Ten years ago, Liverpool were the winners of the Champions League. Eight years ago, Liverpool were Champions League runners-up. Six years ago, Liverpool, were the top ranked club in Europe.
What has happened since then has been nothing short of a humiliating fall from grace. We’ve largely had to settle for no European football at all, or entirely unsuccessful Europa League campaigns. Not forgetting the one pitiful attempt we made last season at the chance to compete with Europe’s best again. This is reflected in the fact that we are now the 54th ranked team in the European coefficients. Well below a whole stack of teams that we’d feel we should be looking down on, including last night’s opponents FC Rubin.
But we can’t complain. Our attempts at being a force in Europe again have pretty much extended to giving our second string players a run-out, while moaning about the travelling and the impact it will have on our league campaign. Our league campaign, in which our main goal has usually been to qualify for European competition yet again. Only this time, the ‘right’ one – being the Champions League. Where apparently we expect there to be no travelling and no detriment to the preparation for our league games.
We must admit, we haven’t treated the Europa League with much respect considering there’s a trophy at stake. But even when we have, we’ve still come up short and been outplayed by supposed minnows of the competition. It’s no good us getting on our high horse and acting like we’re too good to be slumming it in the Europa League, if we then turn in such embarrassing performances when we decide we want to take it seriously.
Brendan Rodgers just did not have the knack for it. There are more tactical considerations to assess when playing on the continent, and a team’s style has to be altered accordingly to succeed. Rodgers never showed that guile, which is why we were constantly punished and never got close to the latter stages under his stewardship.
The result last night may not have been emphatic, but the performance certainly was. People may say ‘well it was only Rubin’, but we’ve hit stumbling blocks at lesser opponents already this season, and any 2,500 mile journey is bound to complicate matters slightly. But yesterday we saw probably the biggest jump in improvement so far in terms of our development under Jürgen Klopp.
What we had to show in defence we did so soundly, particularly with the number of set pieces we had thrown into our box late on. Mamadou Sakho was visibly taking control of things and barking out the orders, which took the pressure off Dejan Lovren and allowed him to just listen to the instructions and concentrate on what he had to do. Emre Can and Joe Allen tracked back well when they had to, and it was refreshing to see us play a midfield two and actually dominate a game with it. The duo were constantly looking forward with their passes, got up and down the pitch as necessary, and demonstrated a good understanding and discipline in terms of covering for each other.
Most encouraging though, was our play going forward. Admittedly our final ball was a bit off, but the build-up play was excellent throughout. It was a far cry from the dull, laboured football we had previously been witnessing; where each man would take too many touches dawdling on the ball while debating what to do, allowing the opposition to regroup and get tight, and eventually the attack would inevitably break down. Yesterday, it was quick, one or two touch forward assaults, with runners energetically overlapping, advanced players intelligently using the space, and a unanimous understanding flowing through the eleven’s collective minds. I’m positive it must have been something that Klopp has drilled into them on the training ground, as each time a player received the ball he was fully aware of what passes were and weren’t on, so if he was pressured into acting quickly, he already had it mapped out where he could go. Roberto Firmino and Jordon Ibe perhaps demonstrated this at its best, as their link-up play was fantastic and even resulted in the game’s only goal.
If I dare to say it, it was Dortmund-esque. But not especially ground-breaking either; if you’ve got the players with the talent and the mental sharpness, why would you not encourage them to attack with pace and fluidity? Like a lot of what Klopp has instilled so far, it was just a case of following common sense to get us back to neutral ground, before then building up from there. If the players don’t fit a back three, don’t play one. If your best centre-back is fit and available, get him on the pitch. And if your forwards are tricky, intricate footballers, then get the ball into them and give them options and support. Without wanting to dwell too much on Brendan Rodgers, I can’t help but feel that he sucked the confidence out of some of our players and made them feel that anything elaborate they tried with a football wouldn’t come off, so their only option was to take their time and play it safe.
The result on Sunday against Chelsea may have been the one that made the football world acknowledge the ‘Klopp effect’ at Liverpool, but for me it was yesterday’s performance that has really emphasised it. Bar a fifteen minute wobble towards the end that just highlighted the fact that there’s still a sliver of doubt lingering among us, we demonstrated a brilliant show of how to take control in a potential banana skin of a game. Klopp made astute alterations, kept our heads up when it looked like a goal may elude us, and got us to dig in deep when he realised we were going to have to grind the result out. And best of all, as if he needed to endear himself to us anymore, he then celebrated like one of us afterwards, not even thinking to acknowledge that he was the one that masterminded it all. I don’t care what the nicknames say, we’ve got ourselves a special one here.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)