Jurgen Klopp lacks leaders at Liverpool after Europa League heartache
After their bitterly disappointing 3-1 defeat to Sevilla in Wednesday's Europa League final, Liverpool are now in danger of becoming English football's "nearly men".
That's a tag that is never easy to shake. The more games you lose when the stakes are high, the harder they become to win. Liverpool have done well to put themselves in position to win trophies over the last few seasons, but they keep coming up short and with each failure, the pressure increases when the next opportunity comes along.
Many of the current players were part of the squad that saw the title snatched from their grasp in 2013-14 when they lost 2-0 at home to Chelsea and threw away a three goal lead to draw 3-3 at Crystal Palace. The following season they lost in the semifinals of both domestic cup competitions (the FA Cup loss to Aston Villa at Wembley was particularly horrific), while this year they went one better and reached two finals, only to perform poorly and lose both.
In recent years the Reds have reached the semifinal stages of various competitions on eight occasions, but have just the one League Cup, in 2012, to show for it. This is a club that used to almost always find a way to win the biggest of games, but now they are continually freezing on the big stage. The second half showing against Sevilla was as clear a demonstration of players bottling it on the big occasion as you're likely to see.
In the aftermath of such a demoralising defeat, boss Jurgen Klopp is making all the right noises to rally the troops. If anyone is capable of getting Liverpool through what has now surely become a serious mental barrier, it's the ultra-positive, inspirational German, but it's going to take more than a few motivational quotes to rid this squad of its demons.
Losing can become a habit. Many of Liverpool's players have become too familiar with failure and there is a distinct lack of players who know what it takes to get over the line.
It's no coincidence that Liverpool's best player in Basel was veteran defender Kolo Toure, a man who has won numerous trophies with Manchester City and Arsenal. The occasion may have been too big for many of his teammates, but it wasn't for him. If Toure, 35, departs this summer, the squad is further stripped of trophy winning experience and leadership.
Prior to Wednesday night's final, James Milner had spoken of the importance of getting that first trophy and how winning the FA Cup in 2011 had helped Manchester City go on to even greater success when he was there. Had Liverpool emerged victorious against Sevilla, the confidence they would have taken from that into next season would have been massive. Now the fear is that the reverse could happen. Will there be a hangover from the Europa League final disappointment?
It's not so much that Liverpool lost, it's the manner in which they were beaten that is the problem. Supporters' belief in the team has taken a big knock and there's every chance the players' confidence in themselves will have been affected too. The scars of a performance like that do not heal easily and the next time this group of players reach a final -- and Klopp has told them they will reach many more -- they will carry the memories of Basel and other recent failures on to the field with them.
Contrast that with Sevilla, a side who are certainly no better than Liverpool but have recent experience of winning trophies. At 1-0 down they didn't panic because they've been there before and know what it takes to win. They handled the occasion much better than Liverpool and that mental toughness is why they emerged victorious. A referee who ignored four Liverpool penalty claims did them no harm either.
Liverpool have the talent to win trophies but they do not yet have the mentality. They were doing fine on Wednesday night until giving up a sloppy goal immediately after half time. After that, they went into a state of complete panic. All semblance of a plan went out of the window and everything they've worked on in training and matches during Klopp's time at the club seemed to be forgotten. The players froze like a rabbit in the headlights.
Klopp didn't help matters either. When Liverpool fell behind, he was gesticulating to the crowd in the hope they could lift his players as they had done against Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal. St Jakob-Park is not Anfield, and rather than appealing to the fans surely a more prudent approach would have been to sort out a midfield who were being completely swamped.
There is a giant monkey on the back of this Liverpool squad, and arguably it's on Klopp now too. It will only be removed when there is freshly acquired silverware in the Anfield trophy cabinet. Klopp arrived at Anfield having lost his three previous finals. He's now lost his last five. He dismissed the relevance of his record in the build-up to this latest one, pointing out that his teams had played well but not had the luck you need to win finals.
That may have been true with Borussia Dortmund's final defeats, but Liverpool did not play at all well against Manchester City in the League Cup at Wembley and they utterly capitulated against Sevilla. There is no solace to be had in that performance and it has completely undermined a lot of the progress that appeared to have been made in recent months. And lest we forget, there has been progress as two cup final appearances is far more than anyone could have expected when Klopp first walked through the door last October.
The performance and result in Basel was undoubtedly a bitter pill for fans to swallow, yet Liverpool do appear to be quite close to being a very good side. They've shown it sporadically this season but unfortunately they are just as likely to disappoint as they are to dazzle. Consistency has been a major issue but Klopp is adamant that will improve with more time on the training field, something which he will now have in abundance due to the lack of European football next season.
An injection of talent this summer would obviously help matters, but it's not just about that. It's about a winning mentality and the ability to handle pressure situations. The Liverpool sides of the past had it in spades but it's severely lacking in the current squad.
That has to be Klopp's main priority if he's to turn Liverpool from nearly men into winners once again. That and a new left-back, obviously.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.