LONDON – Jürgen Klopp knows what is wrong with Liverpool. He just does not know how to fix it.
Liverpool struggles to defeat opponents near the foot of the Premier League and has the worst defensive record of the top eight teams. Even Middlesbrough, which is 17th, has conceded five goals fewer than Liverpool’s 33.
Liverpool was considered a realistic title contender after beating Manchester City 1-0 on New Year’s Eve. Since then, Liverpool has managed just one league win in seven with its hope of being champion gone. Finishing in the top four is now Liverpool’s target — it is currently one point behind Arsenal, Saturday’s visitor to Anfield which has a game in hand.
Klopp was almost lost for words after Monday’s calamitous 3-1 loss at struggling Leicester in its first post-Ranieri game. It was as poor a Liverpool performance in recent years as many could remember and it was against a side which had not scored a league goal in 2017.
Klopp said of the Leicester debacle: “Bad start, bad in the middle and bad at the end . . . we shall work hard . . . we need to show what we are fighting for . . . the players need my help more . . . we need to improve consistently, not just sometimes . . . I hope we can show a reaction against Arsenal.”
At its best Liverpool is an unstoppable force as it has shown against Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea. While Liverpool has an impressive record against top six teams, defeats to Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea City, Hull City plus Leicester and a draw at basement club Sunderland have cost the Reds dearly. Even around half of those 17 points dropped would have seen Liverpool second and close enough to Chelsea to potentially overtake the leader.
Defensively, Liverpool has been abject too often this year, conceding nine goals in the last five matches while registering just six shutouts in 26 league games. Klopp has had three transfer windows during his time in charge, but recruitment has failed to strengthen the defense to the extent that against Leicester, Liverpool was once again forced to play with two midfielders in the back line — Lucas Leiva and James Milner. Lucas was caught out by the pace and energy of a born-again Jamie Vardy, while Milner did not enjoy the best of the nights at left-back, which is being polite.
When Klopp arrived in October 2015, he was a breath of fresh air, his charisma, charm and personality making him a media darling, so his impact was exaggerated because of the good vibes he gave.
The reality is that Liverpool has remained too one-dimensional, while the 16-day break and the Spanish bonding trip to La Manga ended with a pitiful display against Leicester whose approach was painfully familiar for Klopp — the home team defended in numbers and hit the Reds on the counterattack. It wasn’t rocket science, but not the first time Liverpool had no answer to the most basic of tactics.
Klopp’s loyalty to some players is running out, though victory Saturday and Manchester City failing to win at Sunderland on Sunday would see Liverpool in third place.
Arsenal has lost only once in its last eight visits to Anfield and apart from a home defeat to Watford, the Gunners’ recent league record isn’t too bad, with five wins out of eight, including an impressive 4-0 triumph at Swansea.
However, even a comfortable win at Anfield is unlikely to give Arsenal the necessary impetus to overturn a first-leg 5-1 Champions League deficit when Bayern Munich are in town on Tuesday.
On the slide: Three months ago Bournemouth was 10th in the Premier League, having just beaten Liverpool 4-3. It had 18 points and was only three points behind Manchester United, which was sixth.
They were good days for the South Coast club. Eddie Howe, Bournemouth’s 39-year-old manager, had been the choice of some respected observers to succeed Sam Allardyce when he left England after just one match. Howe was, in the view of many, an ideal candidate to be the Arsenal manager should Arsene Wenger decide to call it a day at Emirates Stadium.
Saturday, Bournemouth plays Manchester United at Old Trafford and while the visitor’s 14th position may not, on the face of it, ring too many alarm bells, it is only four points above the relegation zone after five defeats in six matches. Bournemouth is without a win in 2017 and the bookmakers’ favorites to be the next Arsenal manager are now Max Allegri (Juventus) and Thomas Tuchel (Borussia Dortmund).
Howe’s job does not appear to be in jeopardy, though neither did Claudio Ranieri two weeks before Leicester sacked him.
For Howe, Ranieri’s departure was a sharp reminder that football is lived entirely in the present and he said: “If it’s further reinforcement for that, then yes. I think we are all well aware of the monster you are dealing with as a football manager. One or two games is now what you’re judged on rather than your record over a longer period of time. In terms of my mindset, all that counts is the now. I don’t look back and think ‘it was great what we did three, four or five years ago’ because it has no relevance to now.”
Howe became manager in January 2009 and though he was in charge of Burnley for nine months in 2011, he effectively led Bournemouth from the depths of League Two to the Premier League in six years. To achieve this with a club whose ground’s capacity is 11,500 is a magnificent achievement, but that was then and Howe accepts Bournemouth is one of seven clubs battling for survival.
A problem for Bournemouth has been that the players the club has bought over the past two seasons have largely failed. Four of the current first XI helped the club through the English league structure. The team Howe fielded in the F.A. Cup defeat at Millwall in January was the most expensive in Bournemouth’s history because it was largely made up of players who had not established themselves in the Premier League, including Jordon Ibe, a £15 million transfer from Liverpool last summer.
Of the teams below Bournemouth, Swansea is improving significantly under Paul Clement, champion Leicester showed in beating Liverpool 3-1 what it can do if the players apply themselves, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough seem to have the necessary grit to survive. Howe and Bournemouth have shown that to reach the Premier League size does not necessarily matter, but if it loses at Old Trafford and the teams around it win, The Cherries could be just one point above the drop zone.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.