Liverpool are undergoing a personality crisis at present but the Merseyside derby represents opportunity to address matter
It’s an attribute no statistic or metric can possibly begin to quantify. But no successful side has ever been without it.
And an absence has been painfully affecting Liverpool in recent weeks as they continue to slide down the Premier League table.
Big teams need big personalities, and too many of the Reds’ most prominent such figures have been jostling for position in the treatment room rather than competing for a place in Jurgen Klopp’s side this season.
Alisson Becker admitted as much when, in the wake of last weekend’s dismal 3-0 reverse at struggling Wolverhampton Wanderers, he was asked about the imminent arrival of the cavalry from their respective injuries.
That will help the team with the confidence and the personality of these players,” observed the goalkeeper. “Football is a mental game as well.”
While Liverpool are far from being the mentality monsters of previous years, it perhaps isn’t surprising given the roll call of those absent from the starting line-up in recent weeks, whether through injury or alarming lack of form – Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate from the defence, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson from midfield, and Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz and Roberto Firmino from the attack.
Personality comes in many different guises, and only in rare cases such as Van Dijk does it come fully-realised when first stepping into a team.
Thiago Alcantara and Andy Robertson have assumed extra responsibility of late – the latter claiming the captain’s armband in the last two games – but youngsters such as Stefan Bajcetic and Harvey Elliott cannot be expected to take on a similar load just yet, while new signings Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo are still getting their feet under the table.
Firmino, for example, offers savvy in attack, Jota is a pesky presence who often agitates opponents, while Konate’s physicality lends him a certain aura. These are the inspirational figures in the squad, those who set the standard.
Not every player needs a strong personality – indeed, too many can cause issues within a squad – but every team needs some. It forms their identity, which for Liverpool usually means intensity. Not at present, however.
Henderson, the club captain, has long been dubbed the ‘General’ by his manager in this regard, and a drop in form – along with sheer exhaustion after accruing 91 games for club and country since the start of last season – has contributed to him failing to start the last four games. In terms of on-field performance, there could be few complaints. Klopp, though, is right to point out the failings regards personality are collective.
“If you miss something from Hendo, but all the rest would be there, we wouldn’t miss it as much,” says the Reds boss. “Like all the others are, like Virgil van Dijk is (an inspirational figure).
“When he is on his top level, we miss him like crazy from his top level. But not even Virgil played all the games sensationally well.
“This is a team story – and, if you want, a manager story. Nothing else. Not individual players or individual members of staff or whatever. This story doesn’t work, definitely not. That’s all.”
Few games demand big hearts and clear minds as much as the Merseyside derby, with Everton making the short journey across Stanley Park on Monday evening. Jota could be in contention after almost four months out, Henderson is pushing for a recall. Van Dijk and Firmino are not too far behind.
In tough times, teams need their biggest personalities. And while Klopp will welcome the return of some, this period could be the making of Liverpool’s next generation of leaders. After all, they will be needed.