Knockout blow? Liverpool need a summer like 2018 if they are to return to the top

Wijnaldum Klopp Konate Liverpool GFX
Jurgen Klopp knows at least three high-quality signings are required to give his Reds side the impetus to come back from a damaging campaign

The faces at the end said it all.

Mo Salah grimaced and looked skywards, while Trent Alexander-Arnold sank to the floor, devastated. Alisson Becker got some sympathetic words from Thibaut Courtois, his opposite number, and Andy Robertson roared at nobody in particular. Gini Wijnaldum just looked lost.

It was not Liverpool’s night, and it has not been their season. There will be no alterations made to the Anfield honours board this summer.

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After two years of trophies, of glorious nights and record-breaking accomplishments, this will be a silverware-free campaign for Jurgen Klopp’s team, who exited the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid on Wednesday night.

Not so long ago, the talk was of dynasties, of a new era of dominance on Merseyside. Liverpool were the team to beat and the team to catch, the “mentality giants” and the “champions of everything”.

Klopp’s smile could have lit up the Albert Dock, his fist pumps enough to power the Mersey ferry.

Things have changed since. Liverpool may have climbed “back on their perch” when clinching the Premier League title last June, but they did not stay there long. Life comes at you fast, even at the top of a mountain.

The league crown which had taken 30 years to arrive was surrendered within seven months, the Reds’ season unravelling during a bleak winter, buried beneath a raft of injuries, hard-luck stories and a quite alarming slump in form.

Trent Alexander-Arnold Liverpool GFX

Gone is their proud unbeaten home record, replaced by a barely-fathomable run of six straight Anfield defeats. Gone is the fear factor, that feeling of invincibility that permeated the club for so long.

Liverpool collected 99 points last season and 97 the year before. This time around, the best they can hope for is 73. They have lost as many league games in 2020-21 than in the previous three seasons combined. Leicester City have scored more goals than they have and Aston Villa have conceded fewer.

Even Everton came to Anfield and won.

The question now is whether these are temporary problems, whether the system, which has collapsed so spectacularly in recent months, can simply be reset, the machine restarted. Can this season simply be written off as a freak, an outlier, the result of circumstance and misfortune, as opposed to deeper, structural flaws in both the team and the club?

Liverpool have tended to respond well to adversity in recent years. They moved forward at pace after losing in the final of both the League Cup and the Europa League in 2016, and responded emphatically after being beaten by Real in the Champions League final in Kiev two years later.

When they narrowly missed out on the Premier League title in 2019, they regrouped, went again, won the Champions League and delivered perhaps the most dominant league season in the club’s history.

Can they do that again, use their disappointment as the steam to power their dreams?

“They’re in the chasing pack now,” said BT Sport’s Rio Ferdinand on Wednesday. Perhaps that will suit Liverpool, and suit Klopp. Both have tended to thrive when cast in the role of underdog.

The chase can be thrilling, fun. Liverpool have lost that this season. They have been moody, lethargic, weighed down by the pressure of fighting against a rising a tide.

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool GFX

They should certainly improve once key players return. Virgil van Dijk’s absence cannot be overstated, and has been amplified 10-fold by the subsequent injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, while Jordan Henderson’s presence in midfield and in the dressing room is similarly irreplaceable. Losing players is one thing, losing leaders is quite another. Liverpool have lost both.

They have also lost the power of their home support. Rivals may scoff, but so much of the Reds' success down the years stems from that unique Anfield atmosphere, that wonderful synergy between the team and the crowd. Klopp's side was built to thrive amid the noise and the colour and the chaos. Silence does not suit them. A full Kop cannot come soon enough.

Other issues are harder to explain. Is Roberto Firmino, for example, simply having a bad season or has the Brazilian’s decline started? Liverpool’s No.9 has scored six goals in 41 appearances in all competitions this season, and just one in his last 20. He is not bringing nearly enough to the table.

Sadio Mane, too, is struggling, with three goals in his last 17 games and only seven in the league all season. The Senegal star looks shattered, mentally and physically. The will is still there but the legs and the mind will not carry him any more. He needs a break.

Liverpool will definitely need to replace Wijnaldum, who will leave on a free transfer in the summer, and must decide whether Naby Keita or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will ever be able to hold down a regular place in a side with ambitions such as theirs.

Both have talent and both have a big fan in Klopp, but neither have been able to retain form and/or fitness long enough to have anything more than a fitful impact. James Milner, at 35, continues to keep them out of the team in big matches.

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The next transfer window is huge. Just as in 2018, the Reds must recruit well and recruit big. They signed Alisson, Fabinho and Van Dijk in the space of six months then, the spine of the side solidified in three fell swoops. World-class players to create a world-class team.

Something similar this year would be nice. It was notable that all three of Liverpool’s big summer signings from 2020 started on the bench against Madrid. Diogo Jota has been excellent and Thiago Alcantara’s class should buy him time, but Kostas Tsimikas has done nothing to push or protect Andy Robertson at left-back.

The Greece international has managed five minutes of Premier League football since joining from Olympiacos, which is five more than Ben Davies, bought from Preston North End in January.

Klopp has suggested that they will need to time to adapt and adjust to his demands, but it is tempting to wonder if they will ever be ready, in all honesty. 

The same goes for Takumi Minamino, signed in January 2020 and loaned to Southampton 12 months later, and for Divock Origi, who will always have cult status but who needs a fresh challenge after six years and only 63 starts on Merseyside. Xherdan Shaqiri, too, probably needs to move on.

Klopp rejected the idea that “an overhaul” could be required in the summer, but it is clear that at least three quality signings are required, and maybe more.

Liverpool need a high-class centre-back, be it Ibrahima Konate or someone else, they need a midfielder with guile and physicality who can play 30+ games a season at a good level, and they need a centre-forward, whether to push Firmino or, more likely, to replace him.

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Finding those players will not be easy, especially if they end up missing out on a top-four finish this season. They have given themselves a chance at least, but these last seven league games are huge. The pressure is on, and Klopp knows it.  

“We have to,” he said when asked about Champions League qualification after the Real game. “We love this competition, and for different reasons it’s very important for the club.”

For now, he and his side must regroup and refocus. Onto the next one, heads up and chest out.

They have been good at that in the past, but this season has been enough to test even the strongest of chins. Liverpool are on the canvas right now, down but not out.

The fight will continue at Anfield, you can be sure of that. It has to.

It is the only way Klopp knows.