LEICESTER, England — There is a reason why Jurgen Klopp regretted publicly doubting Liverpool‘s confidence: it is completely shot. Nothing else can adequately explain the seven-minute capitulation against Leicester City that saw the Reds surrender a 1-0 lead to lose 3-1 at the King Power Stadium and leave them facing a major fight to finish in the top four.
Klopp once labelled his team “mentality monsters.” They left the Leicester pitch on Saturday as tortured souls, with the Liverpool boss pausing briefly in his postmatch news conference before answering whether he was conceding defeat in the Premier League title race.
“Yes, I can’t believe it but yes,” he said, looking utterly crestfallen, with his team now 10 points behind leaders Manchester City having played two games more.
Leicester enhanced their own credentials for Champions League qualification with another impressive display, despite missing three of their first-choice back four. They must be considered strong candidates given this was no fluke, adding to wins against Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal this term. But, in a sense, that was what made Liverpool’s collapse all the more astounding.
For 78 minutes, they were the better team. Leicester had threatened on the counter-attack essentially on almost any occasion they could get Jamie Vardy into the game, but Liverpool pressed the home side superbly throughout, dominated the ball and were in a degree of control.
They scored a sumptuous goal, too. Youri Tielemans under-hit a cross-field pass that Trent Alexander-Arnold intercepted. The Liverpool full-back drove forward and found Roberto Firmino in the box. His sublime double drag-back evaded Wilfred Ndidi and set up Mohamed Salah in one fluid motion and the Egyptian curled a fine shot past Kasper Schmeichel. It was a goal oozing with the mixture of arrogance and class that has often permeated Klopp’s team at their best, making what followed an even starker contrast.
Leicester had a penalty overturned when VAR adjudged Thiago’s tackle on Harvey Barnes to be outside the box. James Maddison delivered the resulting free-kick, which Daniel Amartey poked into the net, a goal that survived another lengthy VAR check.
On a bitterly cold afternoon, Liverpool then froze. A hopeful ball forward from Tielemans caused panic at the back as centre-back Ozan Kabak, making his debut after joining the club from Schalke on an initial six-month loan, tried to hook the ball clear. Little did he know that goalkeeper Alisson was rushing 30 yards out of his goal to try to clear it as well. The pair collided and the loose ball fell to Vardy, who ran the ball into the empty net and scampered off to celebrate, plucking the corner flag from the turf and playing it like a guitar.
There was time for an encore as Barnes raced clear to slot home a third, leaving Klopp apoplectic on the touchline and short of an explanation for a stunning spell that began with a degree of controversy.
“I was sure [the first goal] was offside,” Klopp said. “Accepting something like this with a smile or ‘OK, it might have been a mistake’ is not easy.
“So in our situation, for sure not. We worked really hard for being 1-0 up and then it’s gone with a really tough decision, especially for Ali who had three players in front of him. That’s not a problem. The 2-1 had nothing to do with it.
“The 2-1 can happen, but when we conceded and the manner we conceded, that was a knock. The reaction for that I didn’t like. The reaction after the equaliser, I don’t know exactly because it was too quick. It was a long ball kicked up front and we made it dangerous ourselves.”
There was a reluctance to unduly criticise Alisson after his mistakes in last weekend’s 4-1 loss against Manchester City, given how consistent the Brazil international’s performances had previously been. But he was unduly rash here, even if Klopp sought to highlight Kabak’s lack of time on the training ground with his new teammates.
“Before the game, we all knew Ozan is a really good player and after the game we know that as well, but before the game we also knew he is not really used to all the things we usually do,” Klopp said. “If he’d played with Ali, he would know he is quite offensive-minded and comes out of his goal and this situation was a misunderstanding. When you are new together, usually these things happen in preseason but we don’t have that.”
To underline Liverpool’s defensive issues, Kabak was the seventh player to play as a centre-back in the league this season after Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams.
But Liverpool’s problems run deeper, having morphed from physical issues to mental ones. The Alisson error was an abdication of the assurance with which he — and Liverpool — have played for the last couple of years. Rediscovering that poise is Klopp’s biggest challenge now as the damage inflicted gets worse.
“The only way out of the situation is to play good football, fight and work hard,” he said. “We have to and we will get the results and see where we end up. The situation is not easy, that’s clear, but it is our situation and as always with your situation, you have to solve it yourself. That is what we will do.”