While they’ve had the misfortune of playing in the same league as Manchester City, Liverpool have proven to be one of the top teams in European soccer over the past several years. The 2022-23 campaign, however, hasn’t gone according to plan. The Reds have stumbled domestically, taking nine of 18 available points, and fallen at the first hurdle on the continent, suffering through a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Napoli in the opening Champions League group stage match.
After that loss, manager Jurgen Klopp didn’t pull any punches. He spoke of apologizing to the fans, the obviousness of his team’s poor performance, and a need to “reinvent ourselves” moving forward.
That final part, the promise of reinvention, could be the most interesting. While there’s some room to debate what the manager means, the comment might set the stage for an ugly standoff in future transfer windows.
Liverpool haven’t lived up to their own high standards, and Jurgen Klopp is talking about changes
Over the past several Premier League seasons, Liverpool have earned the right to be penciled in directly behind Manchester City. While it’s still early in the current campaign, things already seem a bit different.
At the risk of boiling a complex problem down to a single factor, the Merseyside club has lacked its signature intensity during the opening matches of the new season. The attack largely isn’t clicking, the midfield has been gutted by injuries, and Virgil van Dijk looks human again. The Reds are trying to play the same way, but things aren’t working.
Liverpool’s success has come from playing with a high defensive line and advanced fullbacks, which compresses the field to essentially force the ball into the net. That system has been reliant on midfield cover and strong, mobile defenders to cover the gaps. With Klopp’s options in the center of the park limited — James Milner, for example, simply doesn’t have the legs anymore — and VVD unable to mop everything up, things are a bit more open. Combine that defensive frailty with a sputtering offense (barring the Bournemouth match), and it’s a recipe for tough sledding.
Klopp, at least if we take him at his word, isn’t blind to those issues.
“We know how it happened, now we need to understand why it happened. We have to reinvent ourselves. There are a lot of things lacking,” the manager said after an unhappy Champions League trip to Naples (h/t The Athletic). “We are not working as a team. We do not play good enough — that is obvious — that is why we lose games.”
While you could argue that’s standard coach-speak, the idea of reinvention is particularly interesting. Let’s dig further into that idea.
While there’s room to debate what reinvention means, it could suggest an upcoming clash between Klopp and the Liverpool brass
Depending on your interpretation, Klopp could be speaking about two different things when he references a reinvention.
“Klopp wasn’t hinting at some major shift in style or formation — more a case of trying to re-establish the kind of characteristics that made his team so difficult to stop last season,” James Pearce wrote in The Athletic. While that’s a valid option, it does seem like a bit of a charitable reading; I’d argue that returning to form isn’t really reinventing anything.
The other option would be just that: Klopp can see the writing on the wall and knows that something has to give. Whether that’s a slight shift in playing style or making tweaks to the lineup, using the word “reinvent” suggests that something, no matter how subtle, will be different moving forward.
That all sounds well and good, right? Teams have to tweak things all the time. Even Manchester City has evolved, adding Erling Haaland and playing with a bit less positionally fluidity in attack. Things, however, get complicated when you consider Liverpool’s squad and their transfer business.
Beyond the lack of midfield depth — there’s no reason to beat that very apparent dead horse — the squad is currently built to play in a specific way. Take Trent Alexander-Arnold as an example of that reality. While no one can argue with the right-back’s attacking potential, he’s never been the strongest defender. Let’s pretend that Klopp wants to retool the system and have his fullbacks play a bit more conventionally for some added stability. That would either mean relying on the weakest part of Trent’s game while blunting his biggest strength or making a change, like shifting Joe Gomez into the right-back role.
Needless to say, neither of those choices would be ideal.
So, whether Klopp wants to make a structural change or simply refresh his squad to play with a bit more of his signature intensity, there some new players will probably need to arrive at Anfield. There’s where things get tricky. For better or worse, Fenway Sports Group has tried to run things fairly self-sufficiently. While Liverpool has spent, the business was largely bankrolled by player sales. Look at this summer, for example. The club did splash some cash on Darwin Nunez but, for whatever reason, didn’t add a midfielder beyond a deadline-day loan for Arthur Melo.
And, on the subject of the Uruguayan, he could be exactly what the manager needs to reinvent the team. Nunez provides a different element up top, and he’s young enough to grow as part of a longer-term project. One new arrival per window, however, isn’t enough to keep a contending window pried open.
So, what happens when Klopp needs to add some fresh legs to the squad, whether that’s necessitated by injury, the desire for reinvention, or both? Will the brass give him the tools he needs? Or will the German be tasked with making lemons out of lemonade? If the club prefers the latter option, things could get ugly, both on and off the pitch.
Even before he came to England, Jurgen Klopp had proven himself to be a quality manager. Reinventing the current Liverpool squad without major financial backing, however, will be a challenge, even for him.