For a squad whose natural camaraderie is often cited as one of its major strengths, the sight of Virgil van Dijk and James Milner deep in heated debate at Old Trafford on Monday summed up where Liverpool find themselves just now.
As Jadon Sancho sent Milner sprawling with a composed feint before rolling the ball into the corner under no pressure from a statuesque Van Dijk, it was easy to understand the disagreement between the pair. Both players were culpable for United taking the lead and seemed to be keen to let each other know of it.
That two of Liverpool’s on-field leaders were reduced to visibly bickering less than 20 minutes into the most watched football fixture on the planet did not send the ideal message that Jurgen Klopp is always keen to portray about his group of players.
“I realise now there were some things on the pitch, like players shouting at each other and stuff like this,” Klopp said after the game, playing down the spat. “I was a football player myself. Nobody is happy after a loss, that is completely normal. This is not an explanation or an excuse or whatever, it is all fine in this department.”
Given their standing within the Liverpool dressing room, it’s unlikely that the disagreement between Van Dijk and Milner extended beyond the final whistle. This, after all, is one of the more close-knit groups in the Premier League, despite the scenes after Sancho’s opener.
What will be more concerning to Klopp is that it was the seventh successive Premier League game that Liverpool have fallen behind in dating back to a 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in early May. That Monday night was their first defeat speaks to the reserves of character and quality within the squad to respond to those setbacks. On the flip side, though, continuing such a disturbing trend will eventually catch up on you.
In truth, it already had prior to Monday evening. It can be argued that the draw with Spurs cost the Reds the league title last term, while the results against Fulham and Crystal Palace this season have already left Klopp staring up at the early-season pace-setters.
Full credit to Andy Robertson for refusing to shirk the issue when speaking to Sky Sports at full time of the 2-1 defeat at United. “It’s definitely not been the start to the season that we wanted,” said the Scotland left-back. “It’s been really poor. We give every team a goal start which is the basis of the game, you can’t keep on giving yourself an uphill battle.
“We’ve conceded an early goal again, we’ve started slow again and that’s what needs to change. We can’t keep going one behind. Probably in the warm-up [tonight] it was the quietest I have ever heard this stadium – they wanted something to lift them and we unfortunately gave them it and then they obviously got behind their team.
“The players reacted and then you end up finding yourself 1-0 down, we started the second half slow again and you find yourself 2-0 down. Then you start to find your rhythm, we start to create chances, we score a goal and we looked to try to make them a wee bit nervous but we didn’t.
“To be fair they saw the game out well. So, like I said, two points from nine is not the start that we wanted. We need to pick up our performances individually and collectively very quickly. We need to kickstart our season, that’s for sure.”
It is something Liverpool will need to aggressively try and alter when Scott Parker’s Bournemouth visit Anfield on Saturday afternoon. This is their worst start to a season for 10 years, so just how does Klopp go about addressing the problems and rectifying it?
Injuries, of course, have plagued Liverpool’s squad in recent weeks. Just three games into the new campaign and Klopp has already been made to shuffle his pack far too often for his liking. Naby Keita is the latest to join the absentee list with the manager admitting he is unsure of the severity of the latest ailment for the midfielder after the game on Monday night.
Keita joins Caoimhin Kelleher, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kaide Gordon, Calvin Ramsay, Thiago Alcantara, Diogo Jota, Curtis Jones, Ibrahima Konate and Joel Matip as players on the sidelines. Such a debilitating list is why Liverpool have ended up naming the likes of Stefan Bajcetic, Bobby Clark, Sepp van den Berg and even goalkeeper Harvey Davies on their benches this term.
“We had 15 senior outfield players in training, I think,” Klopp said on his latest litany of injuries. “That’s obviously not cool, but I liked the line-up for the game tonight. And we had some good performances, obviously not enough to win the game.”
Clearly the situation will start to look rosier when those influential figures like Thiago, Matip and Jota return, while the squad’s overall look of a match-day will be hugely boosted by comebacks for the likes of Jones, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita. Klopp, however, cannot feign shock about the identity of those currently on the shelf.
Keita, Thiago, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Matip have rarely demonstrated an ability to stay fit for the long term. All four have been riddled with issues across their respective Liverpool careers, while Jota himself has also been on the sidelines at various points of his own time on Merseyside. That these players are currently unable to be called upon has come as no real surprise.
Thankfully, Liverpool’s fixture list for now is not as taxing as it will be further down the line this season. It at least offers the rehabilitation team ample opportunity to get players back faster than normal. That can’t come quick enough at present.
Darwin Nunez is another who will miss the next two games after his red card against Crystal Palace. How Klopp would love to have his new £64m striker available to him at a time when the attacking options are threadbare.
Hard-running taking its toll?
Injuries aside, while Klopp might not have had much of a cavalry to call upon at Old Trafford on Monday, the 11 who started the game meant it was still a team full of top-class players with experience and know-how of handling the big occasions.
The likes of Van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Jordan Henderson and Mohamed Salah have all been integral to the success enjoyed at the club since 2019. Milner is one of the most experienced players in Premier League history and Luis Diaz’s short time with the Reds has already seen him star in both FA Cup and Carabao Cup finals.
So while a defeat at Old Trafford can happen in any era for Liverpool, the more worrying aspect was the performance. It was several levels below what has become the norm over the years under Klopp, but was merely a continuation of what had gone before it in the fledgling stages of this season.
Has five years of hard-running and high pressing started to take its toll one or two? Or has a shorter pre-season that included jaunts to Thailand and Singapore left the players undercooked or overworked?
Last season’s efforts
There is also the school of thought that says Liverpool are still suffering from the way their campaign ended last time out. After playing every possible fixture available to them, their 63-game term ended, ultimately, in heartbreak as the Premier League title eluded them on the final day before Real Madrid beat them in the Champions League final less than a week later in late May.
The exacting nature of the year, coupled with the disappointment of the defeat cannot have been easy to push to the side for a squad whose efforts so very nearly brought about an unprecedented quadruple.
For elite sportsmen, to have missed out on the two biggest trophies in football in such a manner inside six days must have cut deep, particularly after the squad had given everything in that pursuit during a whirlwind few months.
When every game for the best part of three or four months is laced with meaning, fraught with danger and so vital to the long-term cause, it must be exhausting when the race is finally ran, especially when Premier League and Champions League glory slips through your grasp in the manner that it did to the domestic cup double winners.
“Now I don’t really think about this,” says Fabinho. “After the Champions League final it was hard not to think about the game, the defeat. After the game we knew we had to do the parade with the fans and most of the players didn’t want to do it because there was not the right mood to do this but the parade helped me personally a lot because in the parade we forgot about everything we were just in the moment with the fans.
“Sometimes we have to have this kind of experience to remind ourselves what this club means for the people, means for the fans. Of course we want to win, we want to be successful, but it is not just about winning.
“The fans were proud of the team because the season was really good. But the Champions League final I think after two or three weeks I started not to think about it. It hurt me this final because I thought we played much better than Real Madrid but in a final you have to win it not to play better than the other team. Now I think it is ok I don’t think about it anymore. It’s OK.”
There is also the fact that nine of Monday’s 11 starters have been with the club since 2018. While Klopp has added to the group meticulously since then with the signings of Harvey Elliott, Thiago, Konate, Jota and Diaz, it is still largely the same core of players who were already at the club or signed between 2017 and 2018 by the German.
The question then is when does continuity turn into stagnation? Klopp has hinted that he would like further additions before the September 1 deadline, saying on Friday: “When [every midfielder is] fit, 100% [we have enough numbers], but even then we always look to strengthen, but we have to and we always did [make sure] that it must be the right player and if the right player is not available at this moment then we tend to deal with what we have rather than sign a player who is not 100% right.
“This situation did not change. Now we have more injuries than we would have imagined and it would be cool to have another midfielder in, of course. But now we have a situation that when the boys come back and stuff like these it changes constantly.
“Then there is also another fact that I am not in charge of what we can spend. That’s the situation. We get told things and then we deal with it. That is always the same, it didn’t change.”
When asked if Keita’s injury would force a re-think on the transfer front by Sky Germany, Klopp said: “A little difficult [to answer], I’m not really the right person to ask. As a manager, I’d like to have more players who are available, naturally. But that’s all I can say. We’re always working on it. But whether we can do something, I don’t know.”
Given the net spend when excluding transfer add-ons sits at around £10m, it would be difficult to believe the funds are not there if the “right player” were to become available on the market between now and the end of the deadline.
The issue is, however, is just how many does Klopp think he needs? One addition alleviates the growing injury concern slightly but a lack of fit and available midfielders is perhaps clouding the general thinking around the paucity of options in the final third where Liverpool have five for three positions, plus the inexperienced Fabio Carvalho.
It’s already indicating that there will be an over-reliance on Diaz and Salah, in particular, given there are no natural replacements for either wide forward. Jota, Carvalho, Elliott and Oxlade-Chamberlain can all perform in those roles to various degrees, but given those positions have been where Liverpool get most of their goals from traditionally under Klopp, the lack of depth has to be a major concern. Already the decision to allow both Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino to leave looks misguided.
Liverpool checked on the status of Aurelien Tchouameni earlier this year before accepting he was destined for Real Madrid, while Jude Bellingham is a player who many believe the club are waiting for before making a statement signing next summer.
Klopp’s insistence of waiting for who he and his staff deem to be the perfect fit has paid handsome dividends in the past but can he really afford to sit on his hands for another year given the shocking start and lengthening injury list?
There is much to do behind the scenes right now at Liverpool.