Jurgen Klopp's point about Man City exposes him to Liverpool's massive mistake
Liverpool have their Champions League destiny in their own hands.
Heading into the final round of Premier League matches, Jurgen Klopp has Liverpool on the brink of securing a Champions League place. Depending on how the round 38 fixtures play out, they could even finish third.
While that is nowhere near what Liverpool supporters would have expected, heading into this season, there has been a massive turnaround in fortunes since Week 27, when they found themselves in 8th place and seven points off Chelsea (in fourth place).
Since then, Liverpool have won seven and drawn two in the league. Klopp initially went with Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak in the centre of his defence, but, of late, has switched in Rhys Williams for Kabak.
While Sadio Mané is still nowhere near his form of the past three seasons, Roberto Firmino has revived his fortunes, Mo Salah continues to find the net and the Reds look much better with Thiago Alcantara AND Fabinho in there together.
Following the dramatic 2-1 win over West Brom, courtesy of a 94th minute header from goalkeeper Alisson, Klopp spoke of how "incredible" it would be to qualify for next season's Champions League. It may have been the euphoria of that late win still pulsing through his body when he proclaimed such a qualification would ran up there with any of his achievements with the club.
Liverpool then went on to dust Burnley 3-0 and put themselves in a great position to bump out Leicester City, and possibly overtake Chelsea, on the final day. Looking ahead to his side's clash with Crystal Palace, Klopp reflected on the injuries to defenders Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Vincent Matip that had flung his side off-course.
"With our injuries it was not the year to become champions," Klopp told reporters. "No chance, for nobody.
"As good as they are, if City have their three centre-halves out, no [they don't win the league]. Three centre-halves of [Manchester] United, no.
"We have fought back a bit, accepted the difficulties and made the best of it, and if we win on Sunday, and if we qualify for the Champions League, then we made the best of it. That is it."
United fans have seen how badly Harry Maguire has been missed, in recent weeks, since his ankle injury and City supporters will acknowledge how the form of Ruben Dias and John Stones has been vital in their side romping the league.
Klopp is correct in pointing out that losing three key defenders, and van Dijk in particular, has badly thwarted his side.
However, with that statement, he is glossing over two massive mistakes that have put Liverpool where they are.
Liverpool went into the season with only three first-choice centre-halves, and two of them are injury-prone.
Van Dijk is the rock the Liverpool defence has been built on, and losing him would damage any side, but Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have spotty histories when it comes to fitness.
Gomez has now had three long-term injuries in his career and he is only 23. He went into the season having never started more than 22 games in a Premier League season. Matip's best ever return for Liverpool was 27 starts, but that was back in 2016/17.
Klopp was quizzed about the risk Liverpool were taking in going straight from one exhausting season into another with a shortage of options. He boldly claimed Liverpool were 'in a good place, squad-wise'.
With a week to go in the September transfer window [pushed back as the season started later], Gomez and Matip were already injured. Klopp told The Guardian:
"You think you are well covered, we have three absolutely top centre-halves, young players in line, Fabinho at the back if you want and then all of a sudden three players are out for a few days and that is not nice. But you cannot solve that in the transfer market. That is just not possible."
And so closed one transfer window. Four weeks later, Jordan Pickford clattered into van Dijk in the Everton box and ended the Dutchman's season.
The 2020/21 champions responded to the loss of van Dijk by reeling off six wins and five draws in the league.
On January 1st 2021, the winter transfer opened for a month. Klopp and his players had battled superbly to still be top of the league. Man City had two games in hand but were nine points behind.
What Liverpool needed to do was invest in a quality centre-back that would help keep them top of the tree, and in the Champions League. Gomez was back but van Dijk and Gomez were both out. There was a great opportunity to win another league title but the owners did not back Klopp.
The German may have presented a stoic face in his media briefings but he was clearly fraying. At a time when he had maximum leverage over his owners, he started off January by suggesting winter transfer windows were tricky to negotiate and ended it by practically begging for help.
As the transfer window closed, Liverpool were badly faltered. They lost to Burnley and Southampton while drawing with United, who had overtaken them in the league. Matip then had a season-ending injury and the Liverpool response was pure scramble mode.
In came Ben Davies from Preston and Kabak, on loan, from relegation-scrapping Schalke 04. This was not the action that was needed and the Reds duly struggled.
Weirdly, Takumi Minamino was allowed to be loaned out to Southampton at a time when Firmino was not at the races and Diogo Jota was still injured.
Three days after the window closed, they lost at home to Brighton. The league was slipping away. By March 7, after losing five of their next six games, it was well out of sight.
What got Liverpool out of a hole was the stars they did still have at their disposal, and Klopp finally settling on a centre-back pairing, and allowing Fabinho to return to midfield. The Brazilian will make his 30th league appearance if he features against Palace. These players have all played 30 or more times for the outgoing champs:
- Alisson Becker
- Gini Wijnaldum
- Mo Salah
- Trent Alexander-Arnold
- Roberto Firmino
- Andy Robertson
- Sadio Mane
Enough class to mount a Champions League challenge, and so it has proved.
Getting Champions League football for next season will be huge. It means Liverpool are assured of a much greater slice of the ever-expanding money pie, and that they can keep and attract top players.
Klopp saying it is incredible is only true when you acknowledge that massive mistakes were made along the way, and two transfer windows were allowed to close without addressing a glaring problem at the back.