Search icon


20th Apr 2017

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are now playing ‘adult football’, as they match flair with fortitude

"I told the boys it looked like adult football"

Tony Barrett

It was a run of fixtures that had the potential to break Liverpool.

Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion away followed by Crystal Palace at home. Each of them represented troublesome opposition, each would test Liverpool’s game management and their mental fortitude, two areas which even Jurgen Klopp had admitted were in need of improvement. But with two down and one to go, the prospect of a clean sweep of victories is realistic, if not taken for granted, raising the possibility that these could turn out to be the fixtures that make Liverpool.

It was only a fortnight ago, in the aftermath of two points having been wastefully dropped against Bournemouth, that Klopp said what everyone who watches Liverpool regularly had been thinking. “If it was Chelsea, for example, the opponent would not have the ball three times in the last 20 minutes, I think.” Call it what you will – mental toughness, match hardness, game management – however it is described, Liverpool did not appear to have it, or not enough of it to be able to see fixtures out when short of their best.

Klopp’s solution was radical, if not original, as he challenged a team which had won a multitude of plaudits for the beauty of their attacking football in the first half of the season to end the campaign showing that they could win ugly. “We should think about how we can defend, not how dominant we can be,” he said. “Maybe we can surprise one of the other teams with good organisation, good defending, good counter-attacks. Why not?”

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool - Premier League : News Photo

It sounded like a plan, just not one that too many would expect Liverpool to be able to implement successfully, particularly given what lay in store for them in their next three games. Yet, all of the reasons for that doubt, each of them totally valid given Liverpool’s established strengths and weaknesses, have been confounded. A goalkeeper who had been criticised for failing to bail his team out when it mattered has made crucial saves that earned points. A defence which conceded regularly from set pieces has stood strong against the very teams who usually exploit that flaw. And a team which has been prone to buckling under pressure, particularly when unable to play free flowing football, has stood strong.

As a consequence, Liverpool have taken six points out of six to reinforce their bid to finish in the Premier League top four. For a manager whose ability to come up with a Plan B had previously been questioned it is in impressive, if limited, response. As he should be, Klopp is heartened by his players showing signs of being increasingly able to handle the artisan side of the game, but he also accepts that the margins have been narrow and wants to see such diligence become a much more regular occurrence before he will feel sufficiently confident to expect it as standard.

“I told the boys it looked like adult football,” Klopp said of last weekend’s 1-0 win against West Brom. “At the start of the season we were this kind of exciting team, fluent, running everywhere, looks like without a plan but having a plan, being really fluent and flexible and a danger for all defensive lines. But if we were not in this mood, we didn’t have the results we wanted. You know West Brom are a difficult team to play and Stoke are a difficult team to play. But you cannot compare these two games.

“At Stoke, it was a difficult first half. At West Brom, we could build on the first half, even when it was not our best football, because – as I said after the game – the timing and movement was not good enough to be better. But already in this half we had two really big chances, with Roberto (Firmino) and Phil (Coutinho) I think. We all know it’s not easy to create 10 chances in 45 minutes against West Brom, because they are too experienced, too good, too well organised and that will not happen.

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool - Premier League : News Photo

“Scoring the goal we did was fantastic and then building on the first half in the second half, improving in the game and learning from the first half was the best thing to see in this game, it was really good. Games like this cannot be, it’s really rare, your best game of the season because of the style and quality of the opponent. Against West Brom, everybody knows it’s one of the most difficult games to play in the year. That’s how it felt after the game – it was a really good feeling in the dressing room. The boys were really happy about it and it was deserved. That’s good, but it’s already four or five days ago, so the next challenge, the next opportunity, is Crystal Palace.”

It is because the problem has been so entrenched and so detrimental to Liverpool’s hopes of challenging for anything other than a place in the top four that Klopp is so reluctant to herald a breakthrough at this stage. The memory of the latter stages of that 2-2 draw against Bournemouth at Anfield when a hard earned lead was given up at the death remains as strong as it is instructive and as a result Klopp has told his players that they must become more savvy and play percentages when necessary if they are to become a team that can be trusted.

“We were 2-1 up and we still wanted to create a lot of chances and things like this, full-backs high and all that stuff, which we have to change in a situation like this,” he said. “It’s not that you don’t want to create chances, but it’s not a moment when you have to chase the game; it’s a moment when you have to use the situation, that the other team has to do more if they want to have something then you use these spaces then.

Stoke City v Liverpool - Premier League : News Photo

“We spoke about it obviously, yes we worked on it of course, but how do we work on getting more experience? Sometimes you have to have bad experiences to learn from them. It looked like in these two games that we did better because in the second half at Stoke when we were 2-1 up (we were controlling the game) but then we needed the goalkeeper, it was not that they couldn’t create chances. They had two really big chances.

“In the last game against West Brom they had one chance and if they had used it then we say, ‘We didn’t manage the game’ and if they don’t use it then we say, ‘They did manage the game’. Things like this happen, the difference is in the detail. We are still on the way; you cannot improve 100 per cent in a week or two weeks. We know about the issue and so we have to work on it, probably in the future at one point it will not work but the more often we are in a situation like this and use it then (the better we will become).

“It is not forbidden to try to create chances when you are 1-0 up, 2-0 up, but it depends on the time. After 80 minutes you have to be more serious in all the things. It’s allowed to shoot the ball over the stand or whatever, but we are not like this actually. We are kind of an exciting team, we like to create these moments, we like to finish and all that stuff. But we know about it and try to improve.”

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool - Premier League : News Photo

While Klopp admits Liverpool needed Simon Mignolet to get them over the line in both of their most recent fixtures and acknowledges that results and the narrative could have been more negative had he not produced match winning saves, a goalkeeper intervening when required is so often an intrinsic element of teams having the capacity to thrive in adversity. That Mignolet is belatedly showing signs of fulfilling that requirement is one of the reasons why Klopp has no plans to sign another goalkeeper this summer in the belief that other areas of the squad are in greater need of strengthening.

As a result, Klopp feels able to reject speculation that he will try to sign Joe Hart, who has not interested Liverpool since becoming surplus to requirements at Manchester City, as he plans to keep faith with Mignolet and Loris Karius. “We don’t usually talk about these sort of things but in this particular case I think we can,” the Liverpool manager said. “He (Hart) is a fantastic goalkeeper, the goalkeeper of the English national team, highest quality but we have highest-quality goalkeepers.

“It is not for us in this moment and hopefully not for us in the future – not because of Joe but we already have two strong goalkeepers. Danny Ward is at Huddersfield and playing a brilliant season; he is our player so we will bring him back next year so there is competition. The young ones have also made really big steps, Caiomhin (Kelleher) and Kamil (Grabara), and that is really good. The situation with our goalkeepers is really good. I understand the question but I cannot give the answer probably a few people want but we think about it all the time.”

WATCH: Liverpool BOTTLED the title race 🤬 | Who will win the Premier League?