On a day when one world-class German manager was ruthlessly sacked, another saw his untouchable status suffer arguably its most damaging night yet.
Chelsea’s decision to part company with Thomas Tuchel just 16 months after he led them to Champions League glory was met with widespread shock and condemnation, and there is no chance of Jurgen Klopp suffering the same fate as his compatriot in the immediate or foreseeable future.
However, just as a humbling European defeat proved to be the final nail in Tuchel’s coffin at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool‘s humiliating 4-1 loss to Napoli last night – their joint-heaviest ever Champions League defeat – raised more questions than ever about the team’s direction following a poor start to the season.
Indeed, Klopp even found himself questioned about whether he feared for his future during the post-match press conference, something which would have been unthinkable just a month ago for a man who has dragged Liverpool from mid-table mediocrity to winning every major honour available to him.
Fortunately for Klopp, his players and just about every Liverpool fan, it is a concept which remains unthinkable for the club’s owners, although such is the nature of modern football that his job might actually be under threat at a different club, despite having penned a new four-year contract earlier this year.
There was, however, a particularly notable comment in his post-match interview with BT Sport, when the 55-year-old suggested that Liverpool needed to “reinvent” themselves following their slow start to the campaign.
The Reds have had low points before under Klopp – an eighth-placed finish at the end of his first season in charge, a 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa and a run of six successive home defeats all immediately come to mind – yet, throughout all of those nadirs, Klopp never wavered from his unflinching belief in his style of football.
The German has always remained steadfast in his view that the high-risk high line which is a hallmark of his side pays off far more than not, even when that strategy has been partial to the odd punishment.
It is something he can argue with complete justification considering Liverpool’s success in recent years too, but the fact that his side have now conceded the first goal in 11 of their last 12 league and Champions League games – the only exception being the 9-0 hammering of Bournemouth – suggests that the risk is now being punished more than it is yielding rewards at the other end.
Such a run of slow starts is inexplicable for a team that built much of their success by bursting out of the blocks themselves and blowing teams away early on.
Of the 11 opening goals they have conceded in their last 12 matches – discounting the two goalless draws in that time – nine have been shipped in the first half, six have been let in in the opening 16 minutes, and incredibly four have been conceded inside the opening five minutes.
To be finding yourself 1-0 down inside five minutes of 33% of matches – and trailing at some point in 92% of their recent matches overall – is simply not sustainable and gives any team, no matter how good they are, a mountain to climb from the off if they are to keep up the type of relentless winning form that Premier League success demands nowadays.
Manner of defeat is most concerning
It is important to keep things in perspective, of course. This is still a team that has lost just one Premier League game throughout the calendar year, got to three cup finals including the Champions League last season – winning two of those – and also finished second in the table with the eighth-highest points tally in Premier League history.
In isolation, losing in Naples is nothing to be ashamed of, nor nothing new for Klopp, who has done so on his last four visits to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Even the scoreline – which actually flattered Liverpool – can be forgiven despite it being their joint-heaviest in the Champions League; throughout Klopp’s tenure there have been occasional matches during which his high-risk defensive strategy has been brutally punished, and such one-off results are a by-product of the style which has brought such success.
However, it was the manner of the defeat last night that made it such a Neopolitan nightmare, and the fact that this time it was not a one-off below-par performance.
Liverpool may have only lost twice in all competitions this season, but they have also only won twice, and their performances in draws with Fulham, Crystal Palace and Everton – even in their win against Newcastle United – were far from convincing.
The intensity, pressing, desire and heavy metal style which were hallmarks of Klopp’s Liverpool now seem to have deserted them, and one of the most damning statistics surrounding Liverpool’s start to the campaign is that they have now been outrun for a seventh successive game.
Klopp has regularly referred to his team as “mentality monsters”, but they were more like mice last night as Napoli ripped into them from the very first minute, showing the sort of intensity we are used to seeing and admiring in Liverpool themselves.
Key players in poor form
There are numerous possible explanations behind Liverpool’s poor form, and fans will hope this is not another situation like Klopp’s final season at Borussia Dortmund, when his side suffered an unfathomable slump after years of success which even the manager himself was at a loss to explain.
One aspect Klopp could not have anticipated is the synchronised lack of form from the majority of his key players, many of whom were justifiably regarded as arguably the world’s best in their respective positions a few short months ago.
Virgil van Dijk, hailed by many as one of the best centre-backs of all time, has suffered a torrid start to the campaign, already conceding two penalties in seven games – as many as he did in his previous 164 outings for the club in the Premier League and Champions League.
The Dutchman’s brilliant goalline clearance against Napoli prevented further humiliation in the first half, but he once again lacked the aura of invincibility and unbeatability that used to strike fear into attackers. Napoli’s strikers took him on, and often with success.
Van Dijk continues to try to make defending look easy and, while his authoritative yet languid Rolls Royce style won him so many plaudits and admirers, right now Liverpool need him to step up and set a hard-working example to the rest of the team. There was one stage in last night’s defeat when the Dutchman was favourite to get to the ball first, but seemed determined to stay in third gear and was duly beaten to it by the lively Victor Osimhen.
In defence of the Netherlands international, he has been exposed by a lack of pressure on the ball in midfield, while the performances of those around him have also not helped.
Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s defensive capabilities have always been questioned – too harshly on many occasions – but he was run ragged in Naples and did not show any desire to get the better of his winger. Joe Gomez suffered a horror-show before being withdrawn at half time, when Joel Matip replaced him and shored things up.
Fabinho now seems a yard off the pace in every tackle and there have been numerous occasions this season when the opposition has created a chance due to a mix-up between the Brazilian and one of his centre-backs as to who should be tracking the runner – as happened for Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa‘s goal last night.
The talismanic Mohamed Salah – in the past the Liverpool player who has continued to rack up the numbers whenever the team as a whole have struggled – is in poor form, as evidenced by a string of lazy or careless touches against Napoli, including one when picked out by Alexander-Arnold for what would have been a glorious chance.
It could be argued that Salah has not been the same since his Egypt side were beaten in the Africa Cup of Nations final earlier this year, and four games without a goal is not exactly a drought, but it is his lack of impact on those matches that will be the bigger concern.
Even the ever-dependable Andrew Robertson and James Milner have endured poor starts to the campaign, with age finally appearing to catch up with the latter.
Add to that the fact that Liverpool also lost Sadio Mane in the summer, the Senegalese making a prolific start to life at Bayern Munich in sharp contrast to his former team, and this side is currently a shadow of the one which came so close to a quadruple last season.
Liverpool have also had to contend with a lengthy early-season injury list, with the likes of Ibrahima Konate, Jordan Henderson, Diogo Jota, Joel Matip, Thiago Alcantara and Naby Keita – all important parts of the team last term – among those spending time on the sidelines already.
The Reds have found themselves particularly short in midfield, forcing them into the transfer market to sign Arthur Melo, while the injuries to Konate and Matip have seen Gomez make a so-far unsuccessful return to the side.
The England international was a key member of Klopp’s strongest XI in their title-winning campaign and clearly has plenty of quality, but he was bullied and embarrassed in the first half in Naples during a 45-minute nightmare which he will want to forget as quickly as possible, and which may cost him his place in the team going forward.
Liverpool’s injury troubles are by no means as bad as the 2020-21 campaign when they lost their three main centre-backs to long-term injuries, but they are still far from ideal at the start of a season when the games come thick and fast straight away due to the World Cup this winter.
Hangover from last season
The lingering effects of last season also seem to be playing a role in Liverpool’s form, and may be the clearest explanation behind why their intensity and workrate has dropped.
Klopp’s men played in every single available game last season, winning the finals of the EFL Cup and FA Cup on penalties and making it all the way to the Champions League final in Paris, where they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Real Madrid in an experience which was more harrowing off the pitch than on it.
There was at least a summer of relative rest with no major international tournaments, but this season has started with an immediately busy schedule – six games before the end of August – and the slow starts to matches from Liverpool in particular suggest that they were not quite ready for that after such an intense 2021-22 campaign.
They need to correct that quickly, though; from last weekend’s Merseyside derby to the start of the international break, Liverpool have five games in 15 days in September, before a packed October which sees them play no fewer than nine times.
Klopp has performed miracles at Anfield since taking the job, dragging the club from the doldrums to one of the best teams we have ever seen in English football and restoring their status among Europe’s elite.
Speaking of miracles, Liverpool would have been hoping for a return to the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul – scene of their unforgettable 2005 Champions League triumph – at the end of this season, with Klopp even telling fans to book their tickets in the immediate aftermath of defeat to Real Madrid in May’s final.
However, for that to happen they will need a vast improvement and quickly, as following Wednesday’s defeat even getting out of a group including Ajax and Rangers is far from certain, yet alone launching another assault on all fronts this season.