Wednesday 20 March 2019

Reds aiming to follow Leicester's title manual

Liverpool's Virgil van-Dijk. Photo: Getty Images
Liverpool's Virgil van-Dijk. Photo: Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

For all the championship trophies at Anfield, and all of the vast experience of victory they can lean on from so many former players, it is tonight's visitors that could tell them most about what they're about to go through.

That is because many of these Leicester City players - just like their Liverpool counterparts - have been in pole position to win a title despite having no previous experience of doing so together.

And while there is an obvious difference between a shock club who are going for their first league win, and one of the most successful clubs going for their first in 29 years, the swells of emotion created around their stadiums will be so similar.

Liverpool - just like Leicester 2015-'16 - are going to have to deal with that. Liverpool - just like Leicester 2015-'16 - are going to have to deal with the unique pressure that comes with being leaders but leaders still seen as somewhat defying the odds. Liverpool - just like Leicester 2015-'16 - are going to have to learn on the job.

Because, unlike so many Anfield title winners between those glory years of 1963 to 1990, they don't have what former champion Jim Beglin has described as that proven experience of "maintaining a focus".

"There was a great concentration in our (1984) team," Beglin said. "We had that belief we'd pull through, because we'd been through it."

Changing

They'd so often been through the distinctly changing rhythms of a title challenge. "Just keep doing what we do and it'll happen again," was the message.

A proper title challenge, after all, often feels like it goes in three distinct stages.

The first is the foundation. It is the longest stage, lasting around half the season, and is about almost unthinkingly getting through games.

It's just about building the wins, because it's really too early for any truly deeper weight of meaning. This is why it can often feel much freer.

For previous champions, this stage can be enough to win the title in itself. For new challengers, like Leicester 2015-'16 and Liverpool now, it is what causes all the excitement and emotion to build. That then faces a real test.

The second part is the grind. A team is over the halfway mark and very consciously talked about as a potential winner, with that thereafter transforming the complexion of every fixture. You're no longer playing matches, but doing the job.

The third, then, is the run-in. That's where everything ratchets up.

And games like this will still dictate whether Liverpool get that far, because they have very definitely entered the second stage now. They are at the point where every game is a challenge rather than an opportunity.

Like this against Leicester; a fixture that in the freewheeling first half of the season would have seemed a winnable match against an inconsistent mid-table team now seems an awkward encounter with one of the Premier League's top-half teams, where the qualities of their better players feel all the more dangerous.

It was in that context Jurgen Klopp made such a point of mentioning Jamie Vardy's record against Liverpool, making Virgil van Dijk's availability all the more important .

Van Dijk looks to have recovered from illness in time to play tonight.

It was Vardy's goals against Liverpool at around this point in 2015-'16 that really consolidated the belief that Leicester could see it through.

"Jamie's best one against us was the one at Leicester the year they were champions," Klopp said. "He's a fantastic player."

That supremely professional 2-0 win was also notable because it came after another decision that helped emphasise the separation of these stages: a rare mid-season break.

So many at Leicester cite the week off that Claudio Ranieri gave them just after what could have been a morale-sapping late 2-1 defeat to Arsenal as a key to fortifying the side for the run-in.

"It worked out perfectly," Vardy said at the end of the season. "The gaffer gave us a week off to completely forget about everything and recharge the batteries.

"We all ventured off, quite a few of us went to Dubai together as a team, and I think that moment, for him to even think about doing that, showed what he'd thought of us as a team and how much work we'd already put in, so to get those batteries recharged for that week and come back fighting stronger was a massive part. It was a great idea."

Liverpool similarly went to Dubai this week, although for a properly organised team break, that gave Klopp a rare chance to do real training-ground work.

"Game-train-game-train is the best of course but having a proper week for football training is really what a manager wants to have," said Klopp.

Recover

"We don't have that often enough in modern football. We have pre-season and then three or four weeks over the year when you have a full week to train and not only to recover and prepare for the next opponent."

And there was the kicker. "There you can be outside more so it was good for the body and good for the soul," added Klopp, who may ask Fabinho to deputise for Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back with James Milner serving a one-match ban.

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