It was approaching midnight when Jürgen Klopp found himself in one more unusual situation at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. He had been on the receiving end of a hiding, had issued a rare public apology to Liverpool fans inside the stadium and now, uncharacteristically, he tried to fight the post-match adrenaline and keep his thoughts in check.
“I think it makes sense to watch the game back and try to understand so that I can give the right message for the boys,” the Liverpool manager said as he digested a chastening defeat by Napoli. The admission that Liverpool needed to reinvent themselves after their troubled start to the season reached a nadir in Naples, however, meant he had already said enough.
When Klopp first issued the warning via BT Sport after the game it sounded ominously, dramatically, like a Liverpool manager calling time on a successful yet ageing team. But Bill Shankly in February 1970 this was not. Then, Shankly decided in the wake of an FA Cup defeat by second-division Watford that he had to “do my job and change the team”. The Anfield days of Ian St John, Roger Hunt, Ron Yeats and Tommy Lawrence were numbered. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson are not in the same predicament today, despite performing in a more judgmental world typified on Wednesday by a journalist asking Klopp whether he feared a repeat of Thomas Tuchel’s sacking at Chelsea.
The question, daft on so many levels, brought the final press conference of the night to a suitably disheartening close for Klopp. He had conducted several interviews by the time he sat down in the media room in the bowels of the stadium. He was therefore more composed, though still visibly angry, when asked to elaborate on the need for reinvention. The upshot was Liverpool must get back to defensive basics rather than reinvent football. “Basic things were not there,” he explained. “It is a difficult period, no doubt about that, but if you are not playing exceptionally well you can still defend on a really high level. We should be able to do that but at the minute we are in between.”
A squad of Liverpool’s quality and experience should be able to get reacquainted with the basics quickly. Statistics suggest they competed reasonably well on Wednesday, having 15 attempts on goal to Napoli’s 18, seven on target to Napoli’s eight, 12 corners to Napoli’s three and attempting 600 passes to Napoli’s 391. Alisson made four saves to Alex Meret’s six.
The statistics do not tell the story of a rout more emphatic than the final 4-1 scoreline, of Liverpool’s failure to counter-press, to close the gaps, of too many individuals being out of form at the same time and the worryingly laboured nature of their performance. Nor of Napoli’s excellence. “Mamma, what a Napoli” proclaimed the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport. Corriere dello Sport went for a “Phenomenal Napoli” headline. Both entirely justified.
The introduction of the fit-again and desperately needed Thiago Alcântara restored a semblance of order to Liverpool’s display in Naples, although the game had long gone by then and there may be no quick fix to Klopp’s problems. Replacing Joe Gomez with Joël Matip against Wolves on Saturday is an easy call. Others will be more delicate for a game that has assumed major importance for Liverpool.
Salah’s quiet start to the season deteriorated in Italy, where his poor first touch wasted several promising situations. Trent Alexander-Arnold did not disguise his disgust when picking out Salah unmarked inside the Napoli area only for his pinpoint cross to roll under the forward’s foot and out for a goal-kick. It was the latest example this season of Liverpool players openly bickering, and an issue Van Dijk touched upon after the worst European performance of the Klopp era.
“We’re not in the best shape, best situation, but we’re going to make this right – that’s the confidence I have,” said the defender. “We need each other, we need to stick together – not only us as players but the whole club. Stick together, don’t point fingers. Everyone knows that everyone can do better. We’re not robots, we’re trying to perform and you can have bad moments. It’s how you deal with them and now we’ll have a good look at what happened together, speak with each other and focus on the game ahead of us.
“It can change, definitely. It starts on Saturday with a good opportunity against a good side, so we’ll give everything. The key is to be together. We need everyone. If you start blaming others and don’t look at yourself or create negativity around the club, then you’re not getting out of this. I’m fully confident that we’ll turn this around together.”