The first time Jurgen Klopp brought a team to Napoli, he made an explosive exit. Then Borussia Dortmund manager, he was sent to the stands. All this might have seemed preferable to a stint on the sidelines, watching his Liverpool plumb new depths. Conceding four goals in the first 47 minutes gave him plenty of time to think. His departure was contrite this time, arms raised in apology to the Liverpool fans. Their visit to their least favorite place was even less pleasant than usual.
The euphoric celebrations in front of an adoring home crowd felt Klopp-esque, but coming from Napoli. For the German, there was instead a disconsolate trudge back to the tunnel and a realization that could prove to be a defining moment. Sometimes it takes a spectacular goal to bring about change, and after Napoli tore Liverpool apart to win 4-1, Klopp said: “It looks like we have to reinvent ourselves.”
The caveat was that his version of reinvention sounded like a return to the immediate past, rather than a promise of revolution. “Everyone would be happy if we could play the things we used to play,” he said; also a few months ago. The goal is to restore the basics, to become terrible to play against by putting opponents under pressure.
For Klopp, being compact is a compliment and he couldn’t remember seeing his side less compact; Andy Robertson agreed with his parsimonious analysis. “The way we were wide open, they found so many spaces,” said the Scot. But, said the manager, his high defensive line remains.
But if the problem was not the theory but the execution, it raises questions about the people involved. In part, injuries are the problem; partly is form, and it is rare that so many of Klopp’s talismans are out of form at the same time. And yet it hardly feels as simple as saying that such things are cyclical; if it is inevitable that some, and perhaps all, will play better, it does not necessarily mean that their best days are ahead of them.
Seven from this side had started the Champions League final; it’s been just over three months and this was only their fourth defeat of 2022, but it came in such a way that suggests an era is coming to an end.
Six of them are thirty. Logically, playing something as grueling as Kloppball for 60 games a season will take its toll.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that time has finally caught up with James Milner. At 37, he was playing in the Premier League before Harvey Elliott was born. Maybe he can still win the beep test, but not the midfield battle. Within 10 minutes he had conceded a penalty and brought down Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa in the kind of ugly display where a caution feels like the lesser possible punishment.
Alongside him, Fabinho was the target of much of Klopp’s invective at half-time as VAR awarded Napoli their second penalty. It was not surprising: the Brazilian barely protected the creaking defence.
Yet the most harrowing sights came behind him. Virgil van Dijk is beginning to look mortal, the imperious, laid-back colossus feeling more fallible. He went 150 games without conceding a penalty. Now he has given away two of seven games, with both Aleksandar Mitrovic and Victor Osimhen upended by the usual example of perfect judgement. Only a nonchalant goal-line clearance made him look the effortless champion, but while his calm authority used to seep through defences, Liverpool were ragged.
Van Dijk was still superior to his partner. Joe Gomez was atrocious, guilty of two goals and, apart from the Dutchman’s intervention on his line, a hat-trick of horrors; his inconsistency remains a problem when, at 25, he is no longer a young player and cannot use age, at either end of the spectrum, as an excuse. His best are a level few others can reach, his worst terrible, and they can coincide with Liverpool’s most chastening games.
Gomez was awful in the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa, the 4-0 thrashing of Manchester City and now the nightmare in Napoli; he was lifted off long before the final whistle in each. Gomez was Van Dijk’s best sidekick for much of the 2019-20 season, and if injuries are the main reason he has been reinvented as fourth-choice since then, the second-half introduction of Joel Matip was telling.
In a miserable rear fender, the right half felt the weaker link. Trent Alexander-Arnold was unable to contain a rampant Khvicha Kvaratskhelia; at times he wasn’t close enough to try.
The young Georgian graced the huge atmospheric concrete bowl. His nickname, “Kvaradona” and the former San Paolo Stadium, now Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, derives from football’s best left foot. Liverpool’s finest in recent times had a humbling night: Mohamed Salah was anonymous and replaced on a night to improve the reputations of the dynamic Luis Diaz and the late Sadio Mane.
Reinvention comes in many guises and if Klopp was left to consider whether his aging players can once again be the forces of old, Liverpool could do with Salah playing as he did when he earned the biggest contract in their history, not which he has since signing it. .