Thursday 18 January 2018

Ronnie Whelan: Balanced and pragmatic Liverpool have the tools to end title famine

Read Ronnie Whelan's exclusive column every week in The Herald

Liverpool's Roberto Firmino celebrates scoring with Philippe Coutinho
Liverpool's Roberto Firmino celebrates scoring with Philippe Coutinho
Ronnie Whelan

Ronnie Whelan

THAT was a statement, and a very significant one too. Liverpool have a real title challenge on and Jurgen Klopp’s victory grin had a feral look to it.

Most people were celebrating the goals Liverpool scored against Watford and the overwhelming momentum Klopp’s team was able to build up and sustain over a full game.

But I saw other things which made me even happier. I saw a much better balance to the team.

I remember during the first four or five months of Brendan Rodgers’ run at the title feeling distinctly queasy about climbing on any bandwagon for two reasons.

The team had a bad habit of winning big and failing against weaker opposition and Rodgers had very few options to bring off the bench.

Liverpool had a huge win over Arsenal in early February, 2014 and I remember challenging them to go and stamp their authority on Fulham in their next game at Craven Cottage.

They went behind twice and left it until a Stevie Gerrard penalty in the 90th minute to win it and launch themselves on a real title chase.

Just a month ago, I still had some of the same doubts about Liverpool. I was concerned about brittleness at the back and inconsistency.

But against Watford, I saw defenders put their foot through the ball at the right time. I saw pragmatism at the back.

It’s great to play the ball out when it’s right to do it but sometimes it’s a much better option to just play it long.

As a result, when Watford came back at Liverpool, they only got one.

In Rodgers’ time, that game might have ended 5-4 and even a year ago under Klopp, Liverpool would probably have conceded more.

However, this time when they had a dip, Watford scored but the response was a bit like Ireland when the All-Blacks inched to within four points of them in Chicago.

They put their heads down and went again. On came Daniel Sturridge and Gerogino Wijnaldum and Watford were pinned back again as shots peppered substitute goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon.

It was great to see and very encouraging. We knew Klopp had a plan and I think this was the closest the players have come to executing it fully.

What a contrast with Ronald Koeman and Everton. Just a few months ago, everyone wondered whether Liverpool would be the best club on Merseyside, never mind in England.

The goal difference between the two teams shifted by 10 in Liverpool’s favour in one day and while that is an exaggeration of the gap between the sides, it underlines one very important point for someone like Seamus Coleman.

After a promising start, Everton have done what they have done for many seasons now and if there is any truth in the speculation linking Coleman with Manchester United, he should not hesitate.

I know this will attract some flak from Everton fans but I am just being realistic. If Coleman wants Champions League football, he is more likely to experience it during a five-year contact at Old Trafford than Goodison Park.

Koeman is on our minds because of the James McCarthy situation and I have to say, I have more than a touch of sympathy for the Dutchman.

He would be justified in feeling annoyed that his function at the moment seems to be to get McCarthy fit for Ireland internationals. I didn’t agree with the overblown language he used and he would have been far better off picking up the phone to Martin O’Neill but I think he has a point.

Put it this way, he may want to sell McCarthy and he can’t do that if he’s constantly injured.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that O’Neill was wrong to play McCarthy against Georgia and Moldova.

He would not have been doing his job properly if he didn’t and the player wanted to play.

But equally Koeman has a duty to his club to get the best value for money and even if that is getting the best price for a player rather than performances on a pitch, he is well within his rights to be annoyed at what he sees as an encroachment on his patch.

My gut instinct is that McCarthy will sit this one out against Austria but it would be helpful if everyone eased back on the megaphone diplomacy.

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