Liverpool's midfield needs a major overhaul as Man City loss ends hope current squad can compete

MANCHESTER, England -- Jurgen Klopp threw down a challenge to his Liverpool players 24 hours before their Premier League clash with Manchester City, but after a 4-1 defeat at the Etihad on Saturday, it was clear that some of them didn't even notice. Others might have done, but their bodies were incapable of accepting it.

So, they now have two huge games in the week ahead -- at Chelsea on Tuesday and at home to Arsenal on Sunday -- to give a delayed response to Klopp's challenge, which could not only save their Liverpool careers, but also make it easier for the club to rebuild around them, rather than without them.

Ahead of the City game, the Liverpool manager had used his prematch news conference to admit publicly that the summer will signal a rebuild of his squad at Anfield: "After seven years, it is clear that we have to do it," Klopp said.

While he was delivering some cold reality, rooted in an honest acceptance that his great Premier League and Champions League-winning team is approaching the end of the road, Klopp might have also delivered his message in the hope that it would spark a defiant reaction from those players with question marks over their future at the club. But in the end, Klopp received confirmation only of what he already knew.

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There were no surprises, and no performances that would have given the former Borussia Dortmund coach second thoughts.

"We were too passive, too open, too deep, too far away from anything," Klopp said after Saturday's loss. "These kind of things cannot happen. But they happened and after that... wow! We just had to follow as they [Man City] did whatever they wanted. We were lucky they weren't in a greedy mood.

"Apart from that, there is nothing good to say about this game. This is a game we have to use unfortunately and make clear which things cannot happen. We cannot not have challenges in key areas or be that open."

Against a City team without injured 42-goal leading scorer Erling Haaland, Liverpool briefly threatened to derail the home side's title challenge after taking a 17th minute lead through Mohamed Salah. But City, having equalised on 28 minutes with a Julian Alvarez goal, steamrollered Klopp's men to defeat in a dominant performance of possession, pace and movement.

Liverpool ultimately lost because they couldn't get any kind of grip in midfield, but their defeat wasn't solely down to their midfielders. Trent Alexander-Arnold had another game to forget at right-back, tormented throughout by the outstanding Jack Grealish, while centre-back Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker also were subpar.

Klopp can rely on Van Dijk and Alisson to bounce back from this performance and be key figures in the new team that emerges this summer, but he can't rely on Alexander-Arnold. Whether Klopp is prepared to replace a player who has been so crucial to his team's tactical approach is a big question -- the manager has had a long-term blind spot over the defender's deficiencies. But the truth is, Alexander-Arnold's shortcomings are resurface whenever Liverpool play a top side and cost the team points.

Alexander-Arnold will likely be given the opportunity to redeem himself, and Klopp can at least plan for the future knowing that his attacking options are strong following a recruitment drive that has seen Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo added to Salah and Diogo Jota since January 2022.

But Liverpool need a new midfield and how they go about building it depends on the outcome of their pursuit of Champions League qualification -- a pursuit made much more difficult by Saturday's defeat at City, which has left them seven points adrift of fourth-place Tottenham.

Jude Bellingham is Liverpool's No. 1 target this summer, but if they miss out on the Champions League, how will they be able to beat rivals including Real Madrid and City to the Borussia Dortmund midfielder's signature? Liverpool have found plenty of star players under the radar in recent years, so missing out on Bellingham would be a blow they could withstand, but Klopp's plans would be much easier to achieve with Bellingham.

As it stands, three of the midfielders on duty at the Etihad are out of contract at Anfield this summer and unlikely to remain at the club. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner will leave as free agents, while on-loan Arthur Melo will return to Juventus having barely kicked a ball for Liverpool. The injured Naby Keita is also out of contract and on the way of the club. So that's four midfielders that Klopp will be without straightaway.

The midfielders who are staying don't provide clear answers. Fabinho, who will be 30 in October, has had a poor season, while captain Jordan Henderson, 32 years old, is no longer capable of being an energetic driving force. Thiago Alcantara, 32 later this month, continues to be sidelined by injury, while Harvey Elliott (19), Stefan Bajcetic (18) and Curtis Jones (22) are not yet ready to have a team built around them.

Against City, Liverpool's lack of competitiveness and energy in midfield allowed Pep Guardiola's team to control the game, but Klopp will not have been surprised by what he saw. His Liverpool team has lost nine Premier League games this season and five out of 10 in 2023, so this was not a one-off.

The 7-0 rout of Manchester United seems to have been the outlier rather than the real Liverpool, so Klopp has plenty of work to do. And it starts against Chelsea on Tuesday. Lose at Stamford Bridge and Liverpool will be in a battle to play in the Europa League rather than chasing a Champions League spot. That might already be the case.

Klopp must somehow find a way to squeeze one more big effort and achievement out of this team before he breaks it up. But their defeat at City suggested that too many of his great servants have already run out of road.