IT’S an odd competition at times, the Champions League.
Its group phase is unsettling. The matches are all obviously very important. They must be, as teams — especially those in the Premier League — have sweated nine long months to qualify for them. Yet the reality is often anti climatic.
The level of contest is often a touch mediocre. Even the fixtures against elite clubs have more of a showpiece feel about them. Then it throws up a Liverpool v Napoli.
The phoney war definitely ends here. All we worked for last season, and all that we define ourselves by this term, comes down to a game. At least in our immediate reality, it appears this way.
Timely then that the fixture arrives at a peak moment of beauty for us. Beating Bournemouth in style and then retaining top spot in the league has put smiles on faces and calmed nerve. Crazy as it sounds, the pressure of maintaining a winning run just to keep on City’s coattails was more stressful than gratifying.
Had Liverpool faced up to the Napoli challenge a week ago, I suspect that we’d have been worse placed to deal with disappointment. We can go out of the Champions League this week, and it will be a major blow if we do so but at least on Wednesday morning the team will be able to remind itself that it still sits top of the pile in our fearsome domestic league. That knowledge alone should keep the black dog from the door for a squad showing signs not just that they can compete for the Premier League title, but push on to actually claim it.
I hope that, safe in the knowledge that Napoli cannot end our season, our lads will be less encumbered and play with some of the freedom that saw them maraud to last campaign’s Champions League final. In our muscle memory is the near conquering of all of Europe.
Jürgen Klopp rested his entire first-choice front three last week at Burnley so that his team could arrive in this pivotal week in fresh fettle. Sadio Mane has even enjoyed two games off. In his absence, Xherdan Shaqiri continues to impress. Likewise Naby Keita is back on the scene and providing food for thought every time he plays.
Others have plenty of miles still in them due to enforced absences. Jordan Henderson hasn’t started every single game and nor has James Milner. Adam Lallana is also returning and providing his manager with options.
It’s tricky to call the Liverpool team for Tuesday night. Even at the back there are limited certainties. Of course the ‘keeper, Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robbo start. But who claims the right-back berth? It should be Trent Alexander-Arnold but then Milner is the last man to have played there and played there with great efficiency (at Bournemouth on Sunday).
At centre back, Dejan Lovren will believe that he is first in the pecking order to partner van Dijk but Joel Matip was singled out for praise from Klopp for his weekend performance. He may very well retain his place.
While we’d all guess at the front three being a combo of Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah, selecting the midfield to back them up is no simple task. Having been rested at the weekend it seems reasonably likely that Henderson will be recalled and will anchor that midfield. Will he be partnered in a double pivot, 4-2-3-1 formation, or will we see a return to the trusty 4-3-3 that proved so effective against continental sides last season?
Klopp’s Liverpool have been a much more patient model of late. They have not sought to throw the kitchen sink at opponents from the off, preferring at times sterile domination before applying the accelerator. That may suit a Napoli side who come to Anfield knowing that a draw is their win.
Liverpool must beat the Italians 1-0 or by more than a two-goal margin. Given this challenge, Napoli can afford to be more patient than we can be. Carlo Ancelotti’s team will force nothing, safe in the knowledge that they have attacking players to punish a Liverpool side who may tend towards over stretching themselves at times.
Jürgen Klopp may sense that the only way for The Reds to prevail will be if they harness all of Anfield’s power. That would require Liverpool to be at their most swashbuckling.
Napoli are a really good team and a formidable challenge, but so too were their peers Roma in April. Bobby, Sadio and Mo will fancy this.
Expect no tiptoeing from Liverpool. Expect war.
Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Milner, Keita; Salah, Firmino, Mane
NO Ben Johnson this week, so I’ve been given the honour of filling some big shoes.
Didn’t expect to do much undies on your head chat, a la Ben, but also I didn’t expect Mohamed Salah to truly take the piss.
What a performance from The Reds, and kudos to the manager in getting his lads rotated ahead of another huge week. The Reds are top of the league. Over to you, City.
Alisson Becker: 7
Gave me the biggest twinge of my life when he won that header in the first half, almost went light headed. It’s mad how he could of used his hands, but couldn’t be arsed. Probably more handsome than me, and I say that about nobody. If anybody can give me the number for his barber, I’d appreciate it.
James Milner: 7
Right back today, deputised well, a real pro, and a decent performance to boot. Five hundred league games up, and I still don’t know his best position. That’s not a negative, he’s good in them all. Fair fucks.
Joel Matip: 8
Got us further forward with some intelligent passing, especially first half. Not a huge fan but he’s had a more than decent week. Deserved the clean sheet as much as any.
Virgil van Dijk: 7
Calm as you like, ran out of positives for him, and can’t find any negatives.
Andy Robertson: 7
Typical Robbo, really good, and that menacing cross that causes the own goal is superb. So reliable, what a fella.
Loves a booking. Don’t mind him being a bit of a yard dog sometimes though, you know. Gets his body about, think he’s progressing well, doesn’t seem as nervous as he was, and I’m not nervous watching him anymore.
Naby Keita: 8
Nutmegged two lads in less than a second. John Gibbons should make a T-shirt of that. I’d buy it, if they do it in fat lad sizes. Subbed on 65, must start Tuesday. So happy to see the lad who we thought we were signing this week, after an up and down start.
Gini Wijnaldum: 7
Not at the forefront, but doing exactly what you expect, kept us ticking well.
Xherdan Shaqiri: 7
Great in possession, reckon the sub means he starts Tuesday. Solid enough for me
Roberto Firmino: 8
An assist, and so so good for the second. No doubts about his quality. All coming back into form at the right time, Great news.
Mo Salah: 10
Sharp for the first goal, from Firmino’s rebound. Wish he’d celebrate a bit more, so I didn’t think it was offside. Second goal is absolutely brilliant, under the circumstances, and by circumstances I mean eight studs down his achilles. Got him back, though. Love that.
But that third, oh my fucking god. Taking the absolute piss, there. Does Asmir Begovic twice, sends Nathan Ake and Steve Cook with the finish. He’s been doing well since Arsenal, but today was another level. Involved in everything, a real 10 out of 10 performance. Sensational.
Sadio Mane: 7
Made up to see him back, fit and ready for Napoli.
Adam Lallana: 7
Best I’ve seen of him for ages, we all forget about him but the manager definitely doesn’t. Thought he did really well, helped us keep the pressure on, we need options this time of year, and if we can get him back to anywhere near his best, he will help us through. Nice cut to the head at the end, there.
Jordan Henderson: n/a
Came on and helped see out a brilliant seven days for The Reds.
Steve Cook: 8
Took his goal really well, from a lovely cross by Robbo, gifted us a few more opportunities, would like to play him every week.
IT was a routine win for Liverpool on the south coast, but not as you know it.
Pundits and “experts” may look back on the game as one where Liverpool cruised to an easy victory, without acknowledging the near perfection this Liverpool team are achieving.
In truth, Bournemouth never quite did enough. Their slow start was picked upon by Liverpool’s forwards, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, who both showed their complete superiority over the opposition. When they did start to establish a foothold in the game they left themselves too open again and paid the price.
Eddie Howe’s side looked as though all they had was their shape and the rest they were leaving to the chance that Liverpool made a mistake, but this side no longer live on the footballing tightrope they used to occupy. They now tow a line closer to that of absolute perfection.
All season the question has been asked, “when will it click for this Liverpool side?” But the expectation seemed to be that Liverpool would return to their old selves. A team that could put six past their opposition but operate solely on the basis of being able to overwhelm the opposition with running and goals, that an improved defence would look after itself.
What we’re seeing now is the most mature Liverpool side since the days of Rafa Benitez doing bits away in Europe. Jürgen Klopp deserves complete credit for taking a side that were once merely the most exciting in the league to one of the most mature, winning teams in the league — just behind the team who may well sit below them by the end of today.
The Reds are lucky enough to field some of their most mature heads game in, game out. Today it was James Milner’s versatility, Virgil van Dijk’s complete composure and Alisson Becker’s absolute fearlessness.
The Brazilian’s header in the first half demonstrated the side of Alisson’s game you were worried may have disappeared with his error at Leicester. Except he seems to have banked that bad memory and used it to ensure that when he comes to collect, the chance of failing is zero to none. The epitome of taking ball and man.
As a pairing, van Dijk and his new deputy Joel Matip haven’t had the biggest of tests in the last two games. Both tough aways, granted, but not the kind of stars they’ll likely encounter on Tuesday night under the lights at Anfield — and hopefully several more times in the coming months. Nevertheless, they’ve both shown their strengths. Neither afraid to put their foot on the ball when it is required, or to bring their goalkeeper into the game in an attempt to stretch Bournemouth out and release an attack.
The two who occupied Liverpool’s most attacking positions looked back to their best today. Both Salah and Firmino have had questions asked of them this season, but both made a big impact off the bench in the week and they picked up where they left off. Salah’s hat trick sees him reach 10 league goals in a season we’ve been trying in vain to dampen expectations around him and his goal return. Firmino notched an assist and his best work came from the slightly deeper role we were worried was hampering him this campaign. Both proving us dickheads wrong.
The midfield had a good showing. All four able to pick gaps in Bournemouth’s setup, and all popped up and showed themselves in good areas throughout the game. As mentioned in a piece by our own Karl Coppack on Friday, both Fabinho and Naby Keita are starting to look completely at home in this Liverpool side. Gini Wijnaldum kept things ticking over and held the ball as well as he always does. Xherdan Shaqiri the nuisance who loves to take the legs out of opposition defenders.
So Liverpool go top of the league with Manchester City to face a Chelsea side who appear to be losing grip of what made them look like unlikely title challengers just a few weeks back. The Reds need London’s Blues to find that touch again.
Regardless, Liverpool have done their job again and get to put their feet up while Pep Guardiola’s side attempt to win back top spot. Liverpool have done their job again in a way we’re likely to see more of for the foreseeable future.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Cool, calm, collected, mature. Winners.
The Reds picked themselves off the Parisian floor (no doubt finding a writhing Neymar there) and met two difficult games head on. Both went to the wire and needed as much “stugots” as skill to see them off.
We also saw the emergence of Fabinho and Naby Keita — two players who have only been bit-part players this campaign. This week they have really shown why the club paid so much for them.
Both have played numerous times for The Reds, but this was the first time they’ve really shone.
Fabinho’s best game came against Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League encounter at Anfield. Sadly though, he was less convincing at the Emirates 10 days later and soon found himself on the bench again. Rumours of unhappiness and even a swift departure in January have been quashed by both Jürgen Klopp and the player’s wife, but it had been a stuttering start for the Brazilian.
For his part, Naby Keita’s league debut spoke of a great future at his new home. His performance against West Ham had Reds salivating at how he can bridge midfield and attack. He was lucky not to score as his quick feet had the Hammers in a blur. He seemed to be a treat worth waiting for, but he too went off the boil. An injury in Napoli set him back further. Older heads wondered when he was going to actually do something in a red shirt. He’s gifted, sure, but there had to be more to come.
That’s all changed in the last week. Fabinho showed that he can deliver against stronger teams. It’s one thing to boss a rather shell-shocked and supporterless Belgrade side, but can he pass muster in a derby played at a thousand miles an hour. After all, they’re nothing like this in the French league.
He passed with flying colours and even made it into some pundits’ man of the match nominations, despite the divine Divock Origi being on the same field.
This was no easy task. Everton tried all they could to outnumber Liverpool’s three midfielders as well as the deeper-lying Roberto Firmino, but the new Brazilian didn’t flinch. It was the performance we’ve waited for.
Likewise, Keita, along with Virgil van Dijk, took the plaudits in Liverpool’s excellent display at Turf Moor in what many would consider a weakened side. Sean Dyche’s side weren’t afraid of putting a foot or two into our lads and it wouldn’t surprise many if the flair players hid a little among the raking studs. Not so Keita.
His blistering shot against Joe Hart was a mere highlight of what he can do as he continually used space and trickery to keep The Reds camped outside the Burnley penalty area. The BBC gave him the man of the match award and, had it not been for two other candidates, you could easily see why.
Those other lads are also new arrivals to the club.
Van Dijk may have the advantage of already playing in the Premier League — 67 times for Southampton — but his goalkeeper can’t say the same. In any case, both men have settled in immediately at Anfield and a record low number of goals conceded can attest to that. They look like they have been playing forever.
And it’s not just their defensive acumen. Both have been crucial to the attack. It was van Dijk’s outstretched leg which put Firmino in for the vital second at Turf Moor and the goalkeeper’s quick thinking which led to the third as well, of course, as our goal of the season on Sunday. Both are more than paying their way.
I say that because they arrived for a combined cost of £141.8m, and at that price they had to deliver immediately. If Liverpool are to have expectations and ambitions of glory then they had to start fast, especially as Manchester City are webbing everyone.
Well, van Dijk scored the winner on his debut — a derby — while Alisson Becker is already breaking records and knocking up assists. There’s spending big and there’s sensible big spending. Targeted even.
The van Dijk saga last summer was the perfect example of Klopp telling the world one thing and then doing another. When the original deal fell through the club were put in the unenviable position of having to pull out of all negotiations while issuing a grovelling apology.
Some (including me, I’ll be honest) wanted the club to look elsewhere immediately. The main centre-back options were Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan and a pretty much unused Joe Gomez. Even if you think they’re great or below Liverpool’s level, we still needed a body in there. The manager disagreed. Or did he?
Klopp told the press that he wasn’t looking for further cover. Indeed, he was more than satisfied with a maddeningly inconsistent centre back, a soporific Cameroonian and an older Estonian. I’m not quoting him there, but he did say this in August 2017…
‘We have four. I don’t think we need more. In the moment I’m fine. We are open until August 31. We cannot force the things and we would never get a centre back just because.’
Nice one, Centurion.
That stance lasted all the way to four days before the next window opened when the club announced that they had agreed a fee with the Saints.
The policy — and it’s a frustrating one at first — is to get your number-one targets or no one at all.
We had the same thing with Alisson. Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius were nothing close to Liverpool’s standard, or at least not at the ambitious level we’re aiming for, so we patiently waited until our man came available.
He didn’t do too well in his interview — we dutifully stuck seven goals past him in the Champions League semi final — but we still brought him in. He’s now winning derbies and setting up late goals.
Where Fabinho and Keita have taken a little while to settle, Alisson and van Dijk are already part of the furniture. The Dutchman has already skippered the team in Jordan Henderson and James Milner’s absence.
There aren’t many people questioning spending all that money now.
The direct opposite of this occurred when Louis van Gaal was tasked with turning around Manchester United’s fortunes after the disastrous David Moyes era. Between July and September 2014, he spent over £180m (including a loan fee for Radamel Falcao) on seven players.
Fair enough, you’d think. There was a lot to overhaul, but he then added five more for a further £156m the following summer after Angel Di Maria absconded to PSG. Van Gaal was sacked and Jose Mourinho is now stuck with a squad he plainly doesn’t rate.
Liverpool can hardly point the finger when it comes to that scattergun approach. In both 2011 and 2015 Liverpool bought volume over quality — one to upgrade the squad of the late Rafa Benitez/Roy Hodgson era and the other to prepare for the return of Champions League football.
Jurgen Klopp’s significant signings have been made over a wider timeframe rather than trying to fit square pegs into round clichés. It has been a slow process and, for the impatient of us (me again), a frustrating one, but there aren’t too many holes in the squad. Even if you hate the usual suspects — Henderson, Adam Lallana, Matip, Alberto Moreno etc — you have to remember that that was the starting line up in recent times. Now they’re part of a larger squad with little deadwood.
And so far it’s working. This isn’t just a Jürgen Klopp side now but a Jürgen Klopp squad. We had first evidence of that at Burnley when so many first-team players were replaced by, well, other former first-team players.
OK, this squad is not quite on the same footing as City’s — the poor dears had to make do with Gabriel Jesus against Watford — but the Liverpool squad has suffered for too long from being five or six players short of first-team quality. Let’s not forget that even the great 2009 side had a substantial drop off in quality outside the first 11 — with David Ngog waiting behind Fernando Torres in the pecking order.
Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and van Dijk may have cost a small fortune both individually and collectively, but who cares about that at the moment? Not me.
Celebrate the squad. This club used to be good at winning important games well, but less successful at grinding out wins with the second string. You need the latter to win the league in these days of fixture congestion. In many respects, we learned more from the Burnley game than we did the derby.
We’ve established a quality level now across the board now. Long may it continue.
LEADERS shone through at Burnley on Wednesday night.
Leaders all over the pitch, in what was eventually an excellent win on the back of the ecstasy and elation of the Merseyside derby.
Last week I wrote about leaders and specifically captains, yet the truth is this Liverpool team has them in abundance.
Virgil van Dijk is currently the best centre back in world football. His levels are are absolutely head and shoulders above any of his peers while still carrying water for someone such as Joel Matip, who came in relatively cold to the Turf Moor cauldron.
The goalkeeper, what about this goalkeeper? Alisson Becker looks like a towering presence in every sense with each passing game. His ability and character has shone through in Liverpool’s last two games and his injury-time contributions in both games in particular are a testament to his desire and maturity also.
Indeed, the biggest compliment I can pay this goalkeeper is he looks like a player who has weathered the Watford and Burnley aways of this world for many years, yet we so easily forget that all of this is still relatively new to him.
Throughout the game on Wednesday the captain and vice captain grew in responsibility and stature, as did the more experienced Daniel Sturridge.
By the end of the game, Sturridge had firmly established himself as playmaker in chief for The Reds, who were in no mood to make the game anything other than a procession to another three points, to further disprove the notion they are unable to keep up with the current pacesetters.
Jürgen Klopp’s men have shown time and again this season that they are no bluff merchants. The sight of somewhere like a Burnley away in years gone by would always lead you to look deep into the soul of your team and ask questions of character and resolve.
This team are burying such ghosts on a regular basis. Klopp and his players no longer feel like a game can get away from them at any point. As such, he is able to back his whole squad in these tricky encounters and know that his reinforcements from the bench can afford him the luxury of not only boosting his own team, but destroying the determination of an opposition who have already put everything into the encounter and are feeling the effects both physically and mentally.
This is a signal of assertion, a reminder of where you are, but more importantly where we are on the food chain. While an opposition can only make changes to stick plasters on wounds and fight fires, The Reds are able to set the narrative with an array of strength and attacking prowess if required.
This was evident against Burnley but also Everton and Watford before that. The sight of Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin may, on the face of things, seem an attacking move by an opposition manager at Anfield, yet after five minutes of either of them being on the pitch it was clear they had been given a more defensive instruction to quell the threat of Liverpool’s marauding full backs over a brief to attack and push for a goal of their own.
A glance back at some of Liverpool’s victories this season paint a dramatically improved picture. Crystal Palace, Leicester, Tottenham, Huddersfield, as well as credible draws at Chelsea and Arsenal stand up to the fact the manager and team have learnt lessons from fixtures past, and have adopted a mentality that lends itself to that of the very best.
It should be noted The Reds have faulted three times on European soil. As disappointing as those performances were, it is important to remember this group of footballers are not immune to collective error and that any kind of expectancy for them to be impenetrable on all fronts is unrealistic and honestly unfair.
During the swashbuckling run to Kyiv last season, Klopp never had the equivalent of what is essentially a must-win domestic encounter every week to deal with. Maybe, therefore, the focus has dipped in the buildup to those games given the frantic pace back home.
The players and manager will be disappointed with this if so, yet an olive branch remains held out on that particular front and the chance to redeem any current sense of underachievement on the continent can still be rectified.
The Christmas period offers a change up the gears for all. It is a period the manager has been in an internal battle with since he first encountered its pace and demand back in 2015-16. Klopp has since conditioned his players to move through such gears around this time and it has worked to good effect.
This will be needed as the margins for error remain so slim that only winning will suffice.
Liverpool remain in a toe-to-toe slug with the heavyweight champions of the world, they are more than holding their own, and you sense if they can get to the new year still trading blows at this pace, they will undoubtedly look to put Manchester City on the canvas at the Etihad Stadium.
Before that comes many more challenges in their own right, starting with a trip to the south coast on Saturday lunchtime against a good AFC Bournemouth side.
The Vitality Stadium will represent another demon The Reds have sought to exorcise in recent times, following a 4-3 collapse in December 2016 which at the time only sought to reinforce such fears that lay deep about that Liverpool team at that particular time.
That time has passed, Liverpool today are a different proposition, one we as a collective have not seen in a long time.
As the time for recollection and being grateful approaches, we should all embrace how far this club and team have come, and be thankful for all of the Burnley aways they now give us on a regular basis.
As another challenge presents itself, there is no doubt that every opposition will now know this: Liverpool are serious in both attitude and application.
The ghosts of seasons past can no longer scare us in the way they used to.
MY first league match missed this season will be Liverpool’s 15th.
I’ve set out to do the full 38-game complement on about 10 occasions, but always come up short by a fixture or two. I’m like a metaphor for past Liverpool sides. We’re all nearly people, ultimately.
Fate has conspired again, that in a campaign where Liverpool have a real chance of amassing a title-winning points total that there’s concurrently another show in town that’s also peaking. Bob Paisley’s heroes of the late ’70s and ’80s never really found themselves chasing it or being chased down by comparable footballing behemoth to today’s Manchester City.
In that era the second-placed team to champions Liverpool varied every time. The likes of QPR, West Brom, Nottingham Forest, Ipswich and Manchester United all threatened the red hegemony but never for any sustained period. These sides were rarely capable of putting back-to-back top-four finishes together, let alone sustain title challenges.
In the modern era, just as Liverpool teams have threatened to click, a rival or two will have been simultaneously taking their own games to a higher plane. Gerrard Houllier’s 2001-2 team won 12 of their last 14 games, leading the table with around eight weeks to go, but ultimately found themselves in the slipstream of Arsene Wenger’s “invincibles”.
In 2005-6, Rafa Benitez’s side again breached the 80-point barrier but couldn’t keep pace with an awesome Alex Ferguson-inspired Man United team. Similarly in 2008-9. In that run in, The Reds kept on winning by margins, but another Ferguson team simply matched them stride for stride.
I won’t even begin to dwell on the cruelty of 2014. Can there never be a season when we’re good enough and the main rivals just melt away? It happened so routinely in the past. It even happened to bloody Leicester City three years ago. It’s never our turn, though. Or so it seems.
This weekend City go to Chelsea as we travel to Bournemouth. It is undeniably a pivotal weekend in our season. If we are to take them, then we simply must outpoint them on weekends like this.
Jürgen Klopp would, of course, say “we cannot affect their result, we must only worry about ourselves”. He is correct, but in reality this is what chasing down the 100-point incarnation of Manchester City relentlessly entails.
At this season’s start, Liverpool were being roundly backed to be the primary threat to City’s crown. To be fair, we have for the most part worn this mantle well. The intensity of the fixture scheduling at this time of year brings Liverpool’s task into sharp focus. Where earlier in the campaign we could savour matching a City victory with a three-point grab of our own for a week, or more (because of the plethora of international breaks), now we have merely days.
The pressure is relentless. You could feel it as a physical thing as Anfield shook with relief as much as ecstasy at Divock Origi’s 96th-minute winner against Everton a week ago. Evertonians may have taken some small compensatory satisfaction in the emotions of victory witnessed at Anfield, but grown Reds were weeping more at the respite of being kept alive in the title race than they were in getting one over on the old enemy.
As if the pressure couldn’t be ratcheted up a further level, if Klopp’s team lift their heads to the immediate horizon beyond Bournemouth they will see massive challenges looming. Napoli in a shit-or-bust game next Tuesday, swiftly followed by a Premier League encounter against Man United.
When the FA Cup draw placed us away to Premier League opposition (in Wolves) in the upcoming third round, it felt like just another piece of wretched fixture scheduling of the kind that has tested us to the limit all season long.
We have no choice but to just get on with things. Klopp must again shuffle his pack as an act of faith as much as reason. He has to believe that his main men can deliver and transmit that belief to these to-be-counted-upon deputies.
So to Bournemouth where we tend to see goals and a game. We’ve scored seven down there in our last two visits, but shipped five. Won one, lost one.
The Premier Leagues also rans seem to take turns in their good season/bad season cycles. Last year Sean Dyche’s Burnley were the insurgency. This year it is Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth.
We’re in the business of treating all “imposters” exactly the same. With a focus and a ruthlessness that we hope may see us look up one fine spring day, and find ourselves top of the lot.
Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Milner, Keita; Salah, Firmino, Mane
THE Premier League title race will not be won by a tactical system.
The numbers that count are not 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 (or whatever combination that was at Burnley), they are the digits in the far right-hand column of the league table.
Liverpool’s tally is a record 39 points already and yet they still somehow have the look of a team in transition.
When a manager is not sure what his best team is it’s usually seen as a sign of weakness. Jürgen Klopp may not even be sure what his best system is right now but Liverpool’s emerging “Plan B” is making them more difficult to second guess, more equipped to meet different challenges in different ways.
The shift of emphasis is being felt most keenly by the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah because the changes in formation fundamentally change their roles in the team, maybe even their claims to being in the team in the first place.
There is a theory that the rise of 4-2-3-1 is a direct response to Shaqiri’s claims for a starting place alongside Firmino, Salah and Sadio Mane. This view has been reinforced by Fabinho’s apparent preference for being part of a “double pivot” midfield. I think some people are getting the chicken and the egg in the wrong order.
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Klopp is not a manager who dreams up styles of play simply to squeeze certain individuals onto the team sheet. He is a philosophy major. When you hire him, he comes complete with an identifiable approach to winning football matches. My way or the autobahn.
Klopp has been thinking about developing Liverpool’s approach for a while. He worked with a variety of systems in pre season while he was waiting for his World Cup players to return to the fold and was already talking about the need to evolve back then. It wasn’t just about a deeper squad producing a different level of competition for starting places.
In September, he told the Echo’s James Pearce: “It should not be that we are in any way predictable so that people say, OK that is how they play, 4-3-3, this is the front three, two of them can maybe change in midfield, the front line is always the same.’ We have to create something where the boys not only push from the bench but they push with their performance on the field as well.”
It is worth remembering that it is less than a year since Philippe Coutinho left Anfield. He was not only the creative focus of the team but also offered variations on the tactical theme with his versatility. Many have bemoaned the lack of a comparable replacement for the flair and ingenuity he possessed in spades. It’s interesting to try to second guess where Nabil Fekir would have fitted into the current jigsaw.
Following Coutinho’s departure, the midfield trio became an ever more powerful and energetic unit. I’m not sure how much that department actually created for the front three last season. Mane, Firmino and Salah were capable of conjuring up their own havoc with their sorcery and interplay. The midfield was the loudly-revving engine of the side, pressing and probing and keeping the fires burning. Maybe that simply wasn’t sustainable for month after month, year after year.
Last week, Klopp reflected further in an interview with Sky Sports: “A lot of teams saw that we were good at counter pressing and realised they were overplaying. They now play counter attack against us so we have to be 100 per cent concentrated all the time. It means we have to control games more. This was a big part of our thinking in pre season. I like it more now, actually. It is more mature. That was the next step for us.”
So, this more watchful, pragmatic Liverpool is no accident. They are more hard headed and hard to beat by design. When a team shows up ready to trade attacking blows like Everton did last weekend, Klopp will go toe to toe with them and take his chances with the kind of open game we saw more of last season. But if you want to sit in and wait for Liverpool to attack you, this Liverpool have the patience to wait too.
Part of that sense of a work still in progress comes from the gradual bedding in of the three summer outfield signings. Naby Keita excelled in a midfield three at Turf Moor, Fabinho caught the eye in a two in the derby. They have only started one League Cup tie together so far.
There have been times this season when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has looked a hell of a player because the mix hasn’t been quite right without him. Even Shaqiri has been tried in midfield as the adjustments and adaptations continue.
In Paris, Klopp went with the old guard in his default setting and the team underperformed. All four defeats that Liverpool have suffered so far have come in games in which the team set up 4-3-3 at kick off.
The first genuine must-win game of the season is days away, and maybe 16 or more different players are in genuine contention to line up against Napoli next Tuesday. That’s when we will find out what Klopp thinks his best team is.
Tonight told you that story and told you how much it matters to this club, this manager and his players, and what everyone is prepared to do.
Sunday was a local skirmish, a bit of internal business. Something you have to get through and Liverpool did so with class and elan. Brio some may say.
But tonight was back to the job in hand, the matter that matters. Tonight was about our title hopes.
There was a moment they wobbled. A moment when a big selection looked a wrong selection, when rolling the boulder up the hill looked beyond us. The task may prove to be Sisyphean but not tonight, not today. No way on earth.
Liverpool heaved, James Milner shoved and then the manager showed the courage of his convictions and got all his footballers on the pitch and backed them to box it for the remaining time in the game.
They boxed it. They repaid that backing. Naby Keita and Jordan Henderson were excellent in the middle of the park in the second half in different ways. The former all chorus, the latter all verse. Keita had been Liverpool’s most likely first half.
Milner went to left back and reminded us he may well be the second best left back in the country, behind only the absent Andy Robertson; all sense on toast along with his galvanising, fantastic goal. Milner loved the battle, roaring at the away end, scrapping with purpose.
Xherdan Shaqiri spent much of the game struggling to get himself on the ball. The first half especially graft but the second anonymous too. But when he gets himself on it he can be sumptuous, scrumptious and finally, ultimately victorious. I’d say I loved his finish but I didn’t see it. I saw him though, wheeling away never in doubt.
Daniel, oh Daniel. Daniel Sturridge grew into the game like ivy up an exterior wall. At times in the first half he was completely unable to assert himself. By 80 minutes he had the game in a headlock and walked it round the playground, rubbing its head. The game curved back towards him.
He truly is the best of us, eventually finding Mo Salah who found Shaqiri who finished. Sturridge came right towards us at the end. I thought of him, of you, of us. You got light in your eyes, and you are standing here beside me.
But the save, the magnificent save at 1-2, then keeping it in, then finding Daniel who found etc. Alisson Becker isn’t currently the best of us, he’s the best of them, the best full stop. He’s galactic, fantastic. He’s magic and constant and certain throughout. He’s winning points and creating goals.
Roberto Firmino and Salah end the game the most super of subs, leading a charge. Firmino bags to make it 1-2 after brilliant work from Virgil van Dijk. They pressed Burnley right back.
It was clear after Sunday our manager had serious courage, moreso than his opposite number that day. Sean Dyche today sent his lads out to be absolute warriors. They left their foot in everywhere. This isn’t a moan, it is what going to Burnley should be. That the refereeing should be better is the bigger issue. Dyche should be concerned; his lads tired before our eyes and there is a massive challenge ahead. Are they ready for it?
But their challenge is nothing to ours. Liverpool are ready, willing and able. They aren’t going anywhere these Reds of ours. They are in this until the bitter end, whether they are his footballers or not.
Fifteen hurdles surmounted. The Reds have 12 wins and three draws. This is what it is to be alive. This is what it is to be vital. This is what it is to have purpose.
ARE we still doing this footy watching thing? I mean, seriously?
I thought we all decided that it couldn’t get any better than Sunday, for as long as we live, even if we find the pool off Cocoon and double bubble it with the magic mouse off The Green Mile and live till we are a million.
If these ratings are shite blame my complete and utter indifference given that I thought we had binned this nonsense on Sunday, and also the fact that I am trying to watch this in a hotel restaurant, with no commentary, in the middle of I don’t even really know, next to a table with a really rather lovely elderly gentleman who absolutely loves having his dinner.
I mean I have missed the first 20 minutes listening to him read out the menu and its pros and cons to his lady guest. “What about black pudding? That looks lovely. Asparagus tips, now they come with a lovely soft poached egg, dear. It’s quite the choice, apparently.”
Make no mistake, that is as impressive a Liverpool win as you will see. I honestly think that is up there with our best performances of the season. Didn’t panic, got ourselves back in the game, backed ourselves, made some smart changes to bladder them on the break. These Reds are going to take some stopping, you know.
Had his hair cut. Looks like Superman now as in how Superman was first imagined. Like an actual super man. Whereas, Joe Hart hasn’t had his hair cut, but really looks like he has, right down the middle. Get shut Joe, your self esteem will go through the roof, lad. Unless you have a weird head.
Has hard lines for the goal, doesn’t he? I mean, how’s that lad who goes for the first not offside? He’s offside, isn’t he? Unreal for the third goal there, you know. Does he save that one onto the post? Who’s arsed? Keeps it in, stops a corner, gets The Reds on the march with a great throw, 10 seconds later its 3-1, pressure off, undies on head, under me hat as I’m in a restaurant, and that.
Joey Gomez: n/a
Got whacked there, didn’t he? Need to keep your wits about you up them ways Joe, even when its going out for a corner. They’d kick a dead dog just to make sure. And when I say dead, I mean fucking buried.
Thought his passing was shite there in the first half an hour. Ridiculous foul for the disallowed pearler. Part of a great line, though. That’s great defending holding a line like that. So well in, everyone. Defended really well in fairness. These are horrible to play against. Big, ugly and horrible.
They got in behind a few times first 30 minutes, but then in fairness they were legging themselves into the ground and we still managed to recover every time. Funny when teams try and rough him up, isn’t it? That rugby league lad for them didn’t get a sausage out of him. Brilliant for the goal.
Thought he was actually pretty good first half. Then they scored and he went berserk a bit, giving it away for a laugh. Does well for our first though, in fairness.
Scores a great goal, only place he can score, nestles it in the bottom corner. Goes left back and shows who Andy Robbo has been learning from. One of Jürgen’s best subs in a while that. Stretched the game, let us play from full back in a way that Albie and possibly Robbo can’t; mainly because he can play side on and use his right. Not great when you need to break down the line, but boss when you want to stretch the play and keep the ball.
Does all the horrible bits that you don’t see unless you want to. Like filling in for Virgil when he lost the ball, and closing space. Not at his best but was part of a functioning midfield which was nice. Remember that game years ago, where the ball bounced around everywhere and you had to get your little platform at the bottom of the screen to bounce it back up in the air to get the things in the sky? That’s Henderson that, acts as a mirror to open up passing lanes. Does it well.
Excellent first half. Popping it off, always on the half turn. Doing that thing were he blags he’s in trouble and then legs past you, picking your pocket on the way. Like Bubs and his mate in The Wire. Picked up where he left off second half. Really unlucky for the save from auld, baldy Joe.
Could have scored a hat trick in about 10 seconds. (He couldn’t really like, because as soon as the first went in he wouldn’t have got any of the other chances, but you know what I mean.) Tired a little bit but that looked a hell of a lot like the fella we’ve been batting one out over on YouTube for the last two years.
Sharp when he got on it in and around the box but miscontrolled the one that mattered when he was in at the end of the first half. Feel like I want more out of him, to be honest. Not sure he offered enough. Hang on, he just give us more and offered the third goal. Shut up, bellend.
Dan Sturridge: 7
Another one where you feel like you might want more, but then he pieced it together lovely at times and the ball for the third is brilliant.
Does it really matter? Didn’t offer much, but then, sets up the first in a way, by not being silly after a bit of a poor touch. To be honest, reckon he could sit in our house on the couch like fucking Jim Royle and I would pay him £500 a week for the privilege.
Puts a ball and a half in for the second. Shifts the angle, lashes it in the corridor. Scenes.
First touch, goal. Looked sharp. Probably because they looked bladdered by the time he come on. Not a bad plan all told. Linked up well, tried to boot their fella in the chest. All for that, to be fair.
Mo Salah: 8
Mad how sharp he looked when he come on. Almost like the rest and coming on against fellas with 70 minutes of trying the hardest they have in six months might have done him good. Great for the third, unlucky for a couple of others.
Sean Dyche’s tie. Mad the way he only has one. Reckon he puts it back in the plastic wrapper about 10 minutes after full time every week. Had it 10 years.
YESTERDAY we discovered Jürgen Klopp’s punishment for running a bit on Sunday was an £8,000 fine and “a warning about future behaviour”.
Basically like your dad telling you to pack it in. Which, to be fair, is probably what my dad would say if I ran on the pitch at the end of a Merseyside derby. So good to see some consistency in football at last.
This punishment will likely annoy certain sections of the media and rival fan bases, however. Who all were queuing up to have a “who can be the most outraged” competition in the 24 hours following the “incident”.
You can understand Everton fans getting angry, to a certain extent. They’d just seen their team concede a ridiculous last-minute goal so were going to be hurting. Although setting up a petition calling for a four-eight match ban was probably a touch over the top. But yeah, if I was an Evertonian I’d hate Klopp too.
You can also understand rival fans at the top wanting to see Klopp get in trouble too. Anything that might damage Liverpool’s ability to win football games, no matter how small, will be jumped on. We’re all obsessed, rabid hypocrites after all.
But the media reaction did take me back. Especially as at the time I didn’t even notice it. Too busy running round like a lunatic myself I guess.
Much of the BBC’s post-match reaction seemed to focus not on the drama of a last-minute winner, nor on a great day of derby football, but instead on a manager celebrating a bit more wildly than normal. In a clip from the 606 phone in shared wildly across the BBC’s social media, Danny Mills was heard to call the celebration “absolutely shocking”. If Danny Mills is that easily shocked, I hope he stayed in on Halloween.
Of course there was an actually “absolutely shocking” incident at another derby that day, with a banana being thrown at a black Arsenal player, but for some reason that seemed to get far less attention on Sunday evening. Why was that? Maybe people just couldn’t believe that someone would behave so appallingly in 2018. But maybe criticising Klopp just gets you more hits and views than criticising some neanderthal.
Despite an early FA charge, swift admission of guilt and a fine, the media have tried to keep the story going, asking almost every manager in this week’s pre-match press conference about the celebration. To be fair, none of them have bitten.
Pep Guardiola admitted he’d done something similar against Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino said he’d fancy beating him in a race and, much to the annoyance of his petition-starting supporters, Everton manager Marco Silva said he didn’t think he should be punished at all. I haven’t seen an Everton manager go against his fan base at Christmas so much since Ronald Koeman got the red tree.
It’s not unusual for managers to stick together. But there also seems to be an acceptance among most normal people who like football that it is an emotional game and it is better off with too much emotion than too little. We complain that atmospheres are poorer and players less interesting, yet whenever anyone does anything out of the ordinary the same people go mad.
Klopp shouldn’t have run on the pitch. This has been acknowledged by the man himself and the FA who have fined him. But for Liverpool fans it was brilliant. A clear demonstration that the manager cares as much as we do about a late winner in a Merseyside derby. There has even been talk of having a collection for his fine. Before everyone sensibly realised he has well more money than us and we’ve got Christmas coming up.
However, he’s a man who, from the start, has talked about wanting more feelings like that in football, not less, and that should be applauded. Even if he does occasionally need telling off. Like a puppy who sometimes just wants to go on a big run on the grass, even if he isn’t allowed.
The irony, of course, is that when Liverpool play Everton again it will be the picture of Klopp striding across the pitch that the media will use to sell the event. Along with big tackles and screaming fans. Passion, basically. We all seem to accept it is what makes football brilliant, but get all uppity when it’s in our faces.
What do we want? Sensible passion. Passion with smooth edges. Well I like my passion unbridled, if it is all the same to you. And so does Jürgen Klopp. And we’re right. So there.