Inside Liverpool’s nightmare season: How Klopp’s ‘mentality giants’ became also-rans in the space of five months

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool 2022-23 16:9
Injuries, transfer errors and behind-the-scenes uncertainty have resulted in a dramatic and devastating dip in form.

It feels like a lifetime ago now, but Liverpool actually went into this season riding a wave of optimism.

Having narrowly missed out on the most remarkable of quadruples in May, Jurgen Klopp’s side looked as if they were ready to roll once more by the time July came around.

Victory over Manchester City in the Community Shield at Leicester’s King Power Stadium suggested the Reds had lost none of their hunger or spark.

New signing Darwin Nunez marked his debut with a goal, ensuring an instant rapport with the travelling Kop, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah were also on the scoresheet, while City new-boy Erling Haaland was shackled well by Virgil van Dijk & Co. at the other end. 

“We’re ready to go again,” declared Klopp, who looked like a man at ease with the world, and with himself. 

Fast forward five months, and the landscape has shifted considerably. That early-season hope has long since evaporated, each disjointed performance and underwhelming result serving to chip away at the confidence, belief and aura of a side once labelled – and correctly so too – “mentality giants” by its manager.

Liverpool lost only four times in 63 games in all competitions last term, but they have already lost six of 27 this time around.

They have won less than half of their Premier League matches, decimating their title chances and leaving them facing an uphill battle to secure even the “minimum aim” of Champions League qualification.

They travel to Brighton this weekend, and it’s difficult to make a case for them being favourites.

How did it come to this? How did the mood around Anfield change so quickly, after the heady heights of spring and summer?

GOAL takes you inside the Reds’ rotten run…

  1. Early cracks and momentum lost

    It all started down at Craven Cottage, you could say. Six days after that Community Shield win, Liverpool headed to Fulham looking to underline their status, once more, as one of the teams to beat in this season’s Premier League.

    Klopp named something like his strongest XI, with only Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino coming into the side which had started the Champions League final against Real Madrid in May. Nunez, the £64 million ($78m) summer arrival from Benfica, began on the bench, ready to cause carnage once his opponents tired and the game opened up.

    The rest of Liverpool’s bench, though, hinted at some of the problems to come. It contained the likes of Sepp van den Berg, Luke Chambers and Stefan Bajcetic – a trio without a single Premier League appearance – with injuries already having begun to nibble away at Klopp’s squad.

    Diogo Jota and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had suffered hamstring issues during the pre-season trip to the Far East, summer arrival Calvin Ramsay was sidelined with a back problem, Curtis Jones, a late substitute in the Community Shield, had picked up a stress reaction in his tibia and wouldn’t be seen on the pitch again until October, while Ibrahima Konate had damaged knee ligaments in a bizarrely-scheduled friendly against Toulouse at Anfield, 24 hours after the City win.

    Then, less than an hour into the league season, Thiago Alcantara limped off with a thigh injury, leaving Liverpool further exposed. They played poorly, both with and without Thiago, at Fulham, looking rattled by their hosts' energy and in-your-face physicality – another sign of things to come. 

    "We cannot always hug the boys," Klopp said. "We usually only do that when they deserve it."

    Nunez, at least, came off the bench to score and set up another for Salah, while both Luis Diaz and Jordan Henderson hit the woodwork, but a 2-2 draw against newly-promoted opposition was not the kind of authoritative opening Klopp had expected.

    “We started in exactly the opposite way to what we wanted,” he said afterwards. It would not be the first time he’d be left scratching his head trying to explain a Reds performance this season.

  2. Darwin's red mist and no new midfielder

    By the time Crystal Palace arrived at Anfield for the Reds’ first home game, Liverpool’s injury issues had worsened. Matip had picked up a groin issue in training, Firmino was left out as "a precaution", while both Jordan Henderson and Joe Gomez were deemed fit enough only for the bench. 

    It meant Nat Phillips, who had spent the second half of last season on loan at Bournemouth and had been expecting (and expected) to leave permanently in the summer, started alongside Van Dijk at centre-back, and Liverpool’s problems would deepen when, at 1-0 down early in the second half, Nunez was shown a straight red card after a clash with Palace defender Joachim Andersen.

    Diaz’s brilliant strike salvaged a point, but there was little consolation for Klopp and his supporters, with two draws against lesser opposition to start the campaign, a pair of low-key performances, an alarming injury list and the new big-money striker facing a three-match ban.

    Liverpool had, to that point, believed they had enjoyed a positive transfer window, bringing in Nunez, Ramsay from Aberdeen to provide youthful cover for Alexander-Arnold, and the talented Fabio Carvalho from Fulham. They had also, after lengthy and fraught negotiations, renewed Salah’s contract, making him the highest-paid player in the club’s history, while choosing to cash in on another of their attacking stars in Sadio Mane.

    A new midfield player, however, had not been recruited, and that is a decision that has come to haunt Klopp as the season progressed. 

    The Reds had hoped to land Aurelien Tchouameni from Monaco, only for the French international to choose Real Madrid instead. And with Borussia Dortmund making it clear that Jude Bellingham would be going nowhere in 2022, the decision was made that Liverpool would go into the season with what they already had: nine senior midfield options, but most of them with asterisks next to their name in terms of age, fitness and suitability.

    Klopp was bullish in explaining the lack of activity – “You tell me what kind of player are we missing?” he asked journalists in July – but by the last days of August both the situation and the mood had changed. Naby Keita had joined Thiago, Jones and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the treatment room, and when Jordan Henderson limped off in the win over Newcastle, 24 hours before the summer transfer window closed, Liverpool decided they had to act.

    Their choice was a surprise one, with the Brazilian Arthur Melo drafted in on a season-long loan from Juventus, at a cost of just under £4m ($5m). He arrived well short of fitness, having missed all of pre-season with Juve, and was soon joining the injury list, tearing a quadricep muscle in training on the eve of a Champions League game against Rangers.

    He is still to return to full training, and doesn’t it just sum up Liverpool’s season that the man signed to ease a crisis has played only 13 minutes of competitive football for the club so far?

  3. A loss of identity

    “It looks like we have to reinvent ourselves,” said Klopp after Liverpool had started their Champions League campaign with a 4-1 thrashing away at Napoli in early September.

    The Reds, as they have so often this season, started that game poorly. They were timid and lethargic against a side with purpose and speed. Their press was non-existent, their midfield sluggish and easily bypassed, with their defence – in particular Alexander-Arnold and Gomez, who was taken off at half-time – unable to cope with the pressure they were put under.

    The passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and a subsequent international break, meant Liverpool played only once more in September, but when they opened October with a haphazard 3-3 draw against Brighton at Anfield, Klopp decided to go for that reinvention.

    His move was to add an extra forward, playing what he described as a 4-4-2, but could easily be interpreted as a 4-2-3-1, against Rangers in the Champions League. Liverpool won 2-0, but were beaten 3-2 at Arsenal in the following game, failing to capitalise after twice drawing level and gaining a foothold in a tight game, and despite a 7-1 hammering of Rangers in the return meeting at Ibrox, the new system was soon pushed aside, with Diaz and Jota picking up long-term injuries and none of Fabinho, Henderson or the fit-again Thiago ever looking truly comfortable in a two-man midfield. 

    A return to 4-3-3 coincided with a run of seven wins from nine prior to the World Cup, but the two defeats – away at Nottingham Forest and at home to Leeds – ensured even cautious optimism was tempered. “So many things are unlike us,” said Klopp after Leeds had become the first visiting side to win at Anfield in the Premier League in front of supporters since April 2017.

    Liverpool bounced back by winning at Spurs in early November to keep their top-four hopes alive, the start of a four-match winning run in the league, either side of the World Cup, but on the whole, far too few of their performances have been convincing, with a clear loss of energy, intensity and, most alarmingly, identity in their play.

  4. Damning statistics

    You don’t have to look far to find troubling numbers as far as Liverpool are concerned.

    Already, for example, they have dropped more Premier League points this season than they did in the whole of the last campaign, and their record away from home, with two wins and only eight points from eight matches, is only the 12th best in the division.

    They continue to make life difficult for themselves. Fourteen times, they have conceded the first goal in games, and only five times have they been able to rescue a result thereafter, beating Newcastle, Rangers and Leicester, and drawing with Brighton and Wolves.

    They continue to create chances – they have created more Opta-defined ‘big chances’ than any other side this season, and have hit the woodwork more often too. They have taken more shots than any team except Manchester City and their expected goal (xG) figure is the third-best in the league, but they have also missed more big chances (42) and rank 11th in terms of shot conversion.

    More importantly, something has clearly gone in terms of the defensive structure of the team. Liverpool have kept only eight clean sheets from 27 games, as opposed to 14 from 30 at the same point last term, and they are statistically the worst team in the division in terms of ‘duel success’. 

    Klopp has spoken repeatedly about the need to ‘win challenges’, but Liverpool are winning back possession less frequently and in less dangerous areas this season; they rank 13th in terms of possession won in the attacking third, and joint-20th with Southampton in terms of possession won in the middle third. They are the seventh-worst team in terms of being dribbled past by opponents, and the sixth-worst in terms of winning aerial duels.

    They have, by any available metric, become too easy to play against, and too easy to play through. They may have faced fewer shots than any team except Arsenal and Manchester City, but the chances they give up tend to be good ones, with the brilliance of Alisson Becker saving their bacon on more than one occasion this season.

    Key players, such as Van Dijk, Fabinho, Alexander-Arnold, Henderson and Andy Robertson, have all struggled for form at various points, and though Salah has managed 17 goals in all competitions, only seven have come in the league. At this stage last season, the Egyptian was on 16 Premier League strikes.

    The hope is that Nunez, who reached 10 goals with his effort against Wolves last time out, and the newly-signed Cody Gakpo can help ease the burden on the Egyptian, and keep the team afloat until Diaz and Jota return later in the season. The fear right now, however, is that by the time the cavalry returns, it might be far too late.

  5. Off-field uncertainty

    If matters on the pitch have been enough to bring about talk of ‘the end of an era’ at Anfield, then the same must be said for what’s happening off it.

    Certainly, there has been a more chaotic feel to Liverpool this season. From the unexplained departure of club doctor Jim Moxon on the eve of the campaign, to the news that Julian Ward, the newly-appointed sporting director, would be leaving his post at the end of the season, the impression being given to the outside world is that of a club undergoing major changes, and with questions to answer in terms of the direction it is heading in.

    Nowhere is that more clear than with regards to Fenway Sports Group, the owners, who have offered little comment since it emerged in early November that they were open to either a total or partial sale of the club.

    The Americans have, on the whole, done a good job in their 12 years on Merseyside, their decisions and appointments helping re-establish the club among Europe's elite, but there are legitimate questions to be asked as to how much longer they can continue to compete with the financial power not just of Manchester City, champions in four of the last five seasons, but with the Saudi Arabia-backed Newcastle, free-spending Chelsea and a resurgent Manchester United and Arsenal too.

    Liverpool's revenues are strong, and its infrastructure has improved immeasurably, but FSG's policy of spending what is earned in the transfer market leaves them exposed to situations such as this – ageing players, expiring contracts and plain bad luck.

    Sources insist it is still ‘business as usual’ at Anfield but with Ward set to step down in June, and with Mike Gordon having stepped away from the day-to-day running of the club, stories have begun to appear claiming all is not well.

    There have been suggestions that Klopp and Pep Lijnders, his assistant manager, are having an increased say in transfer policy – a theory given extra credence by the imminent departure of Ian Graham, the highly-respected head of the club's research department, and reports of clashes within the club, most notably between the management team and the medical department.

    Such tales may be common at other clubs – Chelsea or Manchester United, perhaps – but they have been rare at Liverpool, where harmony and togetherness has underpinned their success and growth. Klopp has referred to "a one club mentality" in the past, and he could do with that returning in the coming weeks and months, as he looks to steady the Anfield ship.

  6. What comes next?

    So, where do they go from here?

    Clearly, things are not right. Liverpool are already seven points off fourth place, and their next two games, away at Brighton and at home to Chelsea, look both tricky and crucial. Lose more ground there, and it could be curtains.

    They are, for now, still in the FA Cup, facing a third round replay at Wolves next week, while February sees them face Real Madrid in a mouth-watering Champions League last 16 tie. It would be a risk, to say the least, to go into that without having strengthened the squad further.

    And that, really, is the rub. However much of an optimist Klopp is, he knows that Liverpool are in need of significant reinforcement.

    Steps have been taken to lower the average age of the squad, with the likes of Nunez, Diaz, Jota, Ramsay, Carvalho, Ibrahima Konate and Cody Gakpo all recruited in the past two-and-a-half years, but it is clear that their midfield is not only ageing but unfit for purpose, with three first-team players (Milner, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain) plus a striker (Firmino) all out of contract in the summer, and those that are staying either out of form, the wrong side of 30 or yet to convince that they can play the role regularly.

    Bellingham, clearly, remains target No.1, but the England star will surely be impossible to land without Champions League football (and may not want to join even if they do qualify), while questions remain over both how much money FSG will be willing to spend, and just who is in charge of what they spend it on.

    Klopp, at least, is contracted until 2026, and insists he still has the stomach for the fight on Merseyside. He has, understandably, cut a frustrated figure at times this season, but there is a belief within the club’s management that improvement is around the corner, that a drop-off was inevitable after the miracles performed last season, and that the present situation is nowhere near as bad as some – or articles such as this one – would suggest.

    Whether that view is shared by supporters is another matter. Certainly, the mood around the club could hardly be further removed from where it was at the start of the season. "Turning doubters to believers" was one of Klopp’s great achievements at Anfield, but right now it feels like the opposite process is taking place.

    It is up to the manager, and his players, to change the narrative once more.