Every serious team should really go to Napoli once a season. Consider it a boot camp for title challengers, or a penitential Lough Derg to purge the celebrations of the previous season.
[timgcap=Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp watches his players during the Champions League Group E soccer match between Napoli and Liverpool, at the San Paolo stadium in Naples, Italy, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia).]JurgenKloppSep182019ChampionsLeague_large.jpg[/timgca;p]
It’s become an annual pilgrimage for Liverpool now, down to southern Italy to get a good, tough examination of what they are about. Liverpool lost in the Stadio San Paolo, as they did on their visit last season, but they were much better this time.
They matched up to Napoli physically, on another day would have had a hatful of goals and lost mainly due to one of those dangly-leg penalty decisions that get pulled apart afterwards in tedious, slow-motion JFK The Movie style. Back and to the left!
So Jurgen Klopp won’t be too worried. Last season’s Neapolitan ravaging did them no harm in the long run as they marched on to Champions League glory and, of course, The 97 Points.
But he might be a little miffed that the latest stage in his evolution of this Liverpool team has hit its first speedbump. Klopp’s Liverpool have entered a third phase in their development, or to put it in terms appropriate to the originator of heavy metal football, their third album.
The first one was the band finding their feet, showing obvious promise in their joyful clanging despite the odd tuneless Alberto Moreno solo.Second time around they were tighter, full of raw energy and outsider attitude.
Now they’ve gone mainstream. You can’t be the angry young men when you’ve bagged the Champions League trophy. It’s the equivalent of a Malibu beach house and supermodel wife.
So, Liverpool this season have been all about puffing their chests out and embracing their superstar status, expanding their sound for the bigger arenas. There has been a strut to their early Premier League form, businesslike mostly, dazzling when required.
Five wins out of five with minimal fuss looks all the more impressive given Manchester City’s need for an early defensive pitstop.
Naples on Tuesday was supposed to be another milestone, a chance to re-assert themselves as the alpha-males of the continental herd. They put out a strong team, got stuck in, but were foiled by bad finishing, the tactical wiles of Carlo Ancelotti, and an iffy penalty. No matter.
Napoli showed up how Liverpool can be got at by attacking behind their advanced full-backs, but Klopp would have been well aware of that and anyway, no harm to have it pointed out again at this benign point in the season.
The Liverpool manager might even be glad in some small way that his team trudged back to the unfinished San Paolo dressing rooms in defeat once again. Every time Klopp has opened his mouth this season has been to discourage his team from resting on the glory of that muggy night in Madrid.
He has called on them to be ‘greedy’ and to ‘stay angry’. It’s like he is terrified that the hunger that drove his team’s relentless efforts last season will be fatally sated. Sometimes it feels like he is trying to convince himself.
“If you go nuts and start drinking and taking drugs, driving different cars and leaving your missus at home because you are a Champions League winner, then I can’t help you,” said Klopp before the Napoli game, sounding suspiciously like he’d quite like to indulge in a bit of that carry-on himself, given half a chance.
In some ways, this is the fundamental crux at which Liverpool have arrived. Klopp has always revelled in the role of challenger, the attacker brand, his preferred style of football a sort of guerrilla warfare set up to afflict the comfortable.
Even in his title-winning seasons at Borussia Dortmund, there was always the sense that they had broken into Bayern’s mansion and stolen the prized silver candelabra.
Have you ever seen him wear a suit? In his Dortmund days, somebody told him he had to wear a suit for Champions League games, so he did — until he realised he didn’t have to anymore. Find some photos. He looks ridiculous, like a junior philosophy lecturer worried about tenure, or a man up in court for an out-of-character road rage incident (“He just flipped, I couldn’t believe it”).
Klopp hates suits. “I don’t feel comfortable in it. The tie, I cannot breathe properly,” he explained recently. “I’m just not made for that, that’s it.”
For most people who dislike suits, the discomfort is also philosophical., that They don’t like what the suit says about them.
But in a metaphorical sense, he now has to be the man in the suit. Liverpool’s next phase must see them become the establishment and leave their counter-culture days behind them. As long as City’s domination seemed impregnable, Liverpool could revel in being the challengers.
But what if City’s defensive injuries have left them fatally weakened? What if, in season four of Pep Guardiola’s brain-wringingly intense management, they are just a bit worn out by it all?
What if Liverpool are no longer the rebels, but now the Galactic Empire Death Star?
You have to be over the age of 40 to really remember when Liverpool were the crushingly dominant force in the game.
All dynasties fall with stunning suddenness, and it is that relentless, machine-like ability to grind opposition into the dirt, the stuff of champions, which they have never fully regained.
Every occasional flare of hope — the 2005 Champions League, title challenges under Rafa Benitez and later Brendan Rodgers — has burned out quickly.
An evening of penitence in Naples might just keep the fire burning this time.