Sky Sports News' senior reporter Melissa Reddy takes a look at the factors behind the scenes at Liverpool that are contributing to the Reds' slump; "There has been a steady 'brain drain,' categorising Liverpool not just as a team in transition but a club in one"
Tuesday 21 February 2023 23:34, UK
Sky Sports News' senior reporter Melissa Reddy analyses how the departure of key figures has left them as a club in transition.
"We've created a situation where I can have all the best information from the best people."
As Jurgen Klopp reclined in Hope Street Hotel's Sixth Boardroom, the same spot in which he penned his contract to become Liverpool manager in 2015, he was coloured by calmness.
It was approaching the German's third anniversary in charge of the club with no silverware to show for it with Liverpool beaten finalists in the 2016 League Cup and Europa League, plus the 2018 Champions League.
Klopp, though, was unruffled. He had unwavering belief that the right people and processes were in place off the pitch to ensure success would follow on it.
His zen was warranted. Liverpool would soon scale unprecedented heights, becoming the first British team to hold the European Cup, European Super Cup, Club World Cup and league titles simultaneously.
Along with Manchester City, they redesigned what is required to be crowned champions of England. On the continent, they were the team to avoid.
Liverpool did indeed have smarts off-pitch sparking their swagger on it; chiefly Klopp, FSG president Mike Gordon, and sporting director Michael Edwards.
Only the manager remains of the 'three wise men' and when analysing what has gone wrong at Anfield - the side have already lost seven times in the league, are 11 points adrift of the top four, out of both domestic cup competitions, and are at odds with their identity - it helps to start at the top.
The Klopp-Edwards-Gordon trinity worked superbly in a professional as well as personal capacity. All vastly different characters, they were aligned by a collaborative, honest approach under a shared vision for what Liverpool should be and how to sustainably compete.
Klopp and Edwards would casually discuss prospective players, potential new staff, football infrastructure improvements and other significant matters over breakfast or lunch in the canteen at the training ground, before working through a more detailed analysis.
They would present their vision to Gordon, who provided the finances and whatever other support was necessary, like when he intervened to rehabilitate relations with Southampton in order to land Virgil van Dijk.
The partnership between Klopp, Edwards and Gordon was unassailable, promoting a sense of authority, surety and harmony to decision-making at Liverpool.
In November 2021, Edwards confirmed he would step down from his position following the end of his contract in June 2022 to spend some time away from the game.
This season, Gordon ceded his day-to-day running of the club in order to focus on Fenway Sports Group's bid for investment into - or the outright sale of - Liverpool.
Two of the three most important men in ensuring the club's success are no longer in situ, but that is just the upper layer of the story.
The disruption is deeper still. When the news of Edwards' exit was announced, Liverpool flagged "continuity and a well-managed transition period" in appointing Julian Ward as successor.
But he handed in his resignation in November, leaves at the end of the season, and will have only been in the post for a year.
Worryingly, Ian Graham, the esteemed director of research widely regarded as the best in the field, is also exiting Liverpool.
It has been said the pair "no longer feel empowered to do their jobs to the best of their ability."
On the eve of the season, club doctor Jim Moxon departed without explanation amid growing friction within the medical sphere between the physiotherapists and sports scientists.
In 2020, Philipp Jacobsen vacated his post as head of performance. It was his duty to align the department and create a singular way of working but he found it near impossible.
There is large sentiment at the training complex that Andreas Kornmayer, head of fitness and conditioning and one of Klopp's most trusted figures, wields too much influence and is hard to work with.
There has been a steady 'brain drain', categorising Liverpool not just as a team in transition but a club in one.
The counter to that is the distance he has been able to extract from players in previous campaigns and the respect he commands.
The turnover in the medical department and beyond is, whichever way you slice it, high.
Liverpool have also seen some staff pinched that were part of a proven, watertight process like Harrison Kingston, who left to become director of performance analysis and framework for the Moroccan Football Federation, and Mark Leyland, who is currently first-team coach analyst at Newcastle.
There has been a steady "brain drain," categorising Liverpool not just as a team in transition but a club in one.
"There is a lot of focus on not refreshing the playing squad enough, which is correct but it is true behind the scenes too," said an employee.
"A lot of key people have left, some have gained too much power. There's less faith in the decisions now."
Is there still trust in the process?
In the Klopp era, Liverpool have preached the maxim that what you see on the pitch is a product of what goes on off it. Does an erosion of playing identity therefore also point to a break in process or a betrayal of it altogether?
When the decision-making was optimal - guided by clear parameters, influenced by data intelligence, and collectively bought in to - Liverpool floated between being the best or second best team in Europe.
They bought surgically, factoring in a player's age, scalable output, availability, propensity to carry out the demands of Klopp's style psychically and mentally.
Selling was elite - bettered only by Chelsea who had turned it into a profit-making machine under Roman Abramovich.
Forward planning was at such an advanced level and aligned that Liverpool's academy spent three months rigorously transforming Trent Alexander-Arnold into a right-back having mapped out that it was the closest route for him to crack into the first team.
The methodology worked to such a supreme state that it was copied across the continent. Then, it stopped or slumped or switched depending on who you listen to at Liverpool.
The current circumstances are predicated by a crucial period between 2019 to 2021. Before Liverpool lifted the Champions League in Madrid, after registering 97 points to finish just behind City in the top flight, they prioritised a policy of retention to keep their spine intact.
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Jordan Henderson and Joe Gomez had inked extensions in 2018. Andy Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Divock Origi, Joel Matip and James Milner would follow the next annum.
"The new contracts and keeping these boys here is a strong, strong signal for the outside world," Klopp would say. "It's a wonderful sign, to be honest. I like the fact that these boys are really at a good football age."
The strategy made sense at the time as the core of the team were, as the manager outlined, at the perfect stage in their careers to go further still. They were not stretched or spent and, importantly, there was the tactic to gradually refresh while keeping reserves for a certified game-changer.
But fast forward to June 2021 and Liverpool were still underscoring the retention is king line. The only players that had been added to the squad as regular starters at that point were Thiago and Diogo Jota, while Harvey Elliott was a promising kid with a high ceiling.
Ibrahima Konate was recruited a month later as the sole significant investment that summer.
Liverpool were already in a position where the spine had two more years of relentless football - at the highest intensity possible - in their legs and minds. The "good football age" was slowly being bypassed.
The club did not want to over commit with regards to contract length and a substantial increase in pay to older members of the squad, hence allowing Gini Wijnaldum to leave on a free.
However, Henderson, Fabinho, Alisson, Robertson and Van Dijk were tied into lucrative long-term deals that would require them to still perform full-throttle football on the wrong side of 30 after seasons of going all in.
Rewarding important players and protecting their values is a normal, healthy process but there was not complete agreement with the timing and the length of some of the renewals.
A big problem was the core not being sufficiently supplemented and the squad - plus wage bill - properly trimmed.
Fingers were pointed squarely at the Covid-depressed market, but clubs with tighter resources navigated incomings and outgoings better.
There had been the feeling that without the pandemic, one big sale would have funded weighty rejuvenation like Philippe Coutinho's £142m transfer to Barcelona had done.
Barca and Real Madrid had been circling Mane and Salah but the latter plumped for Eden Hazard and both clubs stitched themselves in financial shambles.
Paris Saint-Germain, another monied suitor, were focused on different priorities, namely Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi.
There were no sizeable bids, but worse, hardship in shifting fringe players off the books.
Those years between 2019 and 2021 saw Liverpool stun on the pitch but set up a steady walk into the danger zone with eyes wide open. It has been exacerbated since.
The only established midfielder permanently bought by the club since August 2018 has been the pedigreed Thiago, whose injury issues were common knowledge, in September 2020.
Despite the department carrying other players prone to spells out like Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, tiring legs in James Milner and Henderson, as well as raw youngsters, it was repeatedly neglected.
This has been put down to waiting on the right players, the paramount one being Jude Bellingham.
As brilliant as the England international is, he is not enough and his future is not guaranteed with City and Real Madrid also invested in his signature.
Liverpool need intense surgery in midfield - at a period when silly money is at play - with Milner, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain out of contract while Fabinho and Henderson are hideously off form.
The centre of the park is being propped up by 18-year-old Stefan Bajcetic. How Arthur Melo, with his own archive of injury problems, was seen as a solution on loan is anyone's guess.
Up front, the club allowed Mane to chase a new challenge with Bayern Munich last summer and made Salah the highest-paid player in the club's history.
It had long been established that regenerating the front three that bulldozed Liverpool to success would prove enormously challenging.
Luis Diaz acclimatised excellently prior to his knee injury, while Darwin Nunes has been an agent of chaos.
The recruitment of Cody Gakpo is intriguing as he was not of interest last summer, when he was on the verge of joining Leeds on deadline day and counted as an alternative forward target for Manchester United.
The Netherlands international, who had a fine World Cup, has been sketched as a Firmino replacement but the Brazil international, 31, is close to agreeing a new deal in a move that can be filed as suboptimal along with designs of retaining Milner.
Multiple sources have credited Gakpo and Nunez as signings led by the coaching staff.
Over the past year, Liverpool have spent £180m on their attack in an expensive dynamic shift that they hope will supply long-term gain.
Most curious has been seeing Salah diverted away from his role as the main threat and isolated in wide areas with a severe reduction in shot volume.
Salah has not stopped being Salah, the system no longer allows him to be.
Having been the smart guys, some of Liverpool's decisions are proper head scratchers.
The team that went so close to a quadruple are unrecognisable. The defence has let in 28 goals - more than the entirety of 2018-19 and 2021-22 campaigns.
An in-depth look at Liverpool's damning statistics at the end of January showed that their big chance conversion per game is their lowest ratio since 2015-16.
Physical and mental fatigue has played its part, but the scale of injury issues - particularly hamstring setbacks - is alarming.
Liverpool need to remedy the ills in the medical department and the "fires" that exist elsewhere between the coaching-performance-recruitment divisions.
The suggestions that Klopp and his assistant Pep Lijnders have absorbed greater power will not abate, but it is unequivocal the German retains the backing of the dressing room and staff.
The absence of private and public briefings against him illustrate as much. Liverpool know how much is owed to Klopp, the obstacles that could not have been scaled without him, and the dreams that would have remained just that.
That the 55-year-old still has the stomach for and is fronting this fight amid all the upheaval at the club speaks volumes.
FSG are seeking investment or an outright buyer for Liverpool because the club cannot compete with state-powered teams nor the financial flamboyance of Chelsea.
Revenues are strong and they finished above United in the Deloitte Football Money League for the first time in the publication's 26-year history, but the ante has been upped in the arms race.
Klopp has flipped the finger to logic before with the help of top thinkers and built a winning machine underpinned by effective strategy.
This season will bring much pain and there needs to be clever, comprehensive investment but Liverpool have to return to who and what they were: an example on and off the pitch.