Liverpool lost in transition but Jürgen Klopp could be their golden thread
The Liverpool manager is left trying to build a new era while continuing to win – it is possible if he is given time
With 11 minutes left in this FA Cup fourth-round tie and the score 1-1 Jürgen Klopp could be seen racing out to the touchline, yanking the snood from his face and performing a series of furious scything gestures with his right arm, as though trying to break free from some invisible set of manacles.
Klopp shrieked. He threw his head back. Just as quickly he stopped, crouched, and mooched back towards his seat. Nothing was really happening. Klopp was reacting to the shapes in his head, seeing danger, slackness, loose stitching in Cody Gakpo’s off-the-ball positioning during a lull in play with the ball 40 yards away, out there urging his false-10 central attacker to stand 10 yards deeper, trying to plaster some kind of attacking plan across this oddly angsty Liverpool team in real time.
It is a measure of where Liverpool are that this was probably the most animated Klopp became all afternoon. Brighton would go on to win the game, deservedly, with a brilliant goal a minute and half into stoppage time.
It was beautifully taken by Karou Mitoma, a footballer who is basically made of feathers, dandelion spurs and some kind of super-light high-tensile alien metal. In the tiniest of spaces, with the ball bouncing up like a balloon, Mitoma shifted his feet, leant inside, flicked the ball up off his right foot, delicately back-spun, hanging in the air like some divine orb, then propelled it with thrilling precision off the same foot into the far corner.
What skill, what command of gravity and space, what basic powers of concentration to be able to do this in the 92nd minute, a fitting winner in an excellent cup tie. At the final whistle Klopp hugged Roberto De Zerbi and hand-slapped the Brighton bench. There was applause for the travelling fans and a fond, rueful wave as Klopp turned to leave the pitch with the Brighton victory playlist kicking in.
Freed from desire. Well that’s one way of putting it. Because this did feel like a full stop, a mid-season dead-heading. What is there left to win now? The Champions League? Ten points off fourth place is hardly insurmountable. On the other hand, this does not look like a team poised to mount an irresistible surge.
Instead this is probably a moment for Liverpool’s supporters, who know this better than anyone, to take a breath and think about wider endings. The main feeling around this Liverpool team in recent weeks has been dislocation. The temptation is always there to look for simple reasons. There has been talk of tired players, of the shadows of last season’s ghost quadruple, of recruitment mistakes made, of Klopp losing his magic dust.
But in reality this loss of torque comes from a much wider place. This entire entity is in turnaround. The club is for sale. Key people are leaving. This isn’t a team in transition, but a model, a set of structures, a culture, feelings, energy all running their course.
The last years of success came from a shared source, a blend of brilliant coaching and shark-faced financial management. But that thing is now done. Something will have to replace it. In the meantime Klopp is left trying to build another team out of less while continuing to win. It took two years when he first turned up. It took three years at Dortmund. Will he get the time again?
The Amex Stadium was a grey chilly place at kick off, with a low nautical drizzle creeping in under its swooping plastic eaves. Brighton were slick and forceful early on. Liverpool counter-pressed with energy, a team trying to remember itself. Their best moments came in the interplay between Harvey Elliott and Mohamed Salah, the combination that would make the opening goal. Elliott made a wonderful run through the centre as Salah scurried down the right. The first-time flick under Jason Steele was just enough.
The main positive here for Liverpool was the odd flicker of synergy between the front three. The main negative was a lack of any obvious understanding the rest of the time. Gakpo still looks like a footballer being asked to make up a way to play, out there blue-sky-thinking his own role. Behind him Stefan Bajcetic was assured and full of vim.
For Brighton there were some alluring early glimpses of Mitoma, veering around Trent Alexander-Arnold like the skating rink pro skirting his way past some gawping rail-clutcher. Mitoma doesn’t really run. He glides, he skates, he dusts the ground. A little later he made Joe Gomez fall over just by shifting his hips between strides to make space for a shot.
Brighton’s first-half equaliser was a product of a lack of pressure after a corner was cleared. Tariq Lamptey had time to steady himself and punt in a shot that was deflected into the goal off Lewis Dunk. Klopp will feel it was poor defending, poor cover, sleepiness in the centre.
And that was pretty much that for Liverpool, who never really looked like winning this game in the second half. What the season brings from here is anyone’s guess, but Klopp remains the club’s most valuable asset, the strongest thread between the Liverpool just past and the one that needs to be built.
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