It will be difficult for Jurgen Klopp to know where to start as he tries to defuse his side’s defeat to Napoli on Wednesday night. Only on rare occasions – the 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa in 2020 comes to mind – Liverpool are exposed so ruthlessly and Klopp will know better than anyone that it could have been even worse.
At the half-time in Italy, the result was 3-0 for Napoli. What he doesn’t tell you, however, is that they could have easily been five: the Azzurri hit the post in the first minute of play, even missing a penalty.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the defeat for Liverpool was that it looked like a result was coming. Aside from the 9-0 win over Bournemouth, Klopp’s side have yet to rediscover the offensive fluidity and, above all, the defensive structure that defined their approach last season.
On this disastrous night, only Luis Diaz, the Liverpool goal scorer, could walk away with merit. As for the others, most notably James Milner, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, here’s where and why it went so badly:
There is no question of Milner’s importance to this team over the years, both as a leader and as an infinitely reliable and versatile player. But it seems increasingly clear that, at the age of 36, he is no longer able to consistently achieve the required levels.
This wasn’t a problem last season when Milner was used sparingly. This time around, however, Liverpool’s injury problems have resulted in the midfielder playing far more often than anyone would have liked.
The trip to Napoli marked Milner’s third departure in eight games this season. On the contrary, he has only started three of the last 13 games of last season. To further emphasize the point: Milner has played more minutes in his first eight games this season than his last 21 games last season.
Against Napoli, the sad reality for Milner is that he seemed to be his age. He was regularly invaded by the opposing midfield, where former Fulham geek Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa was dominant, and it was his bizarre handball that led to the Italian team’s initial penalty.
Milner, it must be said, was not helped by the ineffectiveness of Fabinho at his side. Fabinho is expected to be the Liverpool midfielder but he looked off pace and wasn’t sure of his positioning for most of the match. If Fabinho isn’t working properly, nothing else works like it should.
It was no surprise to see Joe Gomez replaced at half-time, as the 25-year-old had endured a night of terror and surprising incompetence in the heart of Liverpool’s defense. Telegraph columnist Jamie Carragher described it as “defensive chaos” for Liverpool and Gomez was pivotal in that, playing a detrimental role in two of Napoli’s three halftime goals.
For the second of Napoli, scored by Anguissa, Gomez remained inexplicably stationary while the midfielder simply passed behind him. Had it happened at the local soccer game, Gomez would have been quickly educated on the importance of keeping track of your runners. A basic mistake, punished instantly. It was a goal, Klopp later said, which was “served on the plate” at Napoli.
Unfortunately for Gomez, things soon got even worse. He appeared to have won possession over Napoli winger Khvicha Kvaratskelia, but was immediately pushed back into his own penalty area. From there it was a simple cross for Kvaratskhelia, who found Giovanni Simeone for an easy tap-in. A minute later, the half-time whistle ends Gomez’s night.
Even Alexander-Arnold cannot escape the blame for that second goal. The problems for Liverpool began when Kvaratskelia moved the ball around the outside of Liverpool’s right-back and passed him on the inside. Alexander-Arnold was slow to react, not even going into a sprint, and then stopped while Gomez failed.
Where was Alexander-Arnold’s defensive energy? Where was the hunger, the desire to stop an outside dribble and help his fellow defenders?
It seemed to the whole world like a remarkable show of disinterest, and it won’t help the Alexander-Arnold cause as he tries to respond to those critics who keep saying he struggles to defend himself in one-on-one situations. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, will be taking notes.
Virgil van Dijk
For so long there had been an air of impenetrability surrounding Liverpool’s defense. It comes largely from Van Dijk, who has an aura and presence that, in the recent past, seemed to scare attackers to even run towards him, let alone challenge him for a loose ball.
This season, however, that invincibility has been eroded. Van Dijk looked heavy and vulnerable, starting with the league season opener against Fulham, and the pattern continued on Wednesday night.
Against Fulham last month, Van Dijk was duped by Aleksandar Mitrovic and suffered a sloppy penalty. Against Napoli it happened again. This time it was Victor Osimhen who caused problems, cutting the Liverpool defender at a fast pace. Van Dijk put one foot on Osimhen, then hit the heel of the Napoli striker with the other.
It meant that after a streak of 150 games without taking a penalty for Liverpool, Van Dijk has now suffered two in his last seven appearances. It is a sudden and alarming decline, which must be reversed if Liverpool are to regain his solidity.