‘Mentality monsters’ was the catchphrase for two glorious seasons at Anfield. It summed up Liverpool’s relentlessness on their way to winning the Champions League and the club’s first title in 30 years.
Belief is delicate. It takes time to build but it can evaporate in a moment. If anyone can manufacture it, Jurgen Klopp can. The 53-year-old needs to restore the team’s conviction. That will take more than enthusiasm and rabble rousing.
The 2-0 win over Sheffield United offered a chance to rebuild some of the confidence that has disappeared since the turn of the year. Liverpool went to Bramall Lane to play a side doomed to relegation and suffering an injury crisis to rival the one at Anfield. It was unthinkable that the champions could return from South Yorkshire with anything other than three points.
With the benefit of hindsight, what made Liverpool so purposeful at their best was less their psychological strength but a superbly balanced system that accentuated the abilities of the first-choice XI. The injuries to the heart of the defence – and Virgil van Dijk in particular – have disturbed the equilibrium. Some of the great Liverpool teams over the decades have been referred to, generally unkindly, as “machines”. Klopp’s side deserve the sobriquet more than most and in the term’s best sense. When everything clicked, they were unstoppable. Many good sides contain perhaps four players who can be replaced without too much of a drop-off. Rotation was never going to work with this team for reasons that go beyond a weak squad. Their tactics developed because they suited the personnel available to Klopp rather than players shoehorned into a template.
• Read more: Full Premier League table and fixture list
That was the genius of the side. Their method, rather than their mentality, brought home the trophies.
The need for leadership and fortitude has become critical now that the machine is patched up and misfiring. With Liverpool struggling to find an approach that works, the necessity for individual responsibility grows by the game. The most obvious leaders – Jordan Henderson and Van Dijk – are sidelined. This is the moment that Klopp really needs powerful personalities.
There are enough candidates. Mohamed Salah was disappointed when he was not named captain against Midtjylland last year. The striker is not a natural shouter and organiser but he can turn matches in a flash. He has been labelled selfish by some – a strange criticism for a goalscorer – but he never stops working. Nonetheless, if he has another gear, it would be a good time to find it, especially if he could work out a way of refining his movement to suit Thiago Alcantara’s passing range. The same applies to Sadio Mane.
Thiago is another potential game-changer. The 29-year-old has seen it all and led Bayern Munich to their Champions League victory last summer. His process of adapting to English football has been slowed by injuries and a malfunctioning team. Excessive expectation has not helped, either.
The pace at which the Premier League is played has caused Thiago to rush unadvisedly into tackles. If he can take a step back from the hurly-burly around him and set his own tempo, he could have a huge impact in the battle for the top four.
Andy Robertson will continue to meet any challenge head-on and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who assisted Curtis Jones’ crucial opening goal at Bramall Lane, influences games on a regular basis and both full-backs will need to play significant roles in the coming months. Even fringe players like Xherdan Shaqiri must step up. The Swiss is talented and sometimes tries too hard going forward but he switches off when the opposition are in possession. This will be his chance to make a real mark as a Liverpool player.
A fit, firing Naby Keita would be a bonus. The Guinean has promised so much but offered so little in his three years at the club. He must deliver.
The slip in standards is bad enough. The personal losses experienced by Klopp and Alisson Becker – another of the bigger voices in the squad – cast an even deeper cloud over proceedings. Everyone’s resilience will be tested between now and May.
Klopp said last week that he does not think Liverpool require a serious rebuild in the summer. He might be right. Much depends on whether the long-term absentees return at the same level as before their injuries. Even if they do, the squad needs work. Failure to qualify for the Champions League will make recruitment much harder.
Success bolsters mental toughness. Failure erodes it. The tenacity of the mentality monsters is about to be examined like never before.