‘Never been as poor’: Formations, fitness and transfer fails — Reds’ startling implosion explained – TOTOCC
Eight months ago, Liverpool laced up their boots in Paris for their 63rd and final game of a gruelling – and ultimately bitterly disappointing – season.
The Reds played every possible game in four competitions and came within touching distance of a staggering quadruple of trophies. City coach Pep Guardiola declared in the lead-up to Liverpool’s Champions League final against Real Madrid: “I’ve never seen a team like Liverpool in my life.”
The Reds won both domestic cups but fell short of the more prestigious crowns. They were pipped to the Premier League crown by City on the last day of the season. And on that May night in Paris, the Reds’ third Champions League final in five seasons ended in heartbreak – Madrid emerged triumphant on the back of an inspired performance from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Eight months on the teams meet again, this time in the round of 16. The resumption of animosity between the two European giants only serves as a bitter reminder of how far Liverpool has fallen in the intervening period.
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That night in Paris – and everything it represents – has cast a long and painful shadow over Anfield. Beset by injuries, weariness, and the loss of key figures on and off the field, Liverpool sits eighth in the league and has already been knocked out of the FA Cup and League Cup.
But Wednesday morning might just be the moment that shows there is light at the end of the tunnel for Jurgen Klopp and his troops in red. As the Liverpool mastermind has declared, they enter this game on the back of a “massive, massive, massive, massive” result that may have just turned around their fortunes after a disastrous first half of the season.
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TRANSFER FAIL THAT ‘BLEW UP IN THEIR FACES’
In the wake of that clash in Paris, Klopp recognised the need to reinvigorate his squad in the transfer window. The departure of Sadio Mane – a crucial cog in Liverpool’s attack, but equally as vital in their high-press defence – made attacking reinforcements seem the obvious need.
But the mountain of work taken on by their ageing midfield corps impressed upon Klopp and the Liverpool hierarchy the urgent need to add a star to the centre of the park – not just for this season, but as a long-term successor in the role. After all, captain Jordan Henderson is 32 and Thiago 31, Fabinho 29 and James Milner 37.
Aurelien Tchouameni, now 23, was top of their list. A superstar at Monaco and a French international, he possesses world-class ability to win the ball both in the air and on the ground, and is exceptional at providing cover for forward-roaming fullbacks – something crucial to Liverpool’s attack. He seemed the perfect match for Klopp’s system, and with contract talks stalled at Monaco and just one season left on his deal, it was clear he would depart the club. Klopp was desperate – he even flew to Monaco to meet with the young gun, and called him for further talks after that. But when Madrid came calling, Tchouameni said he “didn’t hesitate”. Even France teammate Kylian Mbappe’s attempts to convince him to sign for PSG were in vain. Madrid had halted Liverpool in Paris, and now they had robbed them of their biggest transfer target.
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Their pursuit of alternate midfield options was ineffective. The list of stars Liverpool was linked to included Enzo Fernandez – who joined Chelsea in January for a Premier League record €121m ($A189m) – Marcelo Brozovic of Inter Milan, Moises Caicedo of Brighton, and Ruben Neves of Wolves. None arrived before the season. And it wasn’t until the final gasp of the transfer window that the Reds pulled the trigger on a hail mary – signing injury-prone Juventus midfielder Arthur Melo (and his sky-high wages) on a loan deal. He had played the full 90 minutes in just eight appearances the season before his move.
As Chelsea splashed out on a series of massive signings, and Manchester City brought in Norwegian scoring machine Erling Haaland, Klopp was also looking for more attacking weaponry.
They ended up with Darwin Nunez, a club record £75 million signing from Benfica. With elite quickness and immense physical presence, he was viewed as a key upgrade for Liverpool’s attack – offering them a key holdup man with a significant threat on aerial balls in the box.
But while Haaland hit the ground running, Nunez took far more time to acclimatise, with an early red card a dismal setback. Even when he was performing, his different approach to Firmino also caused problems for the team’s balance. Where the Brazilian was exceptional at dropping deep to involve himself in the build-up, Nunez is a different kind of striker, one who plays on the shoulder of the last defender and runs in behind the defence. Without Firmino, Liverpool could not overload the midfield and make the quick passing combinations that have been so devastating in recent seasons. The signing offered the Reds a different tactical dimension, but it wasn’t an easy adjustment – for the player or his teammates.
But even after the team’s poor start to the season and the World Cup break, Liverpool still failed to address their problems in midfield. Dutch winger Cody Gakpo arrived from PSV Eindhoven in a £45m deal at the start of the month, and the Reds couldn’t add to their stocks – even while rivals like Chelsea continued to blow spending records out of the water.
Much of that was down to their long-term transfer plan focusing on signing Jude Bellingham at the end of this season. The young England star is the most in-demand talent in world football, wanted by every big club in Europe, but Liverpool reportedly lead the race for his signature. With that set to cost the club an anticipated sum over 100 million pounds, it was understandable that they would wait until he is available. Liverpool are also looking to sign Mason Mount, with the Chelsea star’s contract talks at his boyhood club currently stalled, while Matheus Nunes of Wolves has again been linked after rumours in January.
But the failure to sign anyone in either transfer window ‘blew up in their faces’, Liverpool great Jamie Carragher said.
“I think in the summer people felt Liverpool needed a midfield player, but now it feels like they need a midfield!” Carragher told GOAL. “It feels like it’s two or three players for next summer in that area, if I’m being honest.
“The money was there for Tchouameni to come if he wanted to come, but he chose Real Madrid, and the feeling from the manager and the staff at Liverpool was ‘well okay, we’ll go with what we’ve got and maybe wait for Jude Bellingham next summer’, and it just blew up in their faces.”
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ADDING INJURY TO INSULT
From the start of the season, injuries became an immediate problem. Midfielders Curtis Jones and Thiago missed the first month, while Henderson missed 25 days with a hamstring injury, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a long-term absentee with a hamstring injury. Add to that Naby Keita, injured just days before the league campaign started.
No wonder Klopp turned to Arthur in the dying embers of the transfer window, desperate for any sort of support.
But Arthur sums up Liverpool’s year – he played just 13 minutes this season before needing surgery, and still hasn’t returned.
The list of players who have suffered moderate or serious injuries is staggering. The following players have all missed at least four weeks at once due to injury – and many of them have been sidelined more than once: Caoimhin Kelleher, Calvin Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ibrahima Konate, Naby Keita, Joel Matip, Curtis Jones, Thiago Alcantara, Roberto Firmino, Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota, Arthur Melo, Virgil van Dijk,
Only two players, Mohamed Salah and Harvey Elliott, have managed to avoid missing a game through injury this season.
The injury issues meant Klopp was often forced to field multiple youngsters at once, rather than his preferred approach one or two alongside a more experienced core. When the Reds were without Keita (28) and Fabinho (29), none of their other midfielders were in the typical prime years of their careers (24-29).
On one occasion, they fielded 20-year-old winger Fabio Carvalho, (then) 21-year-old Curtis Jones in centre midfield, and 19-year-old Harvey Elliot on the other flank. Jones, in that match, was playing his first-ever appearance as part of a central midfield duo.
The injuries had other effects. Those players who are fit have been forced to play constantly, with the squad stretched so thin. This exacerbates the impact of the weariness that has seeped into the team. And constant injuries hampered players’ form, while simultaneously robbing Klopp of the opportunity to train with his full squad and implement the kind of tactical changes the team desperately needed.
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THE ‘HUGE DROP-OFF’ AS LIVERPOOL HAVE ‘NEVER BEEN AS POOR’
It’s a simple problem with complex causes: Liverpool’s key players have struggled to hit their same heights this year.
The Reds’ prior season had been extremely long and packed with fixtures. But if Klopp wanted to give his players time to refresh and regain their intensity, he had little opportunity to do so. The team was thrown quickly back into the fire with a busy pre-season including a tour of Asia. Quite simply, the Reds looked tired and drained by the time the Premier League resumed.
Liverpool’s formidable press was the biggest victim of their hangover from the long and disappointing prior season. Physically, all the key metrics were miles off their usual elite standards. The Reds ran less distance overall and with fewer sprints, and pressed their opponents less frequently. For a team founded upon a high-tempo, high-energy style on and off the ball, it was a disastrous decline.
Jamie Carragher said recently: “They’ve run so far, so long, so fast, and had so much quality in games over the last few years, but it’s been a huge drop-off and you can’t dress it up as anything else.”
Their growing struggles to gain possession high up the field or staunch the flow of opponent attacks in the heart of the midfield led to fewer opportunities for their star attackers. Even the ultra-consistent Salah struggled early on before slowly turning things around.
Henderson and Fabinho – two of the midfield group that had played the most minutes the past season – were well off their best, particularly in the opening months. While Klopp said their tired legs had nothing to do with their age (both are in their thirties), the failure to sign Tchouameni or another elite midfielder became more galling by the minute.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was a shadow of his former self, tormented defensively while failing to provide the attacking impetus that made him one of the world’s finest wing-backs (two assists in 22 league matches this season, compared to 12 in 38 games last campaign). And the defence was at sixes and sevens, with even the normally dependable Virgil van Dijk struggling.
Perhaps the most galling loss of form afflicted Diogo Jota, who has played 26 times since his last goal, which came against Manchester City in April 2022.
It was inarguably Klopp’s lowest moment at the club. As Carragher said: “It’s never been as poor as this. It’s not just the results, it’s the performances. Liverpool haven’t been unlucky, they’ve actually been lucky. The score lines could’ve been a lot worse in a lot of those games … Some of the performances have been pretty shambolic.”
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‘WE HAVE TO REINVENT OURSELVES’
With injuries a constant and form a dire worry, Liverpool was forced to switch formations and tactics.
Klopp said in September: “We have to reinvent ourselves. There’s a lot of things lacking, not in all games but now. … We have to find a set-up to be much better in pretty much everything. We were not working as a team.”
Starting the season in his typical 4-3-3 formation, Klopp tinkered and reworked things – by such ploys as moving Thiago into an attacking midfield role from his usual deep-lying position, or shifting Salah to the left wing – before giving up entirely and switching to a 4-2-4 or 4-4-2 formation.
Klopp has been criticised over the years for his lack of a ‘Plan B’ or alternate approaches, but changing the formation mid-season was always going to lead to teething problems.
That was especially the case with constant injuries forcing reshuffles, or stopping Klopp from having the full squad available to work on new approaches. Again, the pre-season was far from ideal in this regard, but playing games every three or four days equally gave Klopp little time to ‘reinvent’ the side.
In the end, the formation change didn’t provide Liverpool with the answers. In October, they played five games using a 4-2-4 or 4-4-2 and lost three of those. Klopp returned to the 4-3-3 and found some success, before a galling defeat to Brentford at the start of the new year sent him scrambling for tactical solutions – and back to the 4-4-2 with no more success. It seemed that reinvention was simply beyond the suffering Reds.
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THE CLUB-ROOM CHAOS AND ‘ALMOST DISASTER’
For all their problems on the pitch, Liverpool has been forced to battle with a series of unwelcome distractions behind the scenes. Liverpool’s owners FSG in October revealed they were open to new investment in the club – but today denied they were looking to sell the club.
Meanwhile, Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s transfer guru and key negotiator, departed the club at the end of last season after 11 years. He had been key to delivering the signings of players like van Dijk, Alisson, Salah, and Robertson. But he had played an equally important role as a conduit between Klopp and the Liverpool ownership – and his absence hit home in the off-season and then January as Liverpool failed to make the crucial midfield signings they needed. His replacement, Julian Ward, will also leave at the end of the current campaign – with the loss of two sporting directors in 12 months in stark contrast to the stability behind the scenes that has been so valuable to putting Liverpool on the right footing.
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And that Champions League final in Paris also had another crucial impact. There was chaos at the Stade de France that evening, with thousands of fans denied entry, 68 arrests and hundreds injured, and French police using tear gas and pepper spray indiscriminately on Liverpool supporters.
Reds fans were immediately blamed for the chaos by both UEFA and French authorities, with a senior French policeman declaring ticketing fraud had seen “30,000 to 40,000” fake tickets and alleging fans had illegally attempted to gain access to the stadium.
The echoes of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, in which 97 Liverpool fans were killed in a crowd crush, were clear – and deeply scarring. Once again, Liverpool supporters were being blamed for catastrophic failures outside their control.
No evidence of fake tickets – or fans without tickets – was found by an independent report commissioned by UEFA, while over 2,500 fans with legitimate tickets were denied entry (including friends and family of players).
The independent report was only released last week, and criticised UEFA, French football authorities and police for their woeful preparations of the event. It said their failings “almost led to a disaster” and “It is remarkable that no one lost their life”, while completely exonerating fans.
While the disappointment on the field that night was clear, the off-field chaos and the drawn-out review process – in which over 5,000 fans also made submissions to the club – was just as painful as the team’s struggles for form this season.
THE TEEN ‘REVELATION’ AND ‘MASSIVE’ TURNAROUND
Liverpool’s start to 2023 was as disastrous as their entire season had been to that point. They won just one of their first seven matches – a cup replay – while being hammered by the likes of Brentford, Brighton, and Wolves.
But the last week delivered a remarkable turnaround. It started with the Merseyside derby against relegation-threatened Everton – a match both teams were desperate to win – before a battle with high-flying Newcastle four days later.
Liverpool had already returned to the 4-3-3 formation that has served them well for so long, but crucially shifted Darwin Nunez to the left side instead of playing centrally. Henderson made his first start in a month, replacing the injured Thiago, and looked refreshed from the break. Gakpo found the back of the net for his maiden Liverpool goal at a perfect time, while the defence was far more cohesive than in previous months, keeping Everton to just one shot on target.
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The Reds won 2-0, but it was the performance of 18-year-old man of the match Stefan Bajcetic that stood out most. The teen midfielder has enjoyed an eye-watering rise from a fringe player to a crucial starter, and Everton was the finest performance of his fledgling career. Instead of deploying the likes of veterans Naby Keita and James Milner in midfield alongside Henderson and Fabinho, Klopp trusted the Spanish tyro – and even threw him into the deep end by playing him in an advanced midfield role for the first time ever, rather than his defensive holding position. It paid off in spades. Salah told Sky Sports afterwards: “Since he started playing for us, he has been our best player maybe so hopefully he keeps that confidence and keeps going.”
High praise from the Liverpool legend, but one that has been repeated widely.
Klopp said: “A top player. It’s a joy to work with him.”
And former Premier League player Micah Richards said: “He has been a revelation since he has come into the squad, he really has.”
If the failure to sign a midfield star proved devastating to Liverpool’s current campaign, the opportunity that provided to Bajcetic – and the development he has shown already – is a huge silver lining for the future.
Four days later it was off to fourth-placed Newcastle. Liverpool delivered good performances at times in the season, but had never managed to turn it into any sort of consistency.
But the Reds had the luxury this time around of making just one change to their starting XI – van Dijk returning to replace Matip – and ran riot from the opening minutes. Trent Alexander-Arnold played a perfect ball for Nunez to open the scoring, the kind of high-quality assist the England fullback has become so renowned for – but has disappeared for much of the season. By the 17th minute, Gakpo had made it two goals, and when Newcastle gloveman Nick Pope was sent off for denying Salah a goal with a handball outside the box in the 22nd minute, the game was virtually done and dusted.
Klopp declared the result was: “Massive. Massive, massive, massive.”
Trent Alexander-Arnold told Sky Sports: “It’s starting to feel – and look – like the Liverpool team that we’re used to.”
Liverpool currently sit 19 points behind league leaders Arsenal, but just seven points behind Tottenham in fourth place – and with two games in hand over Spurs. The race for Champions League qualification is still well and truly on, but the league title is done and dusted. For Klopp and his men, therefore, it all comes down to the Champions League.
THE CHANCE FOR REVENGE AFTER ‘PROPER TORTURE’
That begins with Real Madrid, the team that beat them in Paris and beat them to the signing of Tchouameni, a player who could have changed everything for the Reds this season.
“We played this final in Paris and I didn’t watch it back since then until this weekend,” said Klopp on Monday. “Now I know why I didn’t watch it back. It was proper torture because we played a good game and could have won the game.”
But after finally finding their feet and looking like the old Liverpool once again, the timing is perfect for Reds. “It’s the Champions League, it’s one of the biggest games in the world. It will be a top football game and I’m really happy we can play it now,” Klopp said.
“If it had been four weeks ago maybe it would’ve been different, but life is all about timing and maybe we found our feet right in time for this game.
“Now we have these two results and hopefully we can build on it, but we need to play two super games to get through.”
Klopp can hardly hide his excitement at the opportunity to get revenge for their Champions League final defeat, even if this is ‘only’ the Round of 16,
With the off-field memories of that painful night now in the rear window and the Reds’ on-field performances drastically turned around, tomorrow looms as the biggest test of Liverpool’s season so far – and the biggest chance to prove the real Liverpool has returned.
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