Jürgen Klopp once referred to his Dortmund side as having a “monster mentality”. The term came after he had seen his team come from behind to beat Mainz just days after thrashing Ajax 4-1 away in the Champions League.
At Upton Park on Saturday, the only beast Klopp’s Liverpool were channelling was the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz.
Having nervously stumbled their way back into touching distance of the top 4 with 1-0 wins against Leicester and Sunderland, the onus was on Liverpool to keep it going. Instead they reverted back to being the shrinking violets whose trip to Watford recently ended in a chastening 3-0 reversal.
After Saturday’s deserved 2-0 defeat to West Ham, Klopp said it was a day to get angry; it’s debatable whether or not these players are even capable of mustering enough emotion for that.
The paradoxical nature of this team’s mentality is that what should have been Liverpool’s three hardest games – the away fixtures at Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City – have produced the most impressive performances, along with the 6-1 win at Southampton. And yet every time they come up against an apparently inferior yet combative and organised outfit, they crumble.
There is simply no leadership on the pitch. There is nobody to take charge of the midfield, to bark orders at the defence or to bully the opposition backline up front. It’s as meek as it is predictable.
Klopp has previously said that this side should be good enough that January reinforcements should not be necessary. That’s a commendable sentiment and it certainly indicates a willingness to allow this squad to prove themselves under a new regime, but surely the lack of backbone that the majority of these players has displayed in the last few matches has convinced the manager to reassess that position.
The players could blame their abject performances on the manager’s tactical shortcomings or personal differences, à la Chelsea and Manchester United’s squads this campaign, and indeed with Brendan Rodgers. The situation at Anfield now is different though – the fans’ ire is directed solely at the players on the pitch, and so it should be. There is nothing in Klopp’s managerial career to date to suggest that he is telling these players to be so weak-willed and the frustration on his face is evident when it continues to happen.
Klopp’s Dortmund side were a thing of aggressive beauty and yet he has inherited a Liverpool team with all the aggression of a weak cup of tea. These players are supposed to be fighting for their Liverpool futures and yet so few of them could be trusted in a battle not to go missing. As loyal and fair Klopp would like to be, he should have no hesitation in dispensing with those he feels are not strong enough mentally or not prepared to adapt to his ways. “Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool”, when finally assembled, will look act very differently to this incarnation.
It’s not all just down to mentality of course, but a vicious circle persists in the psyche of this team. They panic because they can’t break down solid teams right away, which in turn makes them less likely to find the breakthrough. The BBC’s match report stated that Liverpool had 23 shots on West Ham’s goal, of which two were on target. Against Leicester, it was five on target out of 26, against West Brom eight out of 28 and so on. Breaking down defences – both physically and psychologically – continues to be a massive problem.
Which brings us to the problem of Christian Benteke. One of Brendan Rodgers’ biggest failings was that he was allowed to assemble such a disjointed squad – and the fact that he signed a target man for £32 million and placed him in a team with no wingers to provide support for him was borderline criminal.
It’s fortunate for the Belgian striker that Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and even Danny Ings have had injury problems because there is every chance by now Benteke would have found himself on the periphery such is his incompatibility with what is going on behind him in the midfield. Despite Benteke’s match-winning goals recently, Liverpool’s overall play has looked better without him and that should be a source of worry for him.
The most frustrating aspect about all of this for Klopp surely is that at least one Champions League spot is there for the taking this season. Liverpool are five points behind Tottenham in fourth place (eight should Spurs beat Everton on Sunday) and as much of a gap as that is, a sustained run of form would probably see Liverpool challenging for that spot come the end of the season. Finding that consistency, however, seems so far beyond them right now.
Liverpool go to Stoke City in midweek for the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-finals. The prospect of a first season trip to Wembley for Klopp will be a strong source of motivation for the Reds manager – but it is whether the players can fight for him and get him there, or if they are destined to let him down again, is the real question.
Simon O’Keeffe, Pundit Arena