Lackluster Liverpool's escape against Leeds may be a warning sign

Last season, it took nine games for Liverpool to spill its first Premier League points. It took 18 more games to lose points for a second time as the Reds rampaged to the title.

This season, one game was very nearly all that was needed for Liverpool to stumble. The Reds barely escaped Saturday’s madcap 4-3 victory — with four disallowed goals, two for each side — over a newly-promoted and utterly scintillating Leeds United. It was a bout between the current Premier League champions and a team that had reached the Champions League semifinals in 2001, only to be relegated to the Championship in 2004 and the third-tier League 1 in 2007.

On paper, you would expect the champions to steamroll a newly promoted team. But Leeds is managed by Marcelo “El Loco” Bielsa. The Madman. For his eccentricities. For his tactical genius that’s inspired a generation of elite coaches like Pep Guardiola. For his habit of quitting jobs within months or even days. For doing things like rearranging the Leeds parking lot. For working something bordering on magic with previously pedestrian teams. For figuring out a gameplan against one of the sport’s best teams that made a bunch of Premier League debutants instantly competitive.

His counterpart on Saturday, Jurgen Klopp, has a job on his hands that couldn’t be more different from Bielsa’s, which is staying out of the three bottom places in the league. Klopp has to keep his team atop its perch atop the table. And that’s just as difficult.

Jurgen Klopp (left), Mohamed Salah and Liverpool beat Leeds on Saturday. But was the close call a sign of troubles to come? (Photo by SHAUN BOTTERILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Jurgen Klopp (left), Mohamed Salah and Liverpool beat Leeds on Saturday. But was the close call a sign of troubles to come? (Photo by SHAUN BOTTERILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Sometimes, the trick to doing so isn’t to keep the squad’s core together, but rather to break it up. There is danger in allowing a team to be taken apart too soon. There is equivalent peril in letting it stay together for too long. With the same faces, year after year, it all becomes a bit routine, a little stale. Complacency sets in.

When that point is, exactly, depends on the team, and it takes an exceptionally deft manager to know when to demolish a team he crafted so carefully and rebuild it. Sir Alex Ferguson was a master at it with Manchester United. The ongoing chaos at Barcelona demonstrates what can go wrong when a core is kept intact for too long, or the plan for its replenishing goes wrong, at any rate.

Now that same task falls to Klopp, after reaching the Champions League final twice and winning the club’s first Premier League title in 30 years in the last three seasons.

The defending champions have been together a long time. Of the starters for Saturday’s season-opening letdown against Leeds, nine had been at the club since at least the 2017-18 season. The other two, Naby Keita and goalkeeper Alisson Becker, joined the following year. In that time, there has been little by way of fresh blood. So far this season, the sole reinforcement is Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiakos, to offer some cover at left back.

In soccer, that little turnover is unusual. To be together that long, unchanged, is an eon.

Klopp is betting that he can coax more from his team, that he can keep things fresh without introducing fresh faces. And when you consider that captain Jordan Henderson is his oldest regular, having only turned 30 in June, there shouldn’t be anything precluding more success on account of his squad’s physical wellbeing. His players are, without exception, in their prime playing years.

It will all boil down to the psychology. To the mentality.

“We will not defend the title, we will attack it,” Klopp has said on several occasions.

“People will be afraid that these boys will get lazy but it’s just not in their nature,” he added, per The Athletic. “We will not stop. This team will not stop wanting it. I think there is a lot to come.”

As Klopp sees it, his Reds aren’t at the end of a cycle but in the middle of it.

This season will have to bear that out. Was last spring’s early Champions League exit a portent? Or what about the fact that Liverpool went an uncharacteristic 5-2-2 after the restart this summer, nothing like its blistering form before the pandemic layoff? Was that perhaps a sign of the rot setting in?

There’s no telling from the evidence of Saturday’s single game, a splendid affair with an insurgent side high on its return to the top level and the ideas from a tactical genius. Liverpool looked hungry enough, certainly, hounding Leeds early on and earning a penalty just three minutes in, when Mohamed Salah’s shot struck Robert Koch’s outstretched arm. It was the first goal of Salah’s three.

But the game wasn’t decided until the final minutes. Leeds’ record-shattering signing Rodrigo, newly arrived from Valencia, made a dumb foul on Fabinho in his own box, allowing Salah to finish his hat trick from the same place he started it, the penalty spot.

For Liverpool, it was uncomfortable. To Leeds, it was disappointing. Disappointing to have gotten within a few minutes of taking a point from the defending champions, from the European champions of two seasons ago. From a Liverpool that might have become vulnerable.

Or maybe it hasn’t. That is for Klopp to suss out.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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