At Liverpool, a Red Alert

Every year, in December, the BBC devotes an evening of programming to one of Britain’s longest-running broadcasting traditions. The Sports Personality of the Year Award was first presented in 1954; almost seven decades later, it is still going strong, a fixture in the country’s sporting consciousness.

In an era when votes are no longer sent by postcard, it is possible to feel there is something a little quaint about the award. The criteria are pleasingly opaque: Last year, England striker Beth Mead beat out the cricket superstar Ben Stokes and Eve Muirhead, the skip of Britain’s Olympic curling team. Quite how their achievements should be compared is unclear.

Still, the award’s existence is harmless, even kind of sweet. It is a chance, after all, to give athletes who devote years to their craft a celebration they deserve. More of a problem is the cultural gravity it exerts: In the months before the ceremony, there is a tendency to present any sporting success solely in the light of how it might affect the award’s destination.

Lewis Hamilton winning the Formula 1 world championship, or Emma Raducanu the U.S. Open, or a British cyclist the Tour de France: Does this mean they are the favorite to be sports personality of the year? The actual sports themselves are reduced to nothing more than qualifiers.

There have been times this season when the race to sign Jude Bellingham has taken on a similar air. The campaigns of the soccer clubs with designs on Bellingham, the Borussia Dortmund midfielder, have frequently been treated not as attempts to win trophies or to qualify for the Champions League, but instead as auditions to serve as the 19-year-old’s new home.

A few months ago, there would have been little to choose among the three prime contenders. Real Madrid offers glamour, Luka Modric and an enviable supply of Champions League trophies. Manchester City has unrivaled wealth, Pep Guardiola and four Premier League titles in five years. Liverpool had Jürgen Klopp and the memory of Steven Gerrard and had picked up every major honor available since 2019.

Jürgen Klopp’s wry smile is easier to spot in the stands than on his face these days.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters

This season, though, has changed the terms of the equation considerably. Real Madrid and Man City have continued to sail as smoothly as ever, of course, but Liverpool has collapsed. Klopp’s team has lost more Premier League games this season than in 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2021-22 combined. It has won only three times away from home.

It left the Champions League with a whimper against Real Madrid, and its hopes of returning to the competition at all are diminishing. Liverpool currently sits sixth, seven points adrift of Tottenham in the final qualifying slot. The good news is that the next week brings three games to try to reduce that gap. The bad news? They are against City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

A variety of factors have been identified as contributing to Liverpool’s rapid, unforeseen decline — fatigue, injury, predictability, the remorseless march of time — but the way it has manifested defies simple diagnosis.

It has made a good sound bite to point the finger at the defense, or the midfield, or for some reason just at Trent Alexander-Arnold, but the truth is that the system that led Liverpool to three Champions League finals in five years, as well as its first Premier League crown in three decades, was complex, interwoven.

When one aspect of the team sneezes, the rest of it catches cold: Liverpool’s defense looks vulnerable because its midfield has stopped functioning. But its midfield is suffering because the attack is not pressing as effectively. Just as it once worked in flowing concert, Klopp’s team has ground to a halt in unison, and whatever he has tried in an attempt to jump-start it has failed.

The difference-maker: Jude Bellingham.Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

The solution, to many, is apparent. Liverpool has spent much of the season being told that it needs to overhaul its squad. Most urgently, it needs to reinforce its aging midfield. To that end, it is monitoring Mason Mount’s contract talks with Chelsea. The club also has a longstanding interest in Matheus Nunes, the Wolves and Portugal player.

Universally, though, it is common consensus that the key is Bellingham. Liverpool’s need to win the race for his transfer, likely to cost in excess of $130 million, has increased in inverse proportion to its chances of doing so.

This is, in truth, an oversimplification. Partly, that is because the idea that teams can be “rebuilt” in short order is a myth. Neither Alex Ferguson nor Arsène Wenger, the only two coaches in recent English history to be credited with fashioning more than one great team, changed everything overnight. They committed to evolution, not revolution. Whatever form the new Liverpool takes, Klopp’s repurposed team will most likely include seven or eight players who are already at Anfield.

But more significant is that just as Liverpool’s entropy cannot be traced to a single isolated factor, nor can it be addressed by signing one player or strengthening one area of the squad.

Under Klopp’s aegis, the club has been able to outmuscle the bulk of its rivals — including those, like Chelsea and Manchester United, blessed with greater financial resources — and keep pace with Manchester City because of an accumulation of edges.

Liverpool fans no longer recognize the team Klopp built into a champion.Credit…Peter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock

Liverpool had a smarter data department. It spent money, particularly on salaries, but it made every dollar count. It thought more about nutrition, throw-ins and the psychology of penalty shootouts. It combined them all under a coach who had a clear sense of how he wanted to play, who knew what sort of players he needed, and what he needed them to be able to do.

Slowly, then suddenly, those edges have been dulled. Liverpool’s rivals, domestic and international, have sought to nullify every marginal gain the club made. In some areas, it is doubtless still a market leader, but the composite advantage is much smaller. Plenty of teams have sharpened their recruitment strategies, or invested in data, or started to take more care over the minute details of the game. (And where they have not, in certain cases money has made up the difference.)

At the same time, Liverpool’s sense of clarity has become muddied. The image of Klopp as a “heavy metal” coach — a phrase he must, surely, now regret — has been outdated for some time. He has sought to turn Liverpool into a more controlled, more assured, sort of a team. The result, at times, has been a team caught between two stools, determined to move on from what it was but not yet sure of what it is supposed to become.

As talented as Bellingham is, he cannot address those issues, not on his own. What made Liverpool competitive was not just the talent within its team; it was the way the club had put that squad together, how it asked it to play, the cumulative impact of all those imperceptible steps it had taken to provide the best platform for them to succeed.

Given the competition, a parade of all that it has achieved under Klopp, all that it has already done, would not be enough to make Liverpool more appealing to Bellingham than Manchester City or Real Madrid. If it is to secure the player around which it intends to build its future, it needs to persuade him that it knows what comes next.

The Demise of the Machines

There is always something heartening about seeing a player enjoying a sudden flourish, granted belated recognition after a career spent toiling away from the spotlight. It acts as a reminder that talent is not always a gift. It can be a reward, too.

Joselu, certainly, fits that particular bill. He is 33 now, having spent the last decade or so as an industrious, faintly unspectacular forward for a variety of teams that might fairly be described as “midtable.” Last week, though, long after he might have abandoned hope of representing his country, he was called up to Spain’s national team.

On form, his appearances against Norway and Scotland in the first round of qualifiers should not have been controversial: Joselu has scored 12 goals in 22 games for a struggling Espanyol team this season. He got his chance with Spain not because of an unexpected romantic streak in Luis de la Fuente, the country’s newly installed coach. He has done enough to deserve it.

Joselu made his debut for Spain last week, days before he turned 33.Credit…Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

That does not necessarily mean it is a feel-good story for Spanish soccer, though. The team de la Fuente selected against Scotland — a game that resulted in just Spain’s third defeat in a qualifier in nearly two decades — also included David García, an equally unheralded 29-year-old defender. A 35-year-old, Iago Aspas, came off the bench. It is not to diminish Scotland’s achievement to suggest this was not a vintage Spain squad.

The same could be said of Germany — its attack led by another late bloomer, Niclas Füllkrug, and duly beaten at home by Belgium — and Italy, which has had to scour Argentina to find its latest striker, the 23-year-old Tigre forward Mateo Retegui. Three of Europe’s great powers, all of a sudden, have found that their player pools are a little thin.

In Italy’s case, that is nothing new: The country has long struggled to produce young players, largely because Serie A’s teams tend to believe that anyone who has not seen his 30th birthday is still an infant.

It is not long, though, since Spain and Germany seemed to have established smooth, reliable production lines of talent. Both countries were praised, effectively, for having industrialized youth production. Now both find themselves increasingly stocking their squads — if not their first teams — with players like Joselu, Aspas and Füllkrug: the kind of journeymen they were supposed to have moved beyond.

There is no immediate explanation for why that might be. Perhaps there is a roadblock on giving young players a chance. Perhaps their domestic leagues are too reliant on imports. Perhaps their lauded academies churn out identikit players, leaving gaps elsewhere. (The likelihood is that, combined with a bit of random chance, it is a blend of all three.)

The consequences are a little clearer. Three of the continent’s traditional powers are not quite what they used to be. That has an impact not only on their traditional peers — England and France, in particular — but on smaller nations, like Scotland, that might suddenly find a little room to breathe now that the shadows of the giants have receded just a little.

The Greatest Adventure

Hervé Renard: the right man for France’s Women’s World Cup moment?Credit…Molly Darlington/Reuters

Hervé Renard is one of those figures only the less conspicuous corners of international soccer can produce. He wears his shirts perfectly pressed, bright white, and often slashed almost to the waist. His hair is long, his face tan, and he has a tendency to pop up in unexpected places: Zambia, Ivory Coast, Saudi Arabia. He is essentially the adjective “swashbuckling” in human form.

He is also, as it happens, good at what he does. He turned first Zambia and then Ivory Coast into champions of Africa. He guided Morocco to the 2018 World Cup. He was last seen steering a dynamic, enthralling Saudi side to a victory against Argentina that ranks as one of the most eye-catching results in men’s World Cup history.

His newest job is of a different order. Renard this week was confirmed as the successor to the perennially unpopular Corinne Diacre as coach of France’s women’s national team. On the surface, his task is an onerous one. First, he must persuade the swath of players alienated by his predecessor to return to the international fold. Then he has to craft a side coherent enough to challenge the best teams in the world. He has three and a half months, give or take, to do it.

The potential prize, though, is worth it. France is home to two of the finest women’s club teams in the world. In Grace Geyoro, Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani — not to mention Amandine Henry, Wendie Renard and the twins Delphine and Estelle Cascarino — he now has, at least in theory, some of the best players on the planet at his disposal.

If Renard, the coach, can repair the country’s shattered team spirit, if he can forge all of that talent into a cogent unit, if he can succeed where Diacre consistently failed and provide a platform for his players to fulfill their potential, then there is nothing to stop France’s rivaling England and the United States and Germany as genuine contenders for the World Cup. Renard has spent his career traversing the globe in search of a challenge. He may have found the adventure that might seal his legacy at home.

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