Sunday 25 August 2019

Koeman's pragmatism will be needed in Merseyside cauldron

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Reuters

Miguel Delaney

For all Jurgen Klopp's image as an endearing modern coach who generally favours a feeling of positivity, there is naturally a hardness to the German too.

Take his approach to Liverpool's number one issue right now: their number one. Those close to the squad say he did not exactly give Simon Mignolet the most expansive explanation for initially dropping him for Loris Karius - although some might say it should have been obvious - and the Belgian was left a little perplexed. Mignolet has now been restored to the team with the same kind of abruptness, but feels he has a point to prove.

Perhaps that's Klopp's own point and is his attempt to try and develop a bit of hardness in by far the softest area of his team. The reality, however, is that it's going to bring a nervous edge to almost every Liverpool game until there is a solid run of matches without errors. It is something for every opposition team to try and target, except the difference in tomorrow's Merseyside derby is Klopp's side can attempt much the same with Everton. Maarten Stekelenburg has had a series of big mistakes and moments of uncertainty.

As with Liverpool's goalkeeper, it has fed into a bit of a drop-off of late, where both teams needed big midweek wins to fire up a sense of momentum again. Liverpool had their flaws made all too clear when dropping points to Bournemouth and West Ham United, reminding them that not even an attack as prolific as theirs was going to be able to just rampage through the season with no concerns in a way that seemed possible in October.

At the same time, the badly-needed stability that Ronald Koeman initially restored at Everton after the chaos of Roberto Martinez has given way to a feeling of stagnation - and also to growing murmurs of discontent from those in the stands.

That does point to one big difference between the sides, beyond their league positions and hopes for the campaign. Whereas Klopp obviously remains loved by fans who now firmly believe they are in a title challenge, Koeman is facing more and more questions from supporters who fear Everton may not even be challengers for European places.

It sums up the curious situation Everton are in, and the curiosity of the Barcelona legend's managerial career. Koeman has the reputation of the kind of figure who is next in line for the big jobs - and has willingly contributed to such media conversations - but he doesn't have the record to go with it.

He's had quite a patchy career, generally just going into clubs and keeping them stable with some impressive tactical touches - often appended by yet another reminder of how things were done when he was a player at Barcelona - but never really putting his stamp on them in the way someone like Klopp does. That has been the case at so many of his jobs, from Vitesse Arnhem through to Ajax, Benfica, Feyenoord . . . and, so far, to Everton.

One of the biggest issues at Goodison Park when he took over was that the unpopular Martinez regime had so run its course, and that the squad - and fans - just needed a different voice first and foremost. Koeman offered it, and a very assertive voice at that, while also getting rid of the laxness that had afflicted the side. It had the short-term effect you would expect, as Everton won four of their opening five league games. Those four, however, are still double the number they have won in the 11 games since. Everton have evidently required a bit more than disciplined caution. Brought up in the same Dutch-Barcelona philosophy that fired Pep Guardiola, Koeman has always been more pragmatic, and has always looked to defence.

It's just that, other than the now-injured Yannick Bolasie and how he fed Romelu Lukaku, there hasn't been much else to the side. It says much, in fact, that they have been so reliant on Seamus Coleman for goals. He has scored two in their last five games, and both were crucial: a late equaliser at home to Swansea City, and then the equaliser in the 2-1 win over Arsenal. With three in 13, he is actually the most prolific Irish player in England this season, while obviously greatly solidifying Koeman's backline.

That kind of defensive discipline, however, might be what is needed against Liverpool above anything. It is exactly what stopped Klopp's side scoring in their only two blanks so far this season, the 0-0 at home to Manchester United and the same scoreline away to Koeman's old club at Southampton.

The latter of those draws came without the resurgent Adam Lallana, and raised one of the biggest concerns about Liverpool's title challenge: can Klopp maintain this kind of form when he doesn't have all of his four main attackers? Does Liverpool's squad have enough quality beyond the starting XI?

He did almost immediately provide fine responses. Despite injury to the blockbusting Philippe Coutinho, and Lallana only recently coming back in, Liverpool have still hit an average of 2.5 goals per game in the four matches since Southampton, and of course they easily swept Middlesbrough away in midweek by 3-0.

The way Divock Origi has so seamlessly slipped into the attack has helped, but he also gives them something different, adding a sleekness.

This is what Everton will have to contend with, as they face the gale force of that Liverpool attack. There's also their own recent history. Everton have not beaten Liverpool in any competition since 2010, and have actually only won twice in the derby in the last decade.

This is the other issue underpinning the game. There has been something of a chasm between the two clubs of late. Everton just haven't been as competitive in the derby. They've lacked a hardness in it. Koeman's defence will help in that regard, but so will targeting Liverpool's soft backline.

Mignolet may have to firmly prove that point, for Liverpool to again claim all three.

  • Everton v Liverpool, Tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, 8.0

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