Monday 18 December 2017

Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool need to do the business when it matters, not just pre-season

Jurgen Klopp with his men during Wednesday night's Audi Cup final in Munich
Jurgen Klopp with his men during Wednesday night's Audi Cup final in Munich

Karl Matchett

As much as a resounding win in Bavaria lends itself to suggesting Liverpool are finally ready to challenge once again at the top of the Premier League, context is required.

The Bayern Munich side that Liverpool comfortably beat 3-0 have flailed all summer long, not yet finding rhythm or results, while the Reds’ much-changed side struggled to break down an Atletico Madrid side which had a similarly second-string look about it.

There can be little doubt that the Anfield club are making steady progress under Jurgen Klopp, as evidenced by both the scintillating way they can take teams apart at times and the fact they’re back among Europe’s elite, at a time when the Premier League looks more competitive than ever. But that same competition once again means that teams will soon not just have to be great to win the league, but near-faultless.

A single slip-up against teams which should be beaten can prove immensely costly when other sides have a relentless consistency about them. Last term, Chelsea put a 13-match win streak together between October and December, lost once and then promptly went unbeaten for another eight. Tottenham won 12 of their last 13.

The margin for error was small enough then, and with top managers in charge around England it’s likely to continue to retract until it reaches a similar state to when Rafa Benitez led the Reds. Then, Liverpool lost just six games across two seasons - four in 07/08, two the following year—and still didn’t come close enough to lifting the title.

“Next season, we want to be as good as possible and better than last year, which isn’t easy,” Klopp asserted after the final defeat to Atletico on penalties. “We don’t set limits to ourselves, some opponents might but we don’t.” Bold words, but how much higher can this side go?

Klopp’s side lost just once more than champions Chelsea last term - with neither club in Europe, something which is changed for the season ahead, meaning it isn’t just the improvement of the first 11 which matters any more. The squad options, including the players who are rarely listed in fans’ preferred line-ups but still feature for 1,800 minutes a season, are the ones who can help define whether a team is ready for the title, or merely goes somewhere close.

“For many players this [cup against Bayern and Atletico] was a big experience,” Klopp continued, referring to the younger members of the squad. “So generally speaking, it’s a situation you bring players into and make them play when they shouldn’t, but other factors are involved.”

Those factors - fatigue for many regular starters, who had beaten Bayern the day before - are relevant not just for a two-day tournament, but for the season ahead. While Ovie Ejaria or Ryan Kent may not feature quite as much even if they aren’t sent out on loan, are the likes of Ragnar Klavan, Marko Grujic and Ben Woodburn capable of not dropping the team’s level if called upon for weeks on end? They can each look impressive, but none have yet been demanded to perform for 15, 20 matches in succession and keep Liverpool at the top.

The centre of the park looks strong, but if one of the wide forwards Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane are absent for any extended period of time, there’s immediately a gap to fill: not just in terms of personnel but also effectiveness, goal threat, consistency.

“One lost challenge with a header shouldn’t mean you go behind,” the manager further noted. “We just conceded a goal today, had 20 chances, you have to do something out of that.” Eventually they did against Atletico, a penalty decision going their way, but last term in the Premier League there were a few too many occasions when Klopp’s team simply couldn’t find a route to goal.

Being good enough to beat the big sides isn’t an issue for Liverpool. It wasn’t last year and it doesn’t look as though it will be in 17/18. Instead, it’s having that consistency and utter surety of winning any given match, even when rotations are made against bottom-half opposition.

The Anfield club continues to improve their squad; they may yet do so again, in depth and quality, before the transfer window shuts. But before thoughts of rubbing shoulders and holding their own against Europe’s finest in pre-season gives credence to an impending title challenge, the question has to be answered of whether those next in line for starting berths can keep up the same level of quality as those ahead of them.

Independent News Service

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