rise and fall | 

Is this the fall of Klopp’s Anfield empire? Such a collapse tends to arrive rapidly, unforeseen, spreading like wildfire

Liverpool's Darwin Nunez (left) and manager Jurgen Klopp© PA

Roy CurtisIndependent.ie

As Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger can attest, it is often those seemingly omnipotent empires that are quickest to shrivel, shrink and succumb to excruciating death agonies.

Is it even remotely conceivable that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, such a vibrant commonwealth of Mersey supremacy in recent years, might somehow be sleepwalking into a similar, unforeseen but quickfire age of decline?

To borrow a thesis presented by a friend, a clear-thinking Anfield ultra on Monday, are the Reds “in deep trouble”?

In his provocative, gripping historical tome, Doom, the Politics of Catastrophe, Niall Ferguson (no relation to Old Trafford’s old Glaswegian laird) devotes a section to the fall of empires.

His central thesis is that collapse tends to arrive rapidly and largely unforeseen, spreading like an uncontainable wildfire.

He details how seemingly impregnable entities, from the Soviet Union to the Roman Empire, Bourbon France to the Ming Dynasty imploded, slipping from impregnable strength to an edge of a cliff tumble in the historical equivalent of a minute’s added time at the end of a cup final.

Ferguson highlights how, again and again, within these superpower regimes, the tendency was for “apparent stability to give way quite suddenly to disorder”.

Rome’s fall was “sudden and dramatic”, while in Ming China “the wheels suddenly came off [triggering] a dramatic transition from Confucian equipoise to anarchy.”

Bourbon France “passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity...a collapse of royal legitimacy so swift that within four years the king had been decapitated by guillotine”.

Virgil van Dijk© AFP via Getty Images

If Klopp loses his head at Anfield tonight or at The Emirates on Sunday, it will, of course, be a metaphorical injury, perhaps a reaction to Trent Alexander Arnold’s latest defensive faux pas, midfield lethargy, or Darwin Nunez’s miserable beginning to life in his crimson second skin.

Liverpool have appeared testy, low-energy, uncertain and devoid of inspiration, the red light of their fuel tank among an alarming light show of control panel warnings flashing furiously in the season’s opening chapters.

That Klopp constructed the stunning rebirth of the red empire on foundation stones of unity of purpose, tireless, tank-forever-full industry, unflagging spirit and, a joyful appetite for combat that ensured there was no such thing as a lost cause. makes the loss of all the above feel like an unravelling.

It is not merely that Liverpool are already wheezing a distance adrift of a rampant, runaway Haaland-powered Manchester City freight train, though that is ominous in itself.

Rather it is the body language – Fabinho snapping at Klopp, Milner and Van Dijk at each other’s throats, the suddenly low-octane pressing, a blunted Salah – that offer a window to Liverpool’s soul.

Another perceptive nugget from Niall Ferguson’s book offers further food for thought.

“With the benefit of hindsight, historians can see all kinds of dry rot within the Soviet system...but that was not how it seemed at the time.”

This is relevant in the story of Manchester United’s post-2013 tailspin, most commentators believe rips in the Theatre of Dreams fabric were apparent in previous years.

But were they really?

When Ferguson abdicated from the Old Trafford seat of power in the early summer of 2013, he did so having just presented the club with a 13th Premier League title in exactly 20 years.

They had won seven major trophies, including a Champions League, in the previous five calendar years and had contested another Champions League final just two years previously.

Yes, the most significant ingredient in that feast of glory was the sheer, uncontainable force of their manager’s personality. And, yes, the Glazers arrival was already a source of great disquiet on the Stretford End.

Still, whatever hindsight insists, few envisaged the ugly, endless, nine-year tailspin into chaotic mediocrity that has ensued.

Klopp’s importance to his club is on a par with the father of modern Manchester United and there is not the slightest inkling that the charismatic, cerebral and beloved German is considering any kind of exit strategy.

But even Anfield’s mood-setting brigadier has not been himself.

Irritable, perhaps a little bewildered as to why his giants of recent years appear diminished. Liverpool are below Fulham in the table, level on points with their city rivals, Everton, and urgently seeking out a surge of Premier League momentum.

That their next two games are against Arsenal and City, making the imperative to locate a spark all the more imperative.

Defeat in those two games would be catastrophic, making even a top-four finish as intimidating as a hike up Everest.

Wenger was a revolutionary force – delivering league titles, The Invincibles, and football that amounted to a mood-altering aesthetic banquet - who came to be deified at Arsenal.

Nobody imagined the relationship could ever sour, yet in later years, with The Emirates in a perpetual state of ferment, those old 'In Arsene, we trust' banners came to represent a parody rather than enduring faith in their leader.

It is genuinely impossible to imagine the Kop turning on Klopp – it simply won’t happen – but still, there is a sense of a Liverpool era at a crossroads.

The manager clearly erred in not reinforcing midfield. Right now, that vital hub is a fallow field, none of the sustaining sporting foodstuffs of creativity, assurance or perspiration capable of being harvested.

Jude Bellingham is a source of future hope, but will Liverpool win that battle if, for example, City open their chequebook and offer the English tyro a life alongside Haaland?

Mo Salah and Virgil van Dijk, season after season, points of absolute certainty at opposite poles of the pitch, look mortal, unsure, unable to locate their superhero capes.

This has been no gentle decline; the gradient of Liverpool’s downturn has alarmed even their most temperate loyalists.

Yes, it is terribly early in the season, but City’s relentless nature magnifies any kink, leaving no margin for error.

The evidence of recession is too omnipresent to ignore. Perhaps a note of redemption will sound against Rangers.

But even such a once-off declaration of old intent would come with reservations.

Any hope that the nine-goal rout of Bournemouth would amount to a dose of head-clearing smelling salts disappeared in subsequent groggy wobbles against Everton and Napoli.

Klopp has been a brilliant ray of Premier League sunshine, unusually bright and reflective, the custodian of a towering emotional intelligence that allowed him to create a bone-deep connection with his Mersey audience.

In the coming weeks, his genius for leadership will be confronted with a vibrant Arsenal and, in Manchester City, a team who, with their seemingly unstoppable Norwegian cyborg as a devastating spearhead, are transporting the game to a whole new dimension.

For Liverpool and Klopp, it feels like a pivotal moment in one of the great football stories.

As Niall Ferguson notes: “Of all the forms catastrophe can take, the death agony of an empire may be the most difficult to fathom, precisely because it is the most complex.”

And, more often than not, so utterly unexpected.


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