Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp are in a transitional season, but what are they transitioning into?

Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp are in a transitional season, but what are they transitioning into?

Losing to Brighton in the cup makes finishing the season trophyless more likely than not. If Liverpool are in a transition season, what will they become?

The winning goal in the FA Cup fourth round tie between Brighton and Liverpool may have come 90 seconds into stoppage time, but it spoke a truth about the game that a draw would not have conveyed.

It was only a fortnight ago that Liverpool made the long trip to the south coast to play Brighton and returned completely exhausted. This result and performance wasn’t quite as bad as that one – as if it could have been any worse – but if Jurgen Klopp was hoping for the narrative arc of Liverpool’s season to start turning towards something more positive, he will have to wait.

Kaoru Mitoma’s late winner could not hide the fact that Brighton deserved their victory for the second time in three weeks. And the sense that this game has a theme extends to Liverpool’s calendar year. They played six games in 2023, with their only win coming against Wolves at Molineux in a replay in the previous round of the FA Cup.

And with only Cody Gakpo arriving in the January transfer window – unless there are any late surprise announcements from Anfield on deadline day – Klopp faces a rescue exercise for the second half of this season from players already at his disposal.

Against Brighton it felt like Klopp was trying to avoid the problems around his difficult midfield by bypassing the middle third of the pitch as much as possible. Liverpool sat deep and hit Brighton on the stroke of half-time. When they took the lead after half an hour through Harvey Elliott, it felt as though they might even have found a tactical structure that might have paid off against a team that already knew they needed to make their home advantage count. This optimism lasted for nine minutes before Lewis Dunk leveled Brighton.

The past 12 months have been a period of dizzying change for Liverpool, but that sense of things moving on has come in unusual ways. Luis Diaz arrived from Porto a year ago, marking the start of a reshuffle of Liverpool’s attacking options during 2022 that came in an unusual sequence, with Darwin Nunez joining Diaz shortly before the confirmation of Mane ‘s departure to Bayern Munich and the announcement that Mo. Salah has signed a contract extension.

The sense of change being a bumpier-than-expected experience for Liverpool has hung around all season, and it was further accentuated by the autumn announcement that the club was being put up for sale.

This may or may not be good news for fans when it’s all settled. Meanwhile, it is more turmoil and transition without a final destination clearly visible. Questions are even being asked of Klopp himself, whether he has done as much as he can with Liverpool, and even whether it might be time for the club to roll the dice again and see if someone else can coax a better tune out of the players gain .

But even if the club were to consider it a viable option, the ultimate question remains: who on earth would they ever bring in to replace him? Who will know the strengths and weaknesses of the players better than the person who has been managing the team for more than seven years, or will they be able to spur the fans on to make Anfield feel like a fortress again?

If anything, Liverpool’s decline over the course of this season has been so rapid that it suggests the manager alone is unlikely to be anything like the biggest problem at the club, so what would getting rid of him achieve touch, other than to make an empty statement to the terminally impatient, while plunging the club into even greater disarray at a time when they can least afford it?

Liverpool are not the only major Premier League football club to undergo change this season, but the shape and structure of those changes varies greatly at each club. Chelsea have changed large parts of their staff over the past 12 months, and the results of their social experiment will not be known until the end of this season.

Manchester United have finally employed a capable coach and brought in new signings to suit a playing system rather than a marketing style. Manchester City signed a goal machine but had to make significant changes to their style of play to accommodate him.

It does feel like Liverpool’s transition period is the most chaotic of all, with the decision to put the club up for sale giving the distinct impression of a power vacuum within the club, all the more so when it was followed by the news that Sporting Director Julian Ward, who has only been at Anfield since the start of July, will leave his post at the end of this season.

Chelsea’s transfer business may have been a travesty, but at least Todd Boehly is the public face of it all and while form hasn’t been great since Graham Potter took charge, the club seem to have a long-term policy to back him. Manchester United are set to change ownership, and they will do so with the team that has improved more than at any previous point in the last decade. Erik ten Hag took charge of a club that had looked motionless for years.

At Anfield, nobody really took charge of this slump. Klopp looks flustered by it, and judging by the body language the team displayed at the full-time whistle on Sunday afternoon, so are the players. This appears to be at the heart of Liverpool’s current malaise. The ownership will change, but no one knows who the new owners will be or when it will be completed. The Sporting Director is leaving and no successor has yet been confirmed.

There is a fin de siecle feel around the club at the moment, but exactly what any new era for the club might look like remains shrouded in mystery. The benefit of hindsight affords us the luxury of being able to see that the rebuilding that should have been undertaken has failed, and the result is that further work appears to be necessary midway through the season, when it is more difficult and expensive, and in this specific case with the club being put up for sale.

While the FA Cup is unlikely to be the be all and end all for a club the size of Liverpool, their elimination from both this competition and the EFL Cup in recent weeks has certainly reduced the outlook for the rest of this season. They are still in the Champions League, but the draw for the round of 16 has tied them with Real Madrid. Win that tie, and the atmosphere around the club for the rest of this season is sure to change dramatically.

But it’s hard to see where that win would come from on the evidence of much of the last six months, and otherwise the second half of their season now offers them only the likely futile chase for fourth place – they are ten points off Manchester United down at the moment, and it already looks too big a bridge to fill half a season – or, more likely, a rush for a place in Europe or perhaps the Europa Conference League. The problem with Liverpool is not so much that they are in transition; many other clubs are in a similar position this season.

The problem is that the clarity of vision that took the club to the Premier League title and a Champions League win seems to be evaporating without anything coherent coming in to replace it.

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