When Liverpool stopped being fun – how Jurgen Klopp’s exit impacted the season – Liverpool FC

With Liverpool limping towards the finishing line, Aaron Cutler looks at how Jurgen Klopp‘s exit announcement affected the players’ mentality and wider expectations of a season that turned from joy to anticlimax.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

The last six weeks of Liverpool’s season have been nothing short of catastrophic. An implosion of this scale will naturally inspire post-mortems and recriminations long into the summer.

While the how and why will take some unpacking, the when is easier to pinpoint. Indeed, our struggles can be traced back to when things got serious. Granted, a Premier League campaign isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 27, 2024: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp after the FA Premier League match between West Ham United FC and Liverpool FC at the London Stadium. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A multi-billion dollar industry in which so many are invested emotionally and financially can never be described as a leisure activity, yet Jurgen Klopp’s side entered 2023/24 with the pressure seemingly off.

For the first time in arguably eight years little was expected from the boys in red. Expectations had been tempered on the back of a hugely underwhelming season, punctuated by the exits of several high-profile and influential stars.

This was the first reset of Klopp’s reign and progress rather than pots was the clear target.

With neither squad nor fanbase anticipating a slugfest with Man City – and with it the need to win every game – the start to the season was enjoyable.


Liverpool 2.0

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 3, 2023: Liverpool's Alexis Mac Allister (L) celebrates with team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold after scoring the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Fulham FC at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Obvious deficiencies were clear from the opening day at Chelsea but there was plenty to be positive about.

Our new Hungarian signing was both handsome and handy; Luis Diaz had regained form and fitness following a lengthy lay-off; substitutes were impacting games from the bench; and even Darwin Nunez had found his shooting boots!

Victory at Newcastle felt like a turning point and springboard rolled into one. A goal and man down, parallels to the previous season were striking. But rather than wilt and succumb to the inevitable, Liverpool dug in and sprang the latest of late shows to earn a famous win in a hostile atmosphere.

The manner of that success brought huge momentum, leading to nine wins and three draws in our next 13 games.

Positives could even be drawn from our sole defeat at Spurs. Reduced to nine men and failed by the officials, a young team battled until the last. An injury-time own goal spared the hosts’ blushes, but Liverpool took just as much from that loss.

For a remodelled squad whose average age had been cut from 16th to 10th youngest in the league, this was significant. Something was building.

While this run had propelled us towards the top of the table, few were actually contemplating a title tilt. Still bearing the scars of 2022/23, the majority of the fanbase were pleasantly surprised and simply enjoying the ride.

Football was fun again.

It’s fair to assume the players felt similarly. Having set up a goal for Nunez against Nottingham Forest at the Kop End, Dominik Szoboszlai was pictured leading the crowd in chants of the Uruguayan’s name – that’s not somebody feeling the pressure.

Neither was Jarell Quansah, parachuted into the first team from nowhere and more than holding his own domestically and in Europe. Heck, Trent Alexander-Arnold was even assisting goals with his backside on show at Sheffield United.

Most importantly, the manager had a new lease of life. He was visibly refreshed and seemingly reinvigorated by his young charges overachieving.


The turning point

In hindsight, back-to-back home draws over Christmas said more about our actual level.

Liverpool outplayed Manchester United for the entirety of our December 17 clash, and Arsenal for large portions of our head-to-head six days later – we won neither.

There was no shame in that but it was a reality check, thankfully not enough of one to derail the campaign. We simply regrouped and went again, winning our next two to hit the top on New Year’s Day.

But later that month, things got serious.

Klopp announcing his upcoming departure on January 26 has been compared to Kenny Dalglish resigning in February 1991. We can only hope it doesn’t mark quite as dramatic or prolonged a slump. What it has done however is reframe this season.

Suddenly a team dubbed ‘Liverpool 2.0’ and seen as every bit the long-term project had to win now.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 28, 2024: Liverpool's Conor Bradley during the FA Cup 4th Round match between Liverpool FC and Norwich City FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 5-2. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A ‘Last Dance’ narrative had been written and this squad, more than half of which were aged 25 or below, were entrusted with giving Klopp the send-off he deserved. The send-off we demanded.

Things got real.

To their credit they rose to the challenge initially. The likes of Virgil van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold spoke of a desire to get over the line for the man who had made the impossible possible.

We mauled Norwich in the game immediately following the announcement, before dismantling Chelsea at Anfield. A growing injury list was overcome as we defeated Brentford in style and lifted the League Cup with kids very much at the forefront – a testament to the manager’s philosophy.

But somewhere around this time the pressure was ratcheted up.

Trailing 1-0 at home to Luton on February 21, it felt as though the world was caving in. Anfield rose to the occasion and Liverpool mounted a brilliant fightback to run-out 4-1 winners, but the whole occasion was exhausting.

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - Saturday, March 2, 2024: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez celebrates after scoring the winning goal in the ninth minute of injury time during the FA Premier League match between Nottingham Forest FC and Liverpool FC at the City Ground. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A 98th minute winner at the City Ground was just as dramatic for different reasons.

Having traded blows with Man City we squeezed past Brighton before another nail-biter at home to bottom placed Sheffield United. If Luton was evidence of a nervousness sweeping through the stands, the Blades’ equaliser that night sparked outright panic.

Alexis Mac Allister’s 76th minute thunderbolt to edge us back in front was greeted with a roar befitting of a Champions League night.

Dramatic and brilliant in qual measure, it was nevertheless a sign of how fraught, how perilous things had become.

Liverpool had muscled into a title challenge they had no business interrupting and were now clinging on for dear life. The fun been replaced with a need for absolute perfection.


The Old Trafford effect

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 7, 2024: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) and Curtis Jones after the FA Premier League match between Manchester United FC and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford. The game ended in a 2-2 draw.(Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Either side of the Brighton and Sheffield United games were trips to Old Trafford that will surely define this final chapter of the Klopp reign.

It’s worth remembering the ‘Mentality Monsters’ long championed by the German are now few and far between. Staples of that team are long gone.

Many of Klopp’s previous side fostered that elite mentality so often referenced by the manager. Their absence was keenly felt the day we exited the FA Cup at the home of our fiercest rivals.

Having dominated the game, we were rope-a-doped and inexplicably dumped out of the competition. Evidently, that wrecked heads.

Defeat at Arsenal a month earlier could be explained away by a slow start and a rare mix-up between Van Dijk and Alisson, plus we were playing a fine side.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 7, 2024: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah reacts after missing a chance during the FA Premier League match between Manchester United FC and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Defeat against Man United, this United was hard to fathom. It represented the first setback since Klopp’s announcement.

Up until then Liverpool were riding a wave of emotion that promised to sweep them to the title. Now momentum had been checked in the worst possible circumstances.

Suddenly forwards were second guessing themselves, defensive lapses were becoming more commonplace and legs looked tired.

They had a chance to exorcise demons back at Old Trafford early in April only to come a cropper again.

That day a draw felt like a defeat, with a narrow advantage at the top of the table squandered due to a hatful of missed chances. It’s galling to admit, but Manchester proved a graveyard for our title challenge and, ultimately, Klopp’s farewell tour.


Lack of leadership

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 25, 2024: Liverpool's Lewis Koumas, Jayden Danns and Trey Nyoni celebrate with the trophy after the Football League Cup Final match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. Liverpool won 1-0 after extra-time. (Photo by Peter Powell/Propaganda)

It’s in the midst of those games and the immediate aftermath when experience counts.

Up until March, no Kopite was lamenting the exit of Henderson in particular. Suddenly he felt like a big miss as a mental fragility came to the fore.

Crucially, the fun had stopped.

What’s unfolded since couldn’t be further from the joy and freedom exhibited between August and February. This is now a Liverpool side riddled with self-doubt and paralysed by their inability to finish chances.

They’ve gone from a vibrant, attacking side built for the future, to a ponderous, error prone team crippled by its present.

A summer inquest will rightly follow but the tragedy of this capitulation is the ending it’s dealt our manager. Rejuvenated in pre-season, he suddenly looks tired, defeated and broken. The very best of us, he deserves better.

BERGAMO, ITALY - Thursday, April 18, 2024: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp before the UEFA Europa League Quarter-Final 2nd Leg match between BC Atalanta and Liverpool FC at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Could he have handled his ‘exit interview’ differently? Perhaps, but then when is a good time to drop that kind of bombshell?

Context is everything. Rewind 10 months and we’d have bitten your hand off for a top four finish and a trophy. Even if we stumble over the line for the former, it represents a decent campaign.

Truthfully, we’re some way off Man City and Arsenal, as you’d expect given the time and money invested into those respective projects. We’re a distant third and for now, that’s fine.

Klopp’s exit has shifted timeframes and set unrealistic expectations. It may be the end of his tenure but it doesn’t have to be the end of Liverpool 2.0, which was always set to be a mid to long-term project.

The harsh reality is this season got too serious, too soon.

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