Jurgen Klopp had praised Cody Gakpo for his willingness to ‘push the train rather than jump on a moving one’ ahead of his Liverpool debut.
At times during another unkempt Anfield evening, the new signing might have considered his job was to clear away the debris of what is in danger of becoming a train wreck of a season. Throughout this unconvincing campaign, a myriad of explanations has been offered for the disappearance of Liverpool’s famed structure and rhythm.
Injuries to Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota have taken their toll, Sadio Mane’s sale has been felt as much as Luis Suarez’s in 2014 and there appears no doubt the prospect of a mid-season World Cup adversely influenced Liverpool’s pre-season conditioning plans.
Anyone who has watched every Liverpool game this season could be forgiven for thinking the Community Shield against Manchester City was the chief focus of attention more than the next nine months. They have not hit that level since.
The argument that some of Klopp’s players are paying the price for their exertions last year has also become too compelling to ignore.
Since the opening day of the Premier League campaign at Fulham in August, his players have not looked as fit or as fast as the majority of opponents. Their lack of physicality – referenced by Klopp when he spoke about the number of challenges his players lost in the FA Cup third-round tie – has been the theme of the last six months.
Julen Lopetegui’s Wolverhampton Wanderers are the latest to look quicker and hungrier. The capacity of visiting sides to exert more energy is a greater concern for Liverpool now than before the World Cup because it was presumed a six-week break and reconfiguration would resolve those early-season issues.
Klopp’s most recent contention rails against the prevailing view that if he sorts out his midfield, all will be well again. That explains why it was a £35million left winger and not a £50m central midfielder making his debut on Saturday evening.
Despite his protests, the accusation is going nowhere and – in truth – the whispers of moderate concern 18 months ago have become howls of exasperation now.
Liverpool’s potential midfield problem was first raised when Georginio Wijnaldum left in the summer of 2021. The idea he would leave a huge void quickly evaporated because of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho’s form. Whether it was Harvey Elliott, Thiago Alcantara, James Milner or (when fit) Naby Keita completing the midfield three, Liverpool looked stronger, not weaker.
Now, the long-term misgivings about the failure to replace Wijnaldum with a midfielder with the same defensive capabilities look correct. No manager can account for the kind of individual errors Ibrahima Konate or the usually flawless Alisson Becker have made in the last two games, but the broader issue is the back four and ’keeper are no longer protected as they were when Wijnaldum, Henderson and Fabinho were in their pomp.
They enabled the forwards and full-backs to run riot, covering their tracks to ensure the opposition felt smothered, unable to counter-attack. Now, whenever Liverpool lose the ball high up the pitch, the Kop holds its breath and hopes Alisson will be the saviour.
For all Klopp’s understandable determination to present this as a team problem, not a midfield-specific one, the evidence is increasingly overwhelming.
Henderson, Fabinho and Thiago – by far the best midfield trio available – were reunited against Wolves, but the problems remained, the question lingering as to whether this is just a temporary downturn in a peculiar season or reflective of the preferred midfield’s average age of 30.6 years old. Only when Keita was sent on in the last 22 minutes – a player out of contract at the end of the season who simply cannot be relied upon to stay fit – did Liverpool show any midfield vigour.
Keita’s brief battle with Wolves’ Matheus Nunes had more than a tinge of irony, given the expectation the Portuguese international will be part of Klopp’s summer midfield revamp, presumably at Keita’s expense.
Until then, the question “when will Liverpool sign a midfielder?” lingers, no matter how much Klopp tries to explain he would rather wait for the right player, or most likely players, than make another short-term misjudgment. The last thing Liverpool needs is another Arthur Melo, last summer’s midfield loan signing who momentarily appeased the demands to reinforce but who injured himself trying to get match-fit.
Whether Klopp acts now or takes stock in the summer, unless Liverpool’s midfield trio is re-energised, it is difficult to see how his team can fully restore its identity.