Tuesday, 27 September 2016

So Far, Sehr Gut

We’re only six matches into Jurgen Klopp’s first full season in charge at Anfield and already there’s a buzz, a murmur, a fever, an expectation around the place.  We’ve been here before, of course.  For those of us who were there at start of Paisley’s reign it’s easy to forget there is a whole generation of Liverpool fans who have only known cup success, albeit as many trophies as Arsenal since 1990.

Klopp arrived at Liverpool on a metaphorical donkey with many keen to hand him their bread and fish in the hope he could work a miracle.  After the initial euphoria of wins at Chelsea and Man City came the pathetic Sunday lunchtime fare served up at Vicarage Road.  That game was a huge slap in the face of reality as we all struggled to resign ourselves to the fact this squad just wasn’t good enough.  We were in tenth place when he joined and only managed to move up two places by the end of the season.  There were two cup finals to look back on, but still no silverware.  After forty-five minutes in Basel, Liverpool were 1-0 up and well in control against Sevilla.  Twenty-five minutes later and the dream was over. 

At the end of the season there was great expectation the new campaign would bring more hope.  Personally I was a little disappointed with the transfer window.  I had doubts about Mane and Wijnaldum and wasn’t convinced we’d moved enough players on.  It has taken just a few games for those fears to be completely allayed.  .

The transformation has been huge.  Already we’re playing some of the most exciting football this side of Beardsley, Barnes and Aldridge. 

The mention of those three is what has prompted me to write this.  I have wonderful memories of the Dalglish’s 86-91 team with the years between 87-89 seeing us play some of the best football I’ve ever seen.  Paisley’s late 70’s side was the most efficient and fully deserved the title “the red machine”.  Effective, efficient and almost impossible to stop.  But that late 80’s side played the more exciting football, in my opinion.  Not better or worse, just different.

Watching some of those matches again you can be forgiven for forgetting what a complete force they were in attack.  Not a wave, more a tsunami.  There were players attacking from everywhere.  Because of the attacking instincts of the midfield Rush and Aldridge played a different role.  Unlike every other striker around then they would drop off and create space for Houghton, Whelan and McMahon to burst into.  Added to that there was Barnes and Beardsley who also attacked from deep.

Watching Liverpool so far this season reminds me of this team.  We attack from all areas.  Henderson, Wijnaldum and Coutinho along with Lallana, Firmino, Sturridge and Mane.  Add to that Clyne and Milner attacking down the flanks and you get the feeling opposition teams must struggle to work out where the next attack is coming from.  Joel Matip also appears to want to bomb forward in a way Alan Hansen used to.  Chelsea discovered how all-consuming this is and how difficult it is to repel. 

They hunt in packs, they press with ferocious authority and they pass the ball with an alacrity which makes you wish the ability to pause live football was not just for those watching tv. 

Henderson’s wonder strike at Stamford Bridge has also added a further facet.  If you defend deep in the hope of smothering the attacks then this will leave space for someone like Henderson or Coutinho to fire one from long range.

To make up for the lack of big signings Jurgen Klopp has improved a number of players to give us the effect of new introductions.  Milner has been moved to left-back to solve the problem of the madness that is Alberto Moreno.  He has been immense this season.  Always a hard worker, Milner can cross a ball as well as anyone and his ability to understand midfield play has enabled him to support that part of the play with more intelligence than most full-backs.  Clyne on the other flank also offers a great attacking threat which is currently more potent than any other full-back in the country.  The difference between him and Kyle Walker is his willingness to take players on.  This was fully evident to all except the England manager in the summer, it seems.  The current national boss would do well to consider both Liverpool full-backs for his qualification campaign too.

Time could well serve to consider Klopp’s conversion of Milner into a left-back as incisive and forward thinking as Paisley’s conversion of Ray Kennedy from attack to midfield.  Kennedy became one of the most revered players of his generation throughout Europe.  Whether Milner will reach those heights remains to be seen but his value to this team already this season is almost impossible to calculate.

Mane has really impressed me.  Always busy, quick feet and constantly scurrying in a manner Suarez used to.  He doesn’t have the skill and nous of the Uruguayan but this team seems more suited to his style than where he moved from.  The same can be said for Wijnaldum.  He seemed lost at Newcastle and lacking the stomach for the fight, but under Klopp he now has a purpose, a role and is flourishing under it.

Another improvement Klopp has brought is to bring competition for the goalkeeping position.  He bought Loris Karius from his old club, Mainz, but he unfortunately picked up an injury during pre-season.  We were then back to Mignolet for the start of the season.  He can be categorised as ‘decent’ rather than ‘outstanding’.  More a shot-stopper than a modern day keeper and although we’ve had shot stoppers before such as Clemence, Grobbelaar and Reina, Mignolet just doesn’t command his area in the way those three did.  We have also missed Reina’s ability to put us on the attack as soon as he picked up the ball.  But Mignolet now knows he has to fight for his place and that can only be healthy for the team.  The same for Emre Can who increasingly looks as if he could be as important to the team as a Gerrard, a Molby or a Souness.  But injury has seen him have to fight for his way back in and with standards already being set incoming players soon know what level of play is expected of them.

Jordan Henderson is another player who is really flourishing under Klopp.  Now club captain his role in the middle of the park seems to really suit him.  His passing is improving and he isn’t afraid to have a shot, as Chelsea found out, and he also seems to be benefiting from the players around him.  Watching him this season I can’t help but still feel a tinge of regret that Steven Gerrard wasn’t a few years younger.  He’d love playing in this team and he’d definitely love playing under this manager.  But there you are.

It is early days but the performance against Hull City this weekend certainly soothed some people’s fears we can often perform well against the big clubs but come unstuck against sides we really should be putting away with ease.  There’s an enjoyment in the football the players are exhibiting and they seem to have completely have bought into it, in a way mirrored at Man City.

I thought Klopp’s reaction to the Hull game was very poignant.  He could be seen on eighty minutes clearly reminding the players there were ten minutes still to go and he was visibly frustrated the performance had dropped.  He confirmed his frustration after the match and I was taken by the intensity and attention to detail from our boss.

If Man City continue in their current form, along with one or two other clubs, then goal difference could well be a factor come May.  Far better to go into the final game of the season knowing a win could secure the title rather than find three points is not enough as we’d need to win by seven or eight goals to stand a chance.

I realise Liverpool fans won’t want Ferguson’s name mentioned in an article such as this, but it was something he was intently aware of during United’s title years, as he would often lambast the players during the season to keep going and try and get that extra goal.  In 2012 they lost out on goal difference to City by eight goals.  Surely they could’ve found an extra eight goals from their thirty-eight matches?

You get the impression Klopp will never let his players rest on their laurels.  That is one of the major factors which makes him a perfect fit for this club.  It has all the hallmarks of the belief system so strongly instilled in the club by Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Moran, Evans and Dalglish.

For now, things feel good. In a way similar to the heady days of 2013-14 we now look forward to every match in the belief of being entertained in a way we all feel football should do.  Clearly nothing has been achieved yet and we are barely into the new season but what is sport if you cannot dream?

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