn’t think there is a great mystery here. Liverpool lost not only Virgil Van Dijk, but Joe Gomez and Joel Matip to injury, tearing the basis of their defense, of their team. Klopp had no choice but to dismantle his midfielder to patch up his defense.
But this is only the beginning. At times it seemed like everything that could have gone wrong for Liverpool this season has gone wrong. It is easier to list the players who have not spent at least a few weeks in the treatment room: Andy Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané.
Fabinho, the first midfielder drafted in defense, is currently out due to his own injury. Jordan Henderson, second, limped in the first half on Saturday with a groin injury. Alisson Becker, widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world and the only reassuring presence in the background for Liverpool, made three glaring mistakes in the losses to Manchester City and Leicester.
If the root of the problem doesn’t require forensic investigation, however, the answer might. Klopp has looked significantly more irascible than usual this season at times, clashing with TV reporters, lashing out at reporters at press conferences, exchanging crosswords with opposing managers.
When it emerged earlier this month that he had suffered a personal tragedy – the death of his mother – it seemed to explain the change in mood. Klopp, however, is adamant that he is capable of compartmentalize your emotions; those who work with him say that there has been no real change. Klopp has always been thorny. What has changed is perception. The fragility of a position of strength is flexion of the muscles. From a weak position, it looks a lot like a temper tantrum.
Indeed, it is striking that while what started as a dive has turned into a slump and now, on the backs of four straight home losses – the club’s worst run since 1923 – looks on a spiral, Liverpool have not sought to change Trier.
This is true for the club as a whole – its inability to have a central defensive reinforcement ready to go on January 1 was the act of a club operating in the old world, not the new – and that is. particularly true of Klopp. The style has remained the same. The system has remained the same. “The only way I know is to try over and over and over again,” he said on Friday.
It was a revealing statement. Klopp is the archetype of what you might call a systems coach: he has a way of playing that is ingrained in his soul. His counterpart at Everton, Ancelotti, is the opposite: a manager who once coached Andrea Pirlo but who is perfectly content, in another era, to ask Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey to throw the ball long and full of hope, again and again, in the hope of catching the correct current in the wind.
Such pragmatism is anathema to Klopp. Changing your style, so essential to your identity, would mean changing yourself. This is the trait that has brought him such success, of course; it is possible, however, that this is also what limits it in certain circumstances, that its loyalty to the system is detrimental when external factors cause the system itself to no longer function.
Klopp has experienced a run like this – a time when it seems like everything is going well – once before, in his final year at Borussia Dortmund. Then, too, his team was ravaged by injuries. In previous seasons he had also faced the departure of a group of key players. He refused to compromise his beliefs. Dortmund finished seventh and he resigned.
The echoes of this year are getting stronger every week in Liverpool, with each new unwanted record falling. Liverpool continue to do the same things, expecting different results, with a team banging their heads against a brick wall. She continues to lose all those little pieces of herself, lost in the shadow of an identity that cannot stand change.