The post-match interviews have become post-match inquests. Jurgen Klopp has a capacity to state the obvious in a way that nonetheless feels revealing and, after Leeds won at Anfield for the first time since 2001, when the German was a couple of months into his managerial career at Mainz, he reflected: “It is no secret that pretty much everybody on the pitch can play better football.”
He was talking about the game, but he could have been discussing the season. Liverpool’s malaise feels hard to address because it is multifaceted. It includes injuries and ageing, the failure to buy a midfielder in the summer, encounters with inspired opponents, a physical fatigue and a mental hangover. Liverpool, who used to deliver wonderful moments to win matches a few months ago, now have a self-destructive streak. Klopp’s attempts to tackle a troubled time have been a series of quick fixes, changing shape or personnel to solve one problem but in turn creating another. Formulas have looked flawed, with Liverpool often lacking the authority and aura they used to exhibit.
But at least some of it comes back to a fundamental issue: pretty much everybody can play better football. Not necessarily over 90 minutes, because there have still been some terrific performances, but over the season. Perhaps the most remarkable element of their slide is the number of previously outstanding performers who have been out of form at the same time: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Mohamed Salah in September, for instance.
Curtail the campaign now and the shortlist for their player-of-the-year award would be just that: brief. Alisson may be a field of his own. Luis Diaz was a challenger but has had to sit out Liverpool’s last six games. Roberto Firmino has rewound the clock and offered inspiration, but struggled in the defeats to Manchester United and Napoli. That only Alisson and Diaz should be exempt from criticism for the harrowing hammering at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona gives them a particular distinction.
Most others have dropped below par, whether briefly or for a more extended period. Joe Gomez was outstanding against Manchester City but his season has otherwise been error-strewn and he gifted Leeds their opener on Saturday. Kostas Tsimikas was terrific against Ajax but terrible against Brighton. James Milner has not started in midfield since his wretched showing in Naples. Jordan Henderson had a particularly poor game at Old Trafford, though he scarcely flourished against Arsenal either. Joel Matip has been one of Liverpool’s better performers when available, but had a difficult game at Arsenal. Diogo Jota has brought verve and invention and Klopp must wish he had been fit more often, but he is yet to score. Darwin Nunez contrives to be both in form and out of form in different moments in the same match.
If youngsters have brimmed with promise, Fabio Carvalho has prospered more as a substitute but come off twice at half-time as a starter. Harvey Elliott’s class on the ball has been a welcome sight but his defensive deficiencies are a reason why the midfield has been too open; Klopp may wish he could have benched the teenager for some of the tougher tests. Perhaps Curtis Jones should have started in his stead on Saturday.
To varying degrees, overplayed fringe figures are symptoms of the perennial injury problems; each might have played less, especially in major matches, if Ibrahima Konate, Andy Robertson, Naby Keita, Thiago Alcantara and Diaz had been fit all season (or for any of it, in Keita’s case). Overusing players, rushing some back, has led to substandard individual performances and, perhaps, further injuries.
But the dynamic of top teams tends to be that even fine performers often find it easier to excel when the talismanic figures are flourishing; slotting in as a side’s ninth-, 10th- or 11th-best player alongside an outstanding core can make men on the margins look good.
As Liverpool have lost cohesion and chemistry, there is a question of which problem leads to another: Fabinho’s almost inexplicably terrible form or Elliott’s imperfect positional sense? Because either gives Liverpool less solidity in midfield; the days when Van Dijk stops looking immaculate or the times when Gomez errs? Because the Englishman’s best performance of the season came in the Dutchman’s; Nunez’s stop-start Liverpool career or Salah’s uncharacteristic shortage of league goals? Because Liverpool dropped points to Nottingham Forest, Brighton, Everton and Crystal Palace when the Egyptian did not score.
In each case, it feels a bit of both, that each could do with the other finding form so he does not have to lead the way. Because Liverpool have had spells in the past where pivotal players were struggling – Sadio Mane had a goal drought last December, for instance – but it mattered less when so many others were delivering. It is possible to carry or to camouflage the out-of-sorts when others are out of this world. Recently, individual mistakes have mounted as individuals have been found wanting.
There are tactical complexities to explain each of Liverpool’s setbacks and it is very basic to suggest teams need their players to play well. But it is true nonetheless.
There have been occasional times when Liverpool have shown what they are capable of, whether in producing a colossal effort to beat City or blitzing six goals in a second half against Rangers or three in 11 minutes at Ajax. But over a troubled campaign as a whole, pretty much everybody can play better.