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Liverpool’s ‘Last Dance’ has fallen apart, but succeeding Klopp now seems less intimidating


The impossible task no longer looks so daunting.

Barring a miraculous turn of events, Arne Slot, the man Liverpool see as Jurgen Klopp’s perfect successor, will not take over as Premier League champions this summer.

Instead, it appears the current Feyenoord manager will inherit a side limping for the consolation prize of Champions League qualification to accompany their Carabao Cup final in February. The problems are dire and the room for improvement is considerable.

In the space of six grim weeks, Klopp has gone from potentially signing off with an unprecedented quadruple to a rapidly disintegrating farewell tour.

It started with a self-inflicted defeat against arch-rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup. Then came the error-strewn Europa League elimination at the hands of Atalanta. Now their title challenge is also in shambles after taking just four points from 12 on offer in a quick rematch with United and against Crystal Palace, Fulham and now Everton.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to end.

The TV documentary makers, who have been filming behind the scenes at Liverpool since December, thought they were capturing a valuable, victorious and historic farewell. However, The Last Dance, as some players and staff have dubbed it — a reference to the popular Netflix series about Michael Jordan’s triumphant final season with the Chicago Bulls basketball player — has involved far too many missteps.

They fell flat on their faces at Goodison Park on Wednesday. The Merseyside derby has given Klopp so many memories to cherish during his eight-year reign. He once had to pay an £8,000 fine to the Football Association for deciding to celebrate a dramatic late winner from Divock Origi by manically running all the way to the center circle to hug his goalkeeper, Alisson.

Klopp had lost just one of his first 18 meetings with Everton before last night, and there were no fans to see it happen as the match took place behind closed doors at Anfield during the COVID-19 pandemic. But his final encounter with this match delivered one of the most heartbreaking low points of his tenure.

“You’ve lost the league at Goodison Park,” the jubilant home crowd crowed as Everton celebrated their first home win over Liverpool since October 2010.

Liverpool started the day joint bottom of the league, with a beleaguered Roy Hodgson fielding a line-up that included Paul Konchesky, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Joe Cole. The failures were grimly predictable with the club in chaos.

This was very different. This was Liverpool in the title race in the final month of a season, looking to ramp up the pressure on rivals Arsenal and Manchester City after Sunday’s morale-boosting win at Craven Cottage. What they produced against the relegation-threatened opposition was pathetic.

The row of empty seats at the away end when the final whistle blew was both stark and understandable.

“I think everyone has to ask themselves, have they really given everything and really want to win the league?” said captain Virgil van Dijk, who complained that Liverpool “didn’t win challenges” and squandered chances “that we should have scored from”.

Instead of unleashing a flurry of fists after the win, there was an apology from a somber Klopp to the supporters for the lack of what was served. So vulnerable on the one hand, so toothless on the other.

Klopp was in a somber mood after the defeat (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

There was an alarming naivete from Liverpool as they were awarded a succession of cheap free-kicks and allowed themselves to be bullied as Jarrad Branthwaite and Dominic Calvert-Lewin both punished terrible defending from set-pieces.

Their firepower has allowed Klopp’s side to dig themselves out of countless holes when they have fallen behind this season, but that ability has diminished with Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah both woefully out of form.

If Slot takes over as expected, he will have to make some big decisions, together with new sporting director Richard Hughes.

Like, is Nunez really the number 9 that can take Liverpool to where they want to be?

The Uruguayan’s return with eighteen goals and thirteen assists in all club competitions this season is respectable at first glance. But when the stakes were higher he failed to deliver, failing to score in eight of his last nine appearances. Nunez turns 25 in June, he’s not a kid, but the rough edges and jagged displays remain for all to see. So many opportunities have been taken and squandered by him.

He was so ineffective last night that Klopp’s reluctance to replace him with 18-year-old Jayden Danns in the second half was baffling.

Nunez fired blanks again against Everton (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

And what about Salah, who turned 32 in June and started the final year of his contract a few weeks later? At Christmas it seemed a no-brainer to offer him an extension given his prolific attacking returns.

But since suffering a hamstring injury during the Africa Cup of Nations in January and collapsing again shortly after his comeback for Liverpool, he has been nowhere near his usual level. The Egyptian has scored just twice in his last seven games, both of which were penalties.

Like Nunez, he looks bereft of confidence and was wasteful against Everton.

The indefatigable Luis Diaz was the only Liverpool forward to bring any sustained threat as the renewed absence of Diogo Jota due to a hip problem and the late withdrawal of Cody Gakpo after his partner went into labor were keenly felt.

Liverpool’s front line clearly needs reinforcement this summer. The same goes for midfield and defence, with Joel Matip and Thiago expected to leave when their contracts expire at the end of the season. We’re talking three or four high-end additions rather than major changes.

It appears that Slot will be tasked with reviving the fortunes of Dominik Szoboszlai, who set the Premier League on fire in the first half of this debut season but has since lost his way. Center back Ibrahima Konate is another concern given his recent drop in form and the amount of football he misses. Jarell Quansah should definitely have started ahead of him at Goodison.

You can blame injuries on players returning to action and having no rhythm for what happened in the run-in as Liverpool look like such a fading force. You can also point the finger at mental and physical fatigue, given the lack of energy and dynamism.

Ibrahima Konate’s form has dipped (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps the pressure and emotion of Klopp’s retirement also played a role.

The manager has repeatedly highlighted the damage done to the mood by the two visits to Old Trafford in quick succession when his side felt inadequate following the cup defeat and 2-2 league draw. He has failed to come up with solutions to problems on either side of the field.

What you can not Klopp’s decision to go public with his decision to step down this summer is to blame.

For starters, Liverpool won nine of their next ten games, including the Carabao Cup final. And keeping it secret was simply not an option as the club began an extensive search for his successor. For starters, Klopp’s staff needed to know where they stood in terms of the future.

Rewind to last August and after such a turbulent summer, most Liverpool supporters would have happily accepted a season with a trophy and a top four finish. But after a flying start, expectations skyrocketed and as soon as Klopp made his intentions clear, winning the big trophies became an energy-consuming obsession.

Three weeks ago today, Liverpool beat Sheffield United 3-1 to move two points clear at the top of the table, with all three contenders still having eight games in hand. They were masters of their own destiny. That already feels like a lifetime ago, given the way the momentum has been squandered.

Whatever happens, Klopp’s legacy at Anfield is safe. He is the most transformative figure in the club’s history since Bill Shankly. He is still assured of the warmest send-off next month, but his remarkable reign seems destined to have a decidedly disappointing finale.

Slot has made it clear he wants the job as Liverpool try to agree a compensation package with Feyenoord. His attacking style, track record of developing young talent and feisty personality are all considered appropriate.

There are big boots to fill, but the latter stages of Klopp’s reign have also exposed some glaring weaknesses as one era ends and another begins.

(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

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