Wednesday 29 January 2020

Comment: Jurgen Klopp has assembled the best Liverpool side since they last won the league in 1990

Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Roberto Firmino celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League second leg quarter-final football match between Manchester City and Liverpool, at the Etihad Stadium
Liverpool's Brazilian midfielder Roberto Firmino celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League second leg quarter-final football match between Manchester City and Liverpool, at the Etihad Stadium

Chris Bascombe

There are times when assessments of Liverpool’s most recent European success sound a tad patronising.

Take, for example, the standard appraisal of their 2005 Champions League win. “They won it with Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan,” is often stated with incredulity, as if a poor side somehow fluked its way to an Istanbul penalty shoot-out.

That team had flaws, but also had Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamann and Jamie Carragher, so was hardly bereft of world-class players. All would fit comfortably into a Jurgen Klopp side.

It was similar when Liverpool reached the Europa League final in 2016, as if Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal were only beaten because The Kop sang, Klopp and his players misguidedly represented as the support act running around a bit in the Anfield atmosphere.

When Liverpool’s limitations were exposed against Sevilla on neutral territory, the sceptics’ felt suspicions were confirmed. Without their own fans to guide them along Anfield Road, Liverpool wilted in Basel. The sight of Klopp calling on supporters to make more noise as the Spaniards turned his midfield into traffic cones seemed rather apt.

Even the 2001 Uefa Cup winners received caveated praise, backs-against-the-wall performances in Rome and Barcelona enabling Gerard Houllier’s team to re-establish the club’s reputation.  Clearly those campaigns owed much to the desire and emotion of players and fans – most notably in the home legs - against teams of superior quality. Against the odds, Liverpool summoned the energy to defy expectations, defeating clubs far more advanced in their development. The Liverpool team that beat Manchester City 5-1 over two legs is an entirely different beast.

The desire and emotion of 2001 and 2005 has been replicated, but rather than fundamental to success it is complementary to the real reason they are Champions League semi-finalists - their immense quality.

Klopp (and the club’s recruiting staff) has built a bloody good team – certainly the best at Anfield since the last title win of 1990. No side in the competition has been more ruthless in front of goal, nor more sturdy in defence.

It is also apparent that in Mohamed Salah Liverpool have recruited the world-class player that can transform good teams into potential European champions. Salah’s reconstruction of Kenny Dalglish’s 1978 European Cup winner v Bruges should be enough to guarantee Player of the Year. When it is stated Salah is just below Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi this season, it is a compliment reflecting his astounding quality rather than a diminishment of his contribution.

Whatever Pep Guardiola’s gripes about refereeing decisions, for Liverpool to concede just once over the course of 180 minutes against a side many (prematurely) felt the greatest in English football history two weeks ago is testimony to the organisation, courage and ability of a back four unrecognisable to that which started the campaign.

Financially, as in 2005, it might seem Liverpool are punching above their weight – especially when you analyse the Deloitte money league – but the naked eye says otherwise. Liverpool are not merely pumping out their chest and talking like they are back where they belong. They are playing with panache and proving it.

In two knockout games Liverpool have scored 10 and conceded one. Klopp’s overall record in Europe since taking over at Anfield has seen him lose just two of 25 games (none at home).

There was a time not so long ago it was considered ‘interesting’ (a euphemism for snide) to compare Klopp’s tenure with Brendan Rodgers’. It was entirely disingenuous, of course. Rodgers is a fine coach who took over at Anfield in different circumstances, but the duplicitous motivation of those who could not resist trolling on social media is exposed when they fail to offer the same insight regarding the European performance of both managers (for the record, Celtic’s boss won nine and lost 7 of 22 European games in charge of Liverpool).

Even when considering he reached a European final in his first season, Klopp’s record is progressively improving. The Liverpool side that made it to Switzerland in 2016 scored 19 goals in 15 games in the second tier competition. This year they have 39 in 12. At every key point of Klopp’s reign there has been a sense of gradual evolution. There still is, regardless of how notable the latest scalp. They will get even better.

There is no retrospective wisdom in stating they overcame City by psychologically scarring the opponent before a game was played, the hype (justified) around Anfield on a European night ensuring Guardiola compromised when leaving out Raheem Sterling. Sterling would have started in any other venue, but City knew he would provoke hostility.

But if Guardiola reacted to the Liverpool fans a week ago, he responded to the Liverpool players’ excellence with his do-or-die selection on Tuesday night. There was as much recklessness and fear in his deployment of an extra centre-half as unleashing of more creativity upfield.

It is often stated Liverpool are at their most formidable when the collective energy of a fanbase that craves European success 'as if they own the competition' (as Guardiola noted) is fused with a side capable of meeting such expectations. That was demonstrated over the past seven days.

Since the end of the Uefa ban in the early 1990s, Liverpool have continued to remind Europe of their heritage. They have done so with some of their greatest modern players, imitating and creating some of their greatest nights despite enduring domestic frustration in pursuit of an elusive Premier League title.

Often those triumphs have been perplexing in their radiance, imperfect teams elevated and inspired by a cultural need for continental success which, in this country, is still shared only by Manchester United.

When Liverpool line-up in the last four in a few weeks time, it should not be considered surprising or illogical given how they have performed so far in the competition.

On the pitch, Liverpool are no longer punching above their weight in Europe. This is the natural consequence of an elite side with an elite manager at an elite club confirming its historic place among the European elite.

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