Town. Town forever after that.
A week’s a long time in football, and it felt long after Everton. The Coutinho fallout took the shine off what was a great few weeks for the club, having managed a difficult festive period to assert their position at the top of the league & landing the man they wanted in van Dijk. In many ways, last night almost felt like a free hit. All the team had to do was put in a good showing and they could walk away happy. But no one it seems, was expecting that. Not even Jurgen if his post-match was anything to go by.
This was the bar raising moment that the team has been threatening for a long time and the lads on the pitch delivered in spades. Truth be told, it was all a bit Rocky IV; plucky underdogs Liverpool running at the brick wall of Guardiola’s methodical and perfect Drago-esque side. City, one of the most expensively assembled teams in the history of the game – who’ve blasting all before them with an almost scientific precision – and yet the Reds weren’t having it. They just weren’t having it. To a man, Liverpool matched City all over the pitch, breaking up play, winning second balls and nicking possession at any opportunity, often when they had no right to. This wasn’t a game of equals, of two football greats. This was the Reds boxing smart, dragging City down to their level and saying no, you try and cope with this. It was a muscular performance from a side shorn of its best player who wanted to show they’re not just greater than the sum of their parts, but simply, just great. Frankly, who can argue with them?
The Reds didn’t just want this more than City, they played football too. They were bold, they were brave and frequently – in Salah’s case – incredibly audacious. The manager challenged us to be believers two and a half years ago and at full time it was hard to see anyone doubting this side’s ability, not just those in the City dugout, but those around the league and Europe. The players clearly love the manager and his methods, and the queue of lads rejecting other clubs in favour of the Reds is testament to that. Klopp too, isn’t just buying readymade solutions, he’s very astute, he knows how to develop and nurture his players so they reach their best. Just look at the change in Oxlade-Chamberlain since his arrival – he never scores that goal at Arsenal, he’s too busy dribbling and going back to a lad to try and beat him again – not so under Jurgen, pick up a scrappy ball, straight up the other end and bury it right where their keeper can’t reach it. This isn’t the play of an expensive flop, it was swagger, it’s a player invigorated and unshackled from the weight of expectation, transformed and driven by the manager’s desire to back himself and his lads. Think how often we’ve heard him speak in interviews since he arrived, how visibly effusive he’s been on social media after games, he never exuded that confidence at the Emirates.
Elsewhere, we got to see other players who’ve been transformed since arriving at Anfield not least Gini Wijnaldum who has a seemingly insatiable desire to do as many laps of the pitch as possible in 90 minutes. Robertson, relegated with Hull, looks increasingly like a cult hero and built upon his already impressive performances of late by deciding he wanted to play right wing at one point, then centre-mid, then back to left-back for a bit, then right-back. Against most teams that’s brave, we’ve slaughtered Moreno for less, but the best team in the country, possibly the continent? That’s fearless. In the middle Can put in a huge shift before being hooked, after which it transpired he’d been ill the entire time. You think we might have lost some of our steel and edge after that, but not this side. Turns out we already had the Mascherano replacement lads, he plays up front and blams double figures goals and his name’s Roberto Firmino. The only negative in the performance was that we have a goalkeeper with, as Ste Hoare so elegantly put it, ‘hands made of smoke’. He didn’t have a lot to do, but the bits he did he didn’t do well. For all his faults, I don’t get why Mignolet didn’t start. Neither are the solution to what’s been a problem position ever since Reina tailed off massively post-Benitez. No matter, but something we can’t ignore going forward.
The one silver lining to all this is the recent moves in the transfer market: Van Dijk, Salah, Keita, Mane. That’s solid business. Add in lads like Firmino and you can see Liverpool are already on their way to a strong spine. That’s another reason to be excited – this team still has room for improvement, tons of it actually. There’s a very strong case that this side could finish second in the league this year, and who knows where it goes after that? Moreover, the progression season on season is there for everyone to see. From galvanizing the players he had on his arrival, to rebuilding the squad – there’s a clear trend emerging from Jurgen’s time at the club, and it’s one with an upwards trajectory.
Liverpool are now no longer just a good side under Klopp, they’re a great one – mercurial even. More importantly, they’re a side chiselled and drilled in his image and doing his work on the pitch, no longer the listless and slightly rag tag bunch that they looked in 2015 as the curtain fell on the Rodgers era. Pre-game, much of the focus had been on the decision to sell Coutinho and whether Klopp would live to rue his choice. Within minutes it was easy to see he won’t and that the Reds were in no way a lesser team for having lost the diminutive Brazilian. We mused on this month’s Review Show about whether Coutinho had the attributes Klopp looked for in a player, and whether in fact his absence might coincide with a slightly more balanced look to the team. The thinking, at least in my mind, is that Klopp loves players with legs who can get around the pitch for 90 minutes, and Coutinho doesn’t entirely fit that brief. He’ll put a shift in, but he’s not say a Lallana or Wijnaldum, or even a Jordan Henderson when it comes to covering every blade of grass. It’s been interesting following Jurgen’s press conferences this season and noting how he’s pointed around the team when we’ve looked shaky at the back, picking out others who’d missed chances to recover the ball instead of solely going after his centre-backs. This team attacks and defends as a collective and in that sense, it’s notable that for this game he chose Chamberlain, Gini and Can – all lads known for getting box-to-box rather than necessarily being creators. It makes me think of beating Spurs 5 – 0 in 13/14. How pre-match the talk was of how we’d cope against a good Spurs side without Gerrard in the middle of the park. What we got was a carousel performance from the midfield three of Henderson, Allen and Lucas, as they covered every inch of the park and let the lads up front do the business. Rodgers backed his team and was rewarded with a collective performance. Klopp too repeated the trick and backed his squad to deliver – they repaid him, and us, in spades. Jurgen was full of it post-match, and so he should be.
Back this manager. Back this team. Roll on Swansea – and frankly, best of luck to them.
Up the Reds.
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