DOMINIC KING: Liverpool are on the ropes and the blows are raining down on Rocky fan Jurgen Klopp… it will be fascinating to see how – or IF – the Premier League’s 10th-best team can hit back
- Liverpool have slipped to 10th in the league after a dismal run of results
- Jurgen Klopp’s team have taken a number of blows in recent weeks
- The Rocky Balboa fan now needs his side to show their steel and hit back
It was a warm August morning in 2018 when Jurgen Klopp, fresh-faced and full of life, made the analogy. Surveying the size of the task in front of Liverpool, he said they were ‘like Rocky Balboa, not Ivan Drago’ and had to fight with all they had to reach the top.
Liverpool’s rivals, primarily Manchester City, did not like the idea Klopp was in charge of some plucky upstarts, but the imagery was colourful and the narrative was set. This group of players was going to run through brick walls and nothing, not even the might of City, would stop them.
Like the hero of Klopp’s favourite film, Liverpool became champions. Rocky has been a reference point for a lot of the club’s journey under him, overcoming the odds to stand triumphant.
On this cold February morning five years on, another Rocky can be used in an analogy. Here Liverpool are, 10th in the Premier League table, looking as exposed as one of the great Marciano’s opponents whose guard had dropped after their arms had been relentlessly pummelled.
Do not underestimate the toll the past month has taken on them, individually and collectively. Confidence has disintegrated, performances have collapsed and the shellackings they suffered at Brentford, Brighton and Wolves characterise what Liverpool are: the league’s 10th-best team.
Jurgen Klopp is a big fan of Rocky Balboa, and has compared his Liverpool side to the boxer
Klopp has watched his side suffer heavy defeats on the road over the past month
Liverpool have fallen some way below the standards that previously made them such a force
Each display has had one common sight: Klopp standing on the touchline, eyes wide and mouth open, with the kind of haunted look you might expect to see on a man whose worldly goods have been packed into a truck and driven off in front of him.
Many are assuming, though, that this is just a blip and next season Liverpool will come roaring back. Luis Diaz will be fit again, Darwin Nunez will be acclimatised and — they hope — Jude Bellingham will be rampaging forward from midfield, possibly supported by Matheus Nunes from Wolves.
But it is dangerous to assume. And the questions nobody seems to be asking are: what if Klopp doesn’t have the answer to halt this slide? What if someone else comes in and lands Bellingham, offering him Champions League football?
What if Klopp is so demoralised by this dramatic fall — 264 days ago they were 180 minutes from completing a Quadruple — that he cannot see a way back to challenge those clubs who have the momentum Liverpool once did?
It must be stressed that there is no indication Liverpool will be looking for a new manager this summer. Nobody who works with Klopp on a daily basis has been given the slightest reason to believe his appetite has waned.
Furthermore, the man himself promised on January 17 that the changes which will be necessary this summer — and there are many, on and off the pitch — will not include him leaving.
‘It was clear when I left Borussia Dortmund in 2015 that something had to change,’ he explained. ‘It is a different situation here. So as far as I am concerned, what I hear — unless someone tells me differently — I will not go. I have space and time to think about it.’
Perhaps, but you do wonder how much more Klopp can stomach. Alarmingly, nobody would be the least bit surprised if they were beaten by three goals in either of their next two Premier League away days at Newcastle and Crystal Palace.
It is dangerous to assume that Liverpool will bounce back from their dire run of form
Those assignments are sandwiched between Monday’s Merseyside derby, a Champions League last-16 date with Real Madrid and a visit from Manchester United — games that have the power to make heroes but, if lost, have the power to turn a drama into a full-blown crisis.
In such times, Klopp needs support. He is loyal to his backroom staff and was vexed about reports criticising fitness coach Andreas Kornmayer — strange how nobody complained about the methods, which haven’t changed much in seven years, when the team were winning. But who helps him?
When Mike Gordon, president of owners Fenway Sports Group, stepped away from his day-to-day role at the club last autumn, the significance was huge. Klopp would speak to him three or four times daily and their alliance could withstand anything.
Their relationship was such that contract talks could be sealed over a beer in the kitchen of Klopp’s Formby home. Gordon is a wise, shrewd man who led Klopp’s recruitment in 2015 and it is asking a lot for Billy Hogan, the chief executive who has stepped into the void, to have the same rapport with the German.
The search for a new sporting director is ongoing too after Julian Ward, who was influential in the signings of Diaz, Nunez, Diogo Jota and Fabinho, decided to step down. He will leave after 11 years at the club and one full season in his current role, with Ajax keen to recruit him.
None of this tells you that the picture is settled. FSG have added to the uncertainty of the entire situation by making it clear they want to find new investment or, really, sell the club lock, stock and barrel after 13 years as custodians. If no buyer emerges, how eager would they be to invest again?
For all that FSG have been criticised for not spending money on midfielders, it should not be overlooked that Liverpool have spent £180million on attacking players since January last year.
Klopp needs to see his side to channel their inner Rocky Balboa and come out fighting
It was a conscious decision to pursue forwards, such as Cody Gakpo, last month and Klopp agreed to it all.
This week Klopp gave his squad a mini-break to clear their minds after the 3-0 defeat at Wolves. Most stayed away from the AXA Training Centre in Kirkby on Monday and Tuesday but some, such as Virgil van Dijk, were present for individual rehab sessions.
A glimmer of light was the return of Jota, a waspish individual with an ability to score important goals, but whether he will be ready to start against Everton, having not played since October 16, is another matter entirely.
Anfield, almost certainly, will have a sense of anxiety when their neighbours Everton arrive and the prospect of Liverpool losing should not be discounted.
This is a club on the ropes and a manager parrying blows. It will be fascinating to see how — or if — they can hit back.
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