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EPL TALK: Klopp’s Reds can’t play games with FA Cup

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp during their 1-3 Premier League defeat by Brentford.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp during their 1-3 Premier League defeat by Brentford. (PHOTO: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

JURGEN Klopp is losing patience, with the media’s constant transfer speculation, with fans, with injuries and perhaps even with Darwin Nunez’s ability to represent less value for money than an oligarch’s sanctioned yacht. But the Liverpool manager is getting tetchy and a tad irrational in his analogies.

He compared the January transfer window to the board game Monopoly. “We cannot play like Monopoly,” he said.

Oh, but he can. He must. That’s the deal signed between all elite clubs and the devil, one that must be honoured, especially this time of year, when news pages are filled with transfer rumours, real or fabricated. Klopp is expected to behave like an auntie shouldering her way through a department store’s closing day sale. He must buy. He must be seen to be constantly looking to buy something, anything, to deal with the Reds’ unique conundrum.

Their extraordinary manager has inadvertently created an extraordinary set of circumstances. They must continue to overachieve on an underwhelming budget. Klopp has to invest to qualify for the Champions League. But he needs Champions League revenue to invest. To qualify for the Champions League, the Reds must continue to press to rediscover past momentum. To press, they require additional faces to quell the sense of an unravelling formula. To pay for those new faces, they need money they do not have. They need to qualify for the Champions League.

And so, we’re back where we started, with a weary Klopp, pretending not to play a game that he’s actually been playing exceptionally well the last five seasons or so. He’s preparing to roll the dice again, knowing he’s about to count his way towards the posh end of the board, towards Mayfair and Park Lane – or Sentosa Cove and Marina Bay, if you will – knowing that the elite properties are mostly owned by Pep Guardiola.

Eddie Howe is eagerly buying up anything left behind, while Erik ten Hag is maximising his assets and an imposter called Mikel Arteta is inexplicably leading with a handful of cheaper, less heralded possessions, giggling at every turn.

Until this season, Klopp excelled in Arteta’s position. He left the biggest names to Guardiola and somehow manoeuvred his way around in a faster fashion. He was assertive and nimble, intelligent and street smart. He was a palatable Trump without the ugly bits, red rather than orange. He built his success legitimately, on a budget.

But he's handicapped now. Every roll of the dice comes with a caveat. His employers, the Fenway Sports Group, are assessing their options as they contemplate a partial or full sale of the club. Klopp’s bank may be cautious, at the worst time.

Liverpool require strengthening in defence, thanks to Virgil van Dijk’s hamstring injury and Ibrahima Konaté’s loss of form. The latter has gone from sitting on a bench at a World Cup final to looking a bit of plank at Brentford. The Reds’ 1-3 defeat left their famous press resembling the upended Titanic. Once considered impregnable and unsinkable, its broken parts now look incapable of bearing the weight of both Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, let alone a limping van Dijk and a wobbling Konate.

The Reds are currently defending corners in the way that Prince Harry might defend Prince William. Not well. And there are few heirs to any silver trinkets either, just a surplus of spares. James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all running down the final months of their respective contracts. Replacements are arguably required for all three, particularly after the midfield drift at Brentford.

Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez looks dejected as he continues to struggle for goals since the Premier League restart after the World Cup.
Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez looks dejected as he continues to struggle for goals since the Premier League restart after the World Cup. (PHOTO: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Midfield the most glaring weakness in sputtering Reds

Klopp has lamented the lack of enthusiasm for the £37-million signing of Cody Gakpo, considering the absences of Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino, but the Liverpool faithful can only say what they see. There’s something missing in the middle.

The midfield is old and grey and tired, a by-product of Klopp’s success once more. He got too much out of too little for too long. Even the irrepressible Milner cannot go on forever. Liverpool’s press will not adequately function with a gaping hole at its centre, unable to transition fast enough, unable to retreat quickly enough when an attack stumbles.

And the stumbling is too often coming from a single source.

Darwin Nunez may still thrive at Anfield. He comes with the physical, irritating presence that conforms to Uruguayan stereotype, but has yet to replicate Luis Suarez’s consistency. An effort against Brentford, dragged well wide, was particularly excruciating.

When the only goal comes from Oxlade-Chamberlain, an amiable, unlucky performer who has struggled with injuries and not finished a full 90 minutes in the Premier League since April 2018, then Klopp has to acknowledge supporters’ legitimate concerns. Their complaints are not the delusional antics of a reckless Monopoly player. They are merely stating the obvious.

The press is stalling. There are too many sputtering components. The Reds are 16 points away from the summit and seven points shy of fourth place. If they cannot buy players without Champions League qualification, they can only buy time in the FA Cup.

Last season, the FA Cup gave Klopp a complete set of trophies. This time around, the silver pot might give him breathing space, to calm nerves, to enjoy a day at Wembley and showcase the unique product for potential investors.

More than that, an uplifting cup run might stop Klopp wandering down the path of decline and grumpiness, the one followed by Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger as their previously omnipotent powers waned. The German’s increasing tetchiness is already reminiscent of the final days of Wenger (who also relied on the FA Cup near the end.)

The Liverpool manager really doesn’t deserve that, not yet anyway.

For now, he's still got the FA Cup, starting with Wolves on Saturday. Win that one and sneak in a decent midfielder before the transfer window closes and the storm clouds swirling around his ageing squad might dissipate, until the next throw of the dice.

This is Monopoly after all. And his cashed-up rivals are not playing games.

An uplifting cup run might stop Klopp wandering down the path of decline and grumpiness, the one followed by Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger as their previously omnipotent powers waned.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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