Liverpool suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek but Jurgen Klopp has no cause for concern. Here, he tells Sky Sports about change, improvement, shaking off the nearly-man tag and why the Reds need to “get used to how good they are”.
In the Merseyside sunshine, a giant banner urging courage flutters over the railings by the entrance to Liverpool’s Melwood training complex. Its owner has not been here in a while but after a blip in Naples, thinks Jurgen Klopp’s players could do with the “boost” of seeing the 12ft canvas bearing Bill Shankly’s motivational words.
Klopp would appreciate the sentiment – Shankly’s photo is one of several treasured ones in his wood-panelled office – but there has been no soul-searching from the champions of Europe after their defence began in defeat and nor should there have been.
They lost in the Stadio San Paolo last year – no harm done there – but the mood was different after this display. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane were untypically awkward, Virgil van Dijk uncharacteristically careless and the late penalty call, in Klopp’s eyes, clearly erroneous.
Chelsea vs Liverpool
September 22, 2019, 4:00pm
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He stewed in the aftermath of a game his side “wouldn’t normally have lost” but, ahead of a trip to Chelsea as his side seek to stretch their perfect Premier League start, the Liverpool boss is reflecting on the qualities he believes can ensure another challenge at home and abroad for the biggest prizes.
“The longer it’s been since the Napoli game, the more happy I am with the performance,” he tells Sky Sports. “It was so mature.
“We lost three games in the Champions League group stage last season but none were like Tuesday’s game. In many moments, we controlled the game as we wanted to but the decisive part is the last pass and that didn’t happen for different reasons. We made wrong decisions, we stayed in the centre where they were really compact but in general, the maturity with which we played the game was a big step.”
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Liverpool have taken so many steps under the inclusive, magnetic leadership of a man approaching four years in charge and the greatest stride – a sixth European Cup to end a seven-year wait for silverware – has lifted the shackles. “It’s nice for me to tick that box. Some people said I was a nearly-man. I didn’t feel like that – the finals I’ve reached shows something was okay – but it’s nice. I don’t have to worry about it any more.”
Klopp sips from a mug that reads ‘I’m the normal one’ but he is among the legendary ones now. He has transformed Liverpool into one of the most fearsome sides in football again. He has built a thrilling side revered and respected by fans and foes. He has made Anfield impenetrable and inspired a deep reconnect with supporters but the memories and the moments now have silverware to sustain them.
The former Borussia Dortmund boss claims he never really thought about the make-up of his dream Anfield side when he took the job – “if I had, I’d be really pleased with how it’s turned out” – but Liverpool’s reconstruction has been founded not on fantasy football but meticulous planning and a transfer strategy focused on value, fit and development potential.
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He has prized continuity, relishing work with a relatively small, tight-knit squad, but is considering how his side’s style has evolved from committed counter-press to ominous control of space before selectively applying the pressing moment. Pep Lijnders, back at Anfield as assistant boss and a man Klopp describes as a “younger version of me”, believes intensity is the word that best sums up the Liverpool way and Klopp agrees, even if he thinks its definition has broadened.
“The year before we won the Champions League, we were the most exciting side in the competition. Wow! We were scoring goals like crazy. The Roma game (in April 2018) was a good example. Being 5-0 up then conceding two goals and it all changing; being so open, that’s how we were that year.”
“It’s still intense – but mentally intense maybe more so than physically from time to time now. The higher the quality, the higher the level – it’s not that you have to run less but you control the ball more, you’re more dominant. The most intense we have to be is to get the ball back, to close gaps. We play 50, 60 games a year – we need the boys to perform at the highest level they are able to – so we don’t want them to waste energy. Of course, there are some occasions when there’s no other way than using your legs.”
Klopp dismisses the idea of a deliberately higher defensive line leaving Liverpool more vulnerable, insisting the goals his side have conceded so far – just one clean sheet this term – can be attributed to “wrong decisions on the pitch; strange circumstances, not a different approach.” Stand-in goalkeeper Adrian, for his shot-stopping prowess, has needed time, too, to work on the connection with his defenders.
Alisson – back working with goalkeeper coach John Achterberg but still not quite ready after injury – and Van Dijk have been key to the Reds’ more measured approach since their arrival in 2018 and in this fledgling campaign, Fabinho is excelling. He is the holding midfielder tasked with providing protection as full-backs push forward but is exerting such control either side of the halfway line, he is key to creation too: the stats show Klopp’s side are starting their attacks closer to the opposition goal than any other team. “He is playing like he did for Monaco; he just needed time to adapt to the rhythm and the tempo of the Premier League,” says his manager.
Klopp has tinkered with his irresistible front three along the way but while Sadio Mane and Mo Salah are used to the plaudits, “unsung hero” Roberto Firmino is shaping up to be the star this season. Operating as a selfless deep-lying forward, always drifting, linking, moving, it was Firmino who Klopp had wanted to rest but changed the game against Newcastle last time out when Divock Origi went off injured.
Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah who combined beautifully for Liverpool’s third against Newcastle, winning Gillette UK’s Precision Play of the Week
“Bobby wasn’t playing as consistently as he is now but he was playing that sort of football in Germany so I thought at the time it was a smart signing. It was similar as it has been here – he’s been the unsung hero. He was the star at Hoffenheim but not in an obvious way whereby he’s scoring all the goals. He’s just an unbelievably smart player, playing between the lines. He gave me all sorts of problems when I was at Dortmund.
“He doesn’t think at all how he’s perceived. He’s not bothered. He just wants to play football. The most important thing anyway is the respect of your team-mates and they all respect Bobby like crazy.”
Rotation will be needed but Klopp admits it is a “challenge” to keep fringe players happy when first-choice components keep performing. Xherdan Shaqiri, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez are among those seeking more minutes. Simon Mignolet, granted his transfer wish in the summer, told Belgian media recently he had been “at the end of his patience”.
“We are where we are because of the behaviour, the character of the players. When the team is playing with a consistent line-up, you can always create stories about players who aren’t playing. But the relationship out in the dressing room, on the training ground is outstanding. Outstanding. It was before and it’s even better now after winning something together. But we’re dealing with personal situations. Influences are there from outside. There are challenges every day – someone playing has had praise, another hasn’t – it’s life. We deal with it in the best way we can.”
Maintaining squad harmony remains crucial but it is about mindset and more of the same now. Last season in the Premier League brought 97 points and just one defeat but still no league title. This season they are already five points ahead of Manchester City and have stretched a club-record run of consecutive top-flight wins to 14.
Klopp described the Champions League triumph that softened the domestic blow as “just the start” for his side but there can be no let-up. He turned to a throw-in coach last year and this summer invited a professional surfer to talk about riding the next high wave but they are just pieces in the puzzle.
“My eyes and ears are always open but we didn’t win the Champions League because we employed a throw-in coach,” he laughs. “There’s no single element – crossing, shooting, heading – that will make us champions in the Premier League.
“The way you win this league is through consistency. The reason we were both there right to the end last season was consistency. We pushed City and City pushed us. We still have to be more consistent – after winning 14 games in a row that might sound strange – but we have to keep it going because consistency is the only chance.
“From being surprised how good we are ourselves to getting used to it and using it are what we have to do now. You learn from your experiences and build on them. You try to do the right things again but more often.”
Shankly’s description of courage might catch the eye outside Melwood but inside its walls his advice that football success is in the mind – “you must believe that you are the best and then make sure that you are” – feels more apt now. The fan with the banner believes again and Klopp senses it. “There’s a big relationship of trust, faith and love,” he smiles. “Now we feel like a really strong unit. It’s a good time to be part of the Liverpool family.”