Jurgen Klopp let out one of those bellowing laughs, the variety of which automatically makes the listener aware that he’s entered chief sarcasm mode. The Liverpool coach wasn’t happy with the line of questioning Patrick Davidson took in their post-match interview, so resorted to belittling and talking down to the Sky reporter. He later apologised, but only after voicing his displeasure.
The job of a football manager is to act on difficult decisions and deal with the consequences after. It’s a high stakes existence and if the final result isn’t forthcoming, you leave yourself wide open to criticism. Klopp knows this as well as anyone, which was why he was so irritable after his side had utterly dominated Everton in the Merseyside derby but drawn 1-1.
Klopp took issue with the idea that the changes he made to his team were to blame for relinquishing a lead, instead angrily pointing to the decision of referee Craig Pawson to award Everton a penalty for Dejan Lovren’s shove on Dominic Calvert-Lewin as the decisive factor. That demonstrativeness wasn’t a good look for the usually charismatic and engaging German, and he was blatantly wrong despite protestations.
Where Klopp is entitled to feel slightly perturbed is in the focus on his squad rotation dictating the result. He made five alterations to his side and chose to rest Philippe Coutinho, who had scored a hat-trick a few days previously against Spartak Moscow. Despite that, Liverpool thoroughly outplayed their local rivals. They had 80% of possession and had 20 attempts on goal to 1, so it isn’t surprising that he was satisfied in that regard.
“I was really happy with the performance of the team. We controlled the game apart from one situation.”
Broadly speaking, he is correct. They pushed Sam Allardyce’s men back and were never threatened, yet the result was swung by a couple of key mistakes at vital moments made by Liverpool players. Firstly, when Sadio Mane elected to shoot rather than tee-up his two teammates hovering free on the penalty spot minutes before half-time, a goal which would’ve killed the game. And secondly, when Dejan Lovren lost both his equilibrium and concentration, idiotically bundling into Calvert-Lewin inside the area.
At this point last season, Liverpool were second in the league table and on course for a comfortable return to the Champions League. They imploded after Christmas though and it took a steadying of nerves towards the end to stumble over the line. Much of that downturn in form was explained by an over-reliance on Mane who had departed for the African Cup of Nations. And while that was undeniable, fatigue was also an issue.
By December 2016, Klopp had made only 21 changes to his starting eleven. His style of football requires maximum energy and fitness, so they were clearly overextended. Dutch fitness coach Raymond Verheijen frequently took social media jabs at him for how his methods adversely effected players, which didn’t go down well with the 50 year-old who referred to Verheijen as ‘that Dutch guy’, preferring to blame the intense Christmas schedule instead.
Fast forward twelve months and he’s approaching it from a different perspective. In total, Klopp has made 62 changes to his lineup, way ahead of any other club in the league. It obviously illustrates that trust in his squad, but also a wish to avoid the crippling post-Christmas comedown of early 2017. Lack of durability was an accusation levelled at Klopp’s Dortmund team as well and perhaps gives an indication that he’s heeded lessons from the past.
All of this makes sense, as Liverpool are juggling a league campaign and European competition. Two years ago they reached the Europa League and League Cup finals, yet were a distant eight in the Premier League table having essentially written it off to focus on the cups. Having played 47 matches in 2016/17, they could end up going over the 60 mark this time around, so previous levels of continuity are unsustainable.
Despite the differing makeup of his selections, Klopp is extracting high calibre performances from all of the attacking options at his disposal. Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino have both already equalled their goals tallies from last season, while Coutinho and Mane are well on course to follow suit. The unimaginatively christened ‘Fab Four’ have shown that they can work in disparate parts but also come together to form a devastating unit.
Allied to that is more squad depth and the names occupying the fullback and midfield positions are more interchangeable. There are more choices available and with Adam Lallana returning from injury, backup in multiple attacking spaces as well. They are in a much healthier place to put their best foot forward heading into the new year.
That shouldn’t mean Klopp is immune to criticism when it is necessary. His substitutions often don’t impact games as he plans them to, and removing Salah after an hour in the derby backfired. He also tends to trust some players too much and give them chances they haven’t earned. Lovren continues to let his manager down, yet is retained in the side while Alberto Moreno should’ve been discarded a long time ago.
The failure to identify and recruit another centre-back when the Virgil Van Dijk deal was bungled could end up defining their season.
Overall though, they should reap the benefits of resting and rotation in the long run. At the moment, they have a manageable Champions League last 16 tie with Porto and are in the reckoning for a second successive top four finish. That would be represent a huge fillip for Klopp given where Liverpool are as a club and what they should be achieving relative to the inflated expectations based off of historical precedence rather than reality.
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