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Jürgen Klopp’s Long Winter of Discontent

Title hopes dashed, injuries suffered, and a thin squad exposed. It’s time for Liverpool to start over.

Plymouth Argyle v Liverpool - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Replay Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

A month ago, Liverpool Football Club had stumbled but they were still in the thick of three competitions. A month before that they were sat alongside Chelsea as favourites to win the Premier League and snap a title drought of more than two decades. Now, they’re out of the FA Cup. They’re out of the EFL Cup. And most painfully of all, they’re out of the Premier League title race.

Since losing to Bournemouth on the 4th of December, Liverpool have lost as many games as they’ve won. In all competitions over the past two months, Jürgen Klopp’s side has managed just five wins to go with four draws and five defeats. That makes for a 36% win rate, and that in turn accurately reflects the scale of the collapse, one that has earned any talk of Liverpool being in the midst of a crisis.

That 36% win rate in December and January is worse than the 42% win rate Roy Hodgson managed in a little more than four months of football during his time in charge. It’s worse than the 39% of Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier’s brief, ill-fated dual managership in 1998. In fact, one has to go back to Don Welsh, who guided Liverpool to relegation in 1954, to find a worse record.

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Of course, two months isn’t the full and complete picture of Jürgen Klopp’s time in charge. And as is so often the case when a team struggles, there are endless reasons and rationales. Injuries have hit Liverpool especially hard, and a squad that had been kept intentionally small to accommodate an absence from Europe and fewer games to go around has been exposed as dangerously thin.

Liverpool also lost Sadio Mané, the only player who offers them real pace in attack, to Senegal and the Africa Cup of Nations. For a time they lost Joël Matip to it, too, despite that he had retired from international football to avoid being called up to the tournament by a dysfunctional Cameroon side, when FIFA briefly opened an investigation into his status and eligibility.

There are reasons why Liverpool have struggled. And there are reasons why fans, players, and the club’s owners will be far more willing to keep the faith with Jürgen Klopp than they were with Roy Hodgson—or even Brendan Rodgers, who took Liverpool close to their first title in twenty years before his Anfield project fell apart over an entire disastrous season.

Unlike Hodgson or Rodgers, Klopp is a managerial superstar; a proven commodity. Hodgson was a functional, capable journeyman at best. Rodgers was a gamble on unproven but highly promising managerial talent. Klopp is a proven winner and one of the biggest names in the game. He is also, from the standpoint of personality and ethos, a much better fit for the club.

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Faith will be kept. There can be no question of that. At least in part because it’s difficult to imagine where, productively, the club could possibly go from here if it was ever decided that Klopp wasn’t the right man for the job. Yet none of that, not Klopp’s seemingly perfect fit for the club nor the mitigating factors of injuries and internationals, makes the last two months any easier.

A month ago, Liverpool Football Club were in the thick of it in three competitions. Two months ago, they were sat alongside Chelsea as favourites to win the league. Now, if they cannot beat Chelsea and if Manchester City go on to beat West Ham elsewhere in Premier League action during this mid-week round of matches, they will head into February out of the top four.

It has been, by any measure, a disastrous two months. It has been amongst the worst two-month stretches in the club’s recent history. But not all is lost. A top four place now hangs in the balance, but it was a top four place the club headed into the season targeting, with anything else—any silverware or perhaps even a title challenge—only ever a hoped-for bonus.

After playing 14 games in December and January, 14 games that exposed just how thin the squad was, they play just three in February. Against Chelsea, all of their stars are back from injury bar Nathaniel Clyne, who himself is expected to resume training shortly. And Sadio Mané, having flown back from the Africa Cup of Nations, is expected to at least be on the bench.

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It will be impossible, whatever happens next, not to look back at these past two months—this collapse, for there is no other word for it—and not to wonder what might have been. Not to wonder if, with a few more summer signings providing depth through a busy holiday run, this side might have been able to keep pace with Chelsea at the top of the league while staying in the EFL and FA Cup.

It will be impossible, no matter what happens tonight, not to look back and wonder if, with slightly more rotation in the autumn to keep legs fresh, this match against Chelsea might not have been to determine which side headed into February top of the league. That will be fair; it will be unavoidable. Questions about the choices made by Klopp and the club will and should be asked.

But the season isn’t over. At least not yet. The starting eleven—Klopp’s preferred starting eleven—showed what they were capable of in the autumn, and now that eleven will again be at his disposal. Sixteen games are left to be played in the league. Mistakes were made, and a golden opportunity has wasted, but the season isn’t over. It starts again here, tonight, against Chelsea at Anfield.

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