Liverpool’s ‘Last Dance’ has disintegrated but succeeding Klopp looks less daunting now

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Liverpool’s ‘Last Dance’ has disintegrated but succeeding Klopp looks less daunting now

The impossible job no longer looks quite as daunting.

Barring a miraculous turn of events, Arne Slot, the man identified by Liverpool as the perfect successor to Jurgen Klopp, won’t be taking over the Premier League champions.

Instead the current Feyenoord manager looks set to inherit a squad who are limping towards the consolation prize of Champions League qualification to accompany their Carabao Cup triumph. The issues are glaring and the room for improvement is sizeable.

In the space of a grim six weeks Klopp has gone from potentially signing off with an unprecedented quadruple to his farewell tour quickly unravelling. It started with a self-inflicted defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup. Then came the error-strewn Europa League exit at the hands of Atalanta.

Now their title challenge lies in ruins after taking just four points out of the last 12 on offer against Crystal Palace, Fulham and now Everton. This was not how it was supposed to end.

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

At Goodison Park on Wednesday night they fell flat on their faces. The Merseyside derby has given Klopp so many memories to cherish during his reign. He once had to shell out £8,000 to the Football Association for deciding to celebrate a dramatic late winner from Divock Origi by manically running into the centre circle to embrace Alisson.

Klopp had lost just one of his first 18 meetings with Everton, and no fans were there to see it as it took place behind closed doors at Anfield during the pandemic. But his last taste of this fixture provided one of the most gut-wrenching lows of his tenure.

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

Back then a beleaguered Roy Hodgson fielded a line up including Paul Konchesky, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Joe Cole. The failings were grimly predictable with the club in chaos.

This was very different. This was Liverpool in title contention in the final month of the campaign and seeking to crank up the pressure on Arsenal and Manchester City after Sunday’s morale-boosting win at Craven Cottage. What they produced against relegation-threatened opposition was pitiful. The array of empty seats in the away end when the final whistle sounded was both stark and understandable.

“I think everyone has to ask if they really gave everything and do they really want to win the league?” said captain Virgil van Dijk, who bemoaned them “not winning challenges” and wasting chances “we should have scored from”.

Rather than unleashing a flurry of fist pumps, there was an apology from a downbeat Klopp to the supporters for the paucity of what had been served up. So vulnerable at one end, so toothless at the other.

Jurgen Klopp was in downbeat mood (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

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

Their firepower has enabled Klopp’s side to dig themselves out of numerous holes when they have fallen behind this season but that ability has waned with Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah hopelessly out of form.

If, as expected, Slot takes over, he has some big decisions to make alongside new sporting director Richard Hughes.

Is Nunez really the No 9 capable of taking Liverpool where they want to be? The Uruguayan’s return of 18 goals and 13 assists in all competitions this season is on the face of it respectable.

But when the stakes have been raised he’s failed to deliver at the business end of the season – firing blanks in eight of his last nine appearances. Nunez turns 25 in June, he isn’t a kid but the rough edges and erratic displays remain there for all to see. So many chances have been snatched at and squandered by him.

Nunez was so ineffective against Everton that Klopp’s reluctance to replace him with young striker Jayden Danns in the second half was baffling.

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

And what about Salah, who will enter the final year of his contract this summer? At Christmas, offering him an extension looked like a no-brainer given his prolific return.

But since suffering a hamstring injury at the Africa Cup of Nations and then breaking down again shortly after making his comeback for Liverpool, he has been nowhere near his usual levels. The Egyptian, who turns 32 in June, has only scored twice in his last seven outings – both penalties. Like Nunez, he looks bereft of confidence and was wasteful against Everton.

The tireless Luis Diaz was the only Liverpool attacker to carry any kind of sustained threat as the absence of Diogo Jota due to a hip problem and the late withdrawal of Cody Gakpo after his partner went into labour was keenly felt.

Liverpool’s frontline clearly needs reinforcing this summer. The same is true of the midfield and defence with Joel Matip and Thiago expected to depart when their contracts expire. We’re talking about three or four high quality additions rather than sweeping changes.

It looks like Slot will be entrusted with trying to revive the fortunes of Dominic Szoboszlai, who lit up the Premier League in the first half of the season but has lost his way since. Centre-back Ibrahima Konate is another concern given his recent downturn in form and the amount of football he misses. Jarell Quansah should certainly have started ahead of him at Goodison.

You can blame injuries or players returning to action lacking rhythm for what’s transpired during the run-in as Liverpool resemble such a fading force. You can also point a finger at mental and physical fatigue given the absence of energy and dynamism.

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

Maybe the pressure and the emotion of Klopp’s farewell has played a part too. The manager has repeatedly referenced the damage done to the mood by the two visits to Old Trafford in quick succession when his side came away feeling short-changed. He hasn’t been able to come up with the solutions to problems at both ends of the field.

What you can’t blame is Klopp’s decision to go public with his decision to step down in late January. For a start, Liverpool won nine of their next 10 matches. And keeping it secret simply wasn’t an option as Liverpool embarked on an extensive search for his successor. For one thing, 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 gleefully accepted a season a trophy and a top-four finish. But expectation levels rocketed after a flying start and once Klopp made his intentions clear, landing the big prize became an energy-sapping obsession.

Three weeks ago Liverpool beat Sheffield United 3-1 to move two points clear of their rivals with eight games to go. They were masters of their own destiny. It feels like a lifetime ago given how momentum has been squandered since.

Whatever happens, Klopp’s Anfield legacy is secure. He’s been the most transformative figure in the club’s history since Bill Shankly. He’s still guaranteed the warmest of send-offs next month, but his remarkable era seems destined to have a decidedly underwhelming finale.

Slot has made it clear he wants the job as Liverpool seek to agree a compensation package with Feyenoord. His attacking style, a track record of developing young talent and punchy personality are all deemed to fit the bill.

There are big boots to fill but the final stages of Klopp’s reign has also exposed some glaring frailties as one era ends and another one begins.

(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)