The spring of 1966 must have really been bittersweet for then Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.
Liverpool had just clinched a second league title under his purview but deep down inside, the great Scot knew it was time to rebuild a new generation of Anfield legends. This also meant a gradual but painful dismantling of the first legendary group of players that he had assembled in addition to those he had inherited upon his 1959 arrival at Anfield.
A first group which in 7 years, had extricated Liverpool from the old Second Division, won 2 First Division championships and clinched the club’s very first FA Cup triumph… the dawn of Liverpool Football Club’s modern era.
Today, Jurgen Klopp has reached the same crossroad as Mr Shankly in 1966. In October, The Normal One will celebrate 8 years at Anfield. In terms of tenure, he is now just behind Bob Paisley’s 9 glorious years.
With the German firmly intent to stay until his current contract expires in 2026, he will then have only Mr Shankly’s 15 years ahead of him for longevity during Liverpool’s modern era.
Among Klopp’s predecessors, Sir Kenny Dalglish (1st spell), Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benitez each held the hot seat for 6 years. So, they did not quite face the imperative nor have the opportunity to assemble a new generation of players before their time at Anfield drew to a close for various reasons.
Therefore, it is now practically the first time in more than half a century that Anfield is witnessing a manager’s attempt to rebuild a next generation of legends.
If there is a weak point with Klopp, it is said that he became sentimentally attached to his first generation who won everything there is to be won in England’s top football division.
Yet, the ominous sign for a need to rebuild, was already here in plain sight way before the 2022-23 season was even kicked off.
Liverpool chasing an unprecedented quadruple perhaps eclipsed the fact that they were at pains to keep a clean sheet and were invariably conceding first during the tail end of 2021-22.
However, last summer’s transfer window saw Liverpool recruiting mostly attack minded players like Darwin Nunez and a young Fabio Carvalho, with the defensive issues therefore hardly being addressed.
Whether Klopp could not find defensive players to his standards or otherwise, those frailties eventually gapped wider as the new season went under way despite a Community Shield triumph over Man City in late July that prematurely suggested the Liverpool players were still hungrier than their opponents of the day.
Throughout the season, we saw a tug of war which on one side had an intense style of play that had harvested an incredible crop of trophies over the past several years and on the other side, an ageing squad which sadly had passed its prime before anyone fully came to such realisation.
This is perhaps the underlying reason for a very uncharacteristic Liverpool season in 2022-23 that frustratingly oscillated between utterly dominant and delightful wins and totally unrecognizable underwhelming displays.
Not much of a decent run of matches was also evident until an unbeaten run of 11 games came too late during the season’s home stretch that ultimately propelled the Reds to a 5th place finish.
The proverbial Good, Bad and Ugly probably best describes such inconsistencies.
Saving the best for last and to rip off the band aid right away, here is the Ugly.
If you thought January – March 2021 was bad as Liverpool appeared to have lost the plot, think again.
Two years ago, oppositions found a blue-print to counter the Reds’ all conquering style of play that had emphatically clinched the Premier League title the previous season: sit deep, absorb the pressure, frustrate the Liverpool players and try to nick it with counter-attacks.
Sadly, in January – February 2023, a new nadir was reached. Opposing teams did not even have to resort to such tactics as the Reds players at times looked hesitant, deflated and worryingly lacked hunger and drive.
The 3-0 loss at Brighton in January was the epitome of such underwhelming display. Liverpool barely encroached into the Seagulls’ half for much of the game, lost possession too easily, appeared clueless and spent most of the time on the backfoot.
Klopp admitted for the first time that the 63 games in the previous season quest for the quadruple had taken their toll on the players. It was also at that time that everyone started to agree on the need to rebuild the squad.
Mirroring the aftermath of that near quadruple, Liverpool players also got in a worrying psychological trend of throwing in the towel when things did not turn out their way.
The 4-1 at City in April saw Mo Salah opening the score only for the Reds to capitulate after the home team made it 2-1 while they fought back as you would expect.
This trend also extended to the Champions League stage with an unbelievable 2-5 against Real Madrid in February. Liverpool were 2-0 up inside 15 minutes and then gave it all up as Madrid finally got off their team bus.
In between Madrid and City, there was also 1-0 at Bournemouth in March. After trashing the south coast club at Anfield in August (more of that later), Liverpool looked dejected and appeared to wave the white flag after merely failing to convert their first 3 attempts on goal inside the first 15 minutes.
To rub salt on the wound, our Egyptian King missed a glorious chance to equalise with a penalty that flew wide.
We should have seen a harbinger of all that with a shocking 1-2 home defeat in October against 18th-placed and now-relegated Leeds.
A clear sign of jitters especially in the defensive ranks led to a fumble between Joe Gomez and Alisson Becker which gifted Leeds with opening the score.
Although Liverpool equalized shortly after, this did not lift the Reds back to their usual selves and the Yorkshire club sucker punched us in the dying minutes. Anfield was stunned.
Earlier in the season, there was also the 1-4 at Napoli in September. Granted the Naples club was already flying in the Italian Serie A which they won emphatically.
But in view of Liverpool’s good performance in the rest of the Champions League group stage, warning signs should have already been seen that the Reds players are at times susceptible to unrecognizable underwhelming performance.
Brighton was undoubtedly Liverpool’s bogey team this past season. After the January horror show at the Amex Stadium in the league, we got eliminated from the FA Cup 4th round by the same Brighton a fortnight later. However, the Reds now did put up a fight and played with more assurance during the 2-1 defeat.
Liverpool’s defense of the League and FA Cups won in 2021-22 were already over before January itself was over.
One week later, it was again a 3-0 loss. At Wolves this time but Liverpool again did put up a fight. The undoing started with an unfortunate deflection off Joel Matip and carried on with a miscommunication between Gomez and Alisson, just like against Leeds. More of a bad day at the office.
At the end of February, we traveled to a rather limited Crystal Palace but still ended up with a 0-0 that was characterized by a singular lack of energy and losing possession easily.
Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita, and James Milner started in midfield in what turned out to be a definite showing that this particular engine room was now badly in need of a revamp.
OK, enough of the depressing stuff.
Thankfully, an inconsistent season also means there were games to remember as well; in fact, games that we’ll even cherish for the rest of our lives.
No prize in guessing the 7-0 trashing of Man Utd in March comes on top. A perfect day at Anfield in terms of the scoreline, the team performance, the stadium unmatched atmosphere, and an astonishing conversion ratio of 7 goals scored in 8 attempts.
To top it all, Mo Salah became Liverpool’s leading scorer in the Premier League era. His brace took him past Robbie Fowler’s 128 goals and we are still counting for the Egyptian King.
You know Klopp’s style of play was clicking when it was quasi-mission impossible to pick a Man of The Match during that unforgettable game. All Liverpool players were up for it and they shone on that occasion, especially Captain Hendo who relentlessly pressed the opposition and started the moves that ended in three of the goals.
Hot on the heels of the “7Up” game: the 9-0 against Bournemouth in October to match the biggest win in Premier League history and also to emulate the same score line against Crystal Palace in 1989 in the old First Division.
Astonishingly that was also the first Liverpool league win of the season, at the 4th time asking.
Bobby Firmino was boss with 2 goals and 3 assists. Yours truly recalls having to watch the entire game for a second time right after the final whistle as there was hardly any opportunity to properly take notes when the goals were flooding in.
And who can possibly forget the 4-3 against Spurs, memorably watched with Robbie Fowler in our midst on a miserably wet Sunday? But who cared about the weather when Robbie was with us…
The LFC Toronto family turned out in full force to welcome the Anfield legend and we raised the roof of Elephant & Castle when Diogo Jota won it on the 94th minute, a mere one minute after Richarlison had made it 3-3.
The ex-Evertonian wild celebration of his equalizer was on purpose to provoke the home supporters with his shirtless mimicking of a strutting chicken. That sweetly turned out to be a headless chicken after all.
A Final Push That Was More Like It.
The epic Spurs match came right in the middle of an undefeated run of 11 games which vaulted Liverpool to 5th place in the end.
Any wonder that the start of such undefeated run coincided with a significant tweak in the team’s tactical formation?
Trent Alexander-Arnold received more than his fair share of criticism, allegedly for not being able to defend as Liverpool were wallowing in the abyss of January-February.
Klopp remedied to that with the now much talked about “inverted full-back” concept. He gave license to the Scouser in our Team to roam into a more central position when he goes forward instead of just hugging the right-hand side touchline as a pure winger.
In the meanwhile, Iboue Konaté is to provide coverage in the right back area when Trent is alongside Fabinho in a more central defensive position but while still pinging those balls forward.
The stats are very promising: Trent provided 11 assists in the league the whole season and 7 of them came during the last 10 games when he was playing as inverted full-back. Moreover, his delightful long-range passes from a more central position are also bringing sweet memories of a certain Xabi Alonso and Jan Molby.
Towards the end of the season, it would not have been inappropriate to modify Trent’s song among Kopites to “The Scousers in our Team” (Scousers in plural).
Curtis Jones’ comeback from a long agonising injury was nothing short of astonishing as he quickly made one midfield berth his very own. The Scousers’ night at Leicester 3 games to season’s end was a particularly memorable one for the travelling Red Army. They saw CuJo scoring a brace before Trent sealed it with a delightful free-kick right in front of the away end.
If the 2 Scousers are not even 25 years old, another youngster is on the brink of joining them in midfield. In our books, 18-year old Stefan Bajcetic was the big Liverpool revelation this past season, putting on totally composed and mature displays as defensive midfielder in January to March despite the team going through the roughest of patches. We cannot wait to see him back from injury.
Again, as the team was going through that particularly agonising time, Cody Gakpo made his Liverpool debut amid this most difficult period. Convinced by fellow Dutch Virgil Van Dijk to join the Reds in the January window, Gakpo took until the Merseyside Derby in mid-February to open his scoring account that eventually churned out a respectable 7 goals in half a season.
Equally significant, he quickly took on board Klopp’s style of play. He can be deployed both as an out-and-out striker or an attacking midfielder. He is also not shy to lend a hand in defending, earning a couple of yellows in the process. Reminds you of anyone?
Thank goodness one consistency during this season was Alisson Becker’s enduring reliability. Liverpool might have ended outside the much coveted Champions League qualification spots but were it not be for Ali’s saves, we would not even be in the Europa League next season. The 0-2 at Newcastle was the perfect example on how he earned additional points for the Reds.
It will undoubtedly be a busy summer transfer window for Liverpool, hopefully in terms of activity but certainly in terms of rumours and hearsays swirling around.
New sporting director Jorg Schmadtke will hardly find a busier start of a job as he takes over from Julian Ward. But thankfully, he will also find that everyone at the club is on the same page about the need to revamp the squad.
That’s the only certainty we can affirm at the moment on the subject of transfers even though at the time of writing, the recruitment of Brighton’s highly rated World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister sounded to be well in the works.
However, amid all the excitement of incoming new players, the departure of existing players is one equally important aspect of each transfer window which is always overlooked.
Sadio Mané leaving one year ago had the same impact as Xabi Alonso and Luis Suarez not so long ago: Liverpool coming close to the title one season only to be unrecognizable the next after their departures.
Now, we have to contend with four players moving on: Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner and especially Bobby Firmino.
The Brazilian’s contribution to Klopp’s recent glorious era can never be overstated. As hinted before, Cody Gakpo looks to be willing to fill the big shoes Firmino is leaving behind. From what we’ve seen so far, there is no reason to be pessimistic on that front.
Also among the wish list of Liverpool supporters is to get a proper right back so that Trent can spend more time forward where he is now looks more likely to excel… a potential masterstroke switch which would all at once bring that much needed rejuvenation to the midfield.
When 2023-2024 gets under way, Liverpool will have hopefully wrapped up some judicious transfers which would console us from not so long ago when we were eagerly looking forward to belt out The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”.
Going back to those days when the Fab Four ruled the pop scene, Mr Shankly’s rebuilding in the late 1960s was one heck of a major work as Liverpool did not win any trophy for the next 7 years.
But at the same time, he also laid down a blue-print for preventing the recurrence of the acute need for wholesale changes that a succession of managerial dynasty staunchly adhered to afterwards.
This ushered Liverpool into an era of utter dominance over the next quarter of century with judicious and seamless refreshing of the squad every year with just a few new faces playing a big part of the famed “Liverpool Way”.
However, that was a completely different era. Now, everything is much fast paced.
The imperative for immediate results has long become the norm. Untenable pressure inevitably builds on the shoulders of any manager if those are not quickly forthcoming.
As Klopp launches the rebuilding of a next generation of Liverpool players, fingers crossed it won’t be another 6 years before the next trophy.
For his part, Bill Shankly benefitted from such patience as he was said to have been in unison with the Liverpool supporters and especially those who stood on The Kop.
Today, one thing is for sure: among Shanks’ numerous successors, none has ever since attained a closer communion with The Kop than Jurgen Klopp.