LEICESTER, England — Jurgen Klopp will celebrate his second anniversary as Liverpool manager early next month, although “celebrate” is probably not the word he will choose. Two years on from his appointment, the wait for a trophy continues for the former Borussia Dortmund coach and the prospects of it ending next February with success in the Carabao Cup are now in tatters following Tuesday’s 2-0 third-round defeat at Leicester City.
Silverware is one thing, progress is another.
It would be wrong to suggest that Klopp has not improved Liverpool as an attacking force — Arsenal would testify to that following their 4-0 mauling at Anfield last month — but the flaws and failings that Brendan Rodgers was unable to correct in his final months as manager continue to plague the team and hold the club back.
Liverpool return to Leicester in the Premier League on Saturday without a win in four games since that Arsenal victory and confidence beginning to drain. The image of Klopp slumping forward in his seat as Leicester coasted to victory at the King Power Stadium betrayed that of a man at a loss to end the Groundhog Day nature of his team’s setbacks, and he admitted as much when dissecting the defensive shortcomings which once again proved to be Liverpool’s downfall.
“The story is really easy to explain,” Klopp said. “We were much better in the first half but didn’t score and we were unlucky.
“But as long as concede as we did today, it’s difficult. That we concede like this makes me really, really sick.”
It was the same old story. For the first goal, scored by Shinji Okazaki on 65 minutes, Liverpool’s failure to win the second ball led to Wes Morgan and Vicente Iborra winning challenges in the penalty area before the Japan international, standing unmarked, scored from 15 yards. Twelve minutes later, Islam Slimani scored a stunning goal to make it 2-0, but the Algeria striker was given the freedom of the pitch to slalom through the Liverpool defence before beating goalkeeper Danny Ward from 20 yards.
Klopp may be “sick” of seeing his team concede such goals, but as a former defender, when will he do something about it?
From Day 1, since he took charge at Anfield, Klopp’s focus has been on sharpening Liverpool’s attacking edge, and he has done that. When in full flow, the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino — none of whom were on duty at Leicester — are a devastating forward line.
Behind them, Philippe Coutinho remains a world-class talent despite his distracting flirtation with Barcelona, and Adam Lallana, when fit, will add to their threat going forward. But Liverpool simply cannot defend properly and that is down to Klopp’s tactics, selection and recruitment.
Quite simply, he has not recruited the commanding centre-half and dominant midfielder that Liverpool have required for years, instead spending on the likes of Salah and Mane. Both have been astute buys, but arguably not as important as the missing links in the defensive half of the team.
Liverpool do not possess the financial might to compete with City, Manchester United and Chelsea, but having been prepared to pay £60 million for Virgil van Dijk earlier this summer, only to be warned off by Southampton, why did Klopp not sign the next defender on his list instead? Surely there was one.
A defensive leader in the mould of van Dijk would bring organisation and leadership to the back line, just as a more dynamic midfielder than Jordan Henderson would inspire those around him and provide a more solid shield for the defenders. But these holes have remained unfilled at Anfield for far longer than Klopp’s relatively brief reign. It is why Liverpool, English football’s most successful club after United, have won just one major trophy — the 2012 League Cup — since lifting the FA Cup in 2006.
Key areas have been neglected but Klopp has not addressed them, either. And so here we are, just over a month into the season, with Liverpool out of one major competition and five points adrift of City and United in the title race. They still have time to make up the gap in the league but one cup has already gone, so the opportunities to win that first trophy have diminished.
Will it get any easier? With five games away from Anfield in the next six — Man United at home is the only fixture on the red half of Merseyside between now and the end of October — they certainly have a challenge ahead of them in terms of steadying the ship.
Klopp has identified the problem, however, by admitting his team’s propensity to make costly defensive mistakes. But it was a problem he inherited, so as he approaches his second anniversary, he cannot say that he has not had the time and opportunity to address it.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_