Well that was bloody marvellous wasn’t it? Going to the Etihad this time around, given Chelsea’s continual struggles, was, on paper at least, the toughest assignment the Reds would have in the league this season. The fact that just after the half hour Jürgen’s boys found themselves 3-0 up, coasting, and seemingly able to cut City’s back four to shreds at will was beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic supporters’ pre-game expectations. You’ve probably read umpteen articles of analysis already, and the buzzwords are largely the same: hunger, pressing, pace, movement, energy and belief. The transformation really has been something to behold. The most pleasing aspect of Klopp’s approach so far has been his simplicity. Playing players in positions they are comfortable in, instilling organisation without the ball, and demanding 100% effort from the players. Workrate and high-pressing used to deadly effect- reducing the elite team in the division to a dishevelled mess in glorious style.
Lallana made a comment after the game that has largely gone unnoticed- “it was great fun” he said when talking about the attacking play. This is significant, when was the last time you heard a Liverpool player say that about a game? Especially one against a big rival away from home? At Klopp’s much heralded first press conference he made a big point of this. Football needs to be fun, the players need to relax and that “heavy shirt” that Brendan Rodgers referred to, that load needs to be lightened. Players expressing themselves on the pitch, putting everything into that one game, playing like there is no tomorrow. It’s happening now, and quicker than most of us thought was possible. Our “top 4” away record has been an embarrassment for years and its hugely significant that Klopp has already instilled in this team already a belief that they can go anywhere and win.
The next two months will be critical in shaping how Jürgen’s first season will ultimately be remembered. There is a huge opportunity now, one which the Reds need to grasp with both hands. The biggest barrier we face, unusually for us – is at Anfield. Our beloved home patch has not been anywhere near the fortress it needs to be this season. Eight points from eighteen so far is a dreadful return, with the two wins achieved against Bournemouth and Villa – the two worst teams in the league – and we made bloody hard work of both. That needs to change quickly for Liverpool to climb the table and to turn Klopp’s first season from mere rapid progress into a triumph. One glance at the table shows how damaging those home defeats against Palace and West Ham in particular have been. Win those two and you are joint 4th and two points from the summit. Given the away games already out of the way under normal circumstances we would be giddy by now, but home form has provided the reality check all along since August. In the summer, when the fixtures came out, there was a collective sense of dread about the run of away games, well, they’re negotiated, and overall the Reds have the 5th best away record in the league. We’d have taken that after the depths plumbed in May at Stoke…
The task now for Jürgen is to bottle the confidence and belief that the team have shown in abundance at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge and take that form into the run of games that lie ahead. Make no mistake this is a division riddled with plenty of shite and average teams. Maximising the points return for the run of home games coming now is a must. The system employed by Klopp has worked beautifully away from home. Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana have thrived when asked to break into the box from deep, instigating counter attacks when there is space behind, as there was at Chelsea and City, comes easy and naturally to these players. Home form though represents a completely different challenge. Anfield is not a happy place these days, there is the ongoing issue with flags off the pitch, a poor atmosphere, a nervous and quiet home support that gets impatient with the team at the first sign of trouble in a game and hinders rather than helps. The only way that it will turn around, is the team performing and winning. There is no 12th man at Anfield to drag the team through right now, for all the fluff, bluster, and marketing the club do with YNWA and the KOP there is no intimidation factor at Anfield and some of the petty behaviour of club officials is not helping. If you go back to that Chelsea semi-final in 2005 you won’t recognise the stadium, that night Anfield was a snarling, nasty, bear pit for the opposition, it was worth a (ghost) goal start on its own. The reality now is the team have to lift the crowd. Klopp’s comment after the Palace game was welcome, our home support is largely shite and needs addressing, however that will be a long process requiring some creative thinking, for now we need performances, wins, and goals from the men in Red to get the pulses racing and the crowd singing again. It was only two seasons ago amidst the title challenge fervour that the atmosphere was great, and the pre-game ritual with the fans greeting the team was exhilarating everyone- we can still get up for it, we just need a lot of encouragement now it seems.
The next two home games are perfectly set up, Bordeaux and Swansea are exactly the type of opposition the team should be licking their lips at getting stuck into. The sort of games where a few goals can change the entire mood around the old place. I know it’s an obvious one, but the loss of Sturridge has been massive for Liverpool, more than any other factor (and boy there were plenty) his injuries cost Rodgers his job. He is a top line forward, only bettered by Aguero in England, and any team would miss him. The captain returning also feels hugely significant. Teams have thrived this season by sitting deep, killing the space and countering us at Anfield. Against that type of strategy having relentless runners breaking into the box is key to unlocking the door, and Henderson remains the Reds’ best midfielder for that job by a distance. He also bring a guile and quality on the ball which Milner simply doesn’t possess and he can also match him for energy. Given the confidence now in the team, both men’s imminent return represents a pivotal moment in the early days of the Klopp revolution, how quickly they integrate into the system will be fundamental to dispatching the teams we are expected to beat.
What are we settling for now as supporters this season anyway? Top 4 and a trophy by common consensus would be brilliant for most. So far every great result has been followed by a downer, but here we are, still in all the cups, six points away from the top four and a much more appealing set of fixtures ahead. The coming weeks will set the tone for what happens, Klopp is taking the Europa League seriously, using it to get to know his best team and for the team to hone his game-plan. We really need a trophy as a club, nothing bonds a group of players more than that sense of togetherness and achievement of being out on a pitch celebrating with a piece of silverware in the photos – that used to be the norm for those who donned the Liverbird upon their chest. It needs to become the norm again. I’m delighted we are taking Europe seriously, there are only two trophies that can be won in Europe each season – we are in one of them – so go for it. Any trophy this season immediately elevates Klopp’s standing and takes pressure off. Should we beat Bordeaux and negotiate Southampton away in the League Cup all will look very positive on the silverware front – the League Cup in particular, given the exit of so many other big clubs in the last round is wide open.
So to the league, where the fixtures, along with the improving news on the injury front offers huge incentive. Swansea, Newcastle, West Brom, Watford, Leicester, Sunderland in the next 6 – okay, the current league leaders (unbelievably) are in there, but by Christ what a chance we have now. 100% focus on these games, our best striker and best midfielder back, dream just for a second, but a return of 15 points from those 6 would thrust us right in the middle of things at the top end. There is absolutely no certainty about that type of points return currently – we are so inconsistent at home, but these are games we must start winning and if we do… well who knows? What I do know for sure is I’d much rather Jürgen having to try and crack the code of learning to beat the shite at home than having to figure out how to win away to Chelsea and City. We have the players, we just need the momentum a couple of home wins on the bounce can give us. The New Year then offers a chance for revenge at West Ham before two titanic fixtures in the space of 4 days at Anfield in mid-January – United and Arsenal at home. I genuinely believe its not too late for us to get involved in a title challenge, although that will ultimately depend on Sturridge staying fit (never a sure bet). If people laugh at that – point to the team currently leading the way. Anything can happen this season – everyone is vulnerable and beatable.
For all the current home form concerns, I trust this manager to figure it out, the job certainly gets easier with a lethal striker in the mix. Saturday’s performance has whetted the appetite, who amongst us isn’t chomping at the bit to see us in action again? To see Firmino and Coutinho in tandem wreaking havoc, to see Emre Can absolutely bossing it again? Klopp’s appointment always felt like the beginning of an exciting chapter. The team have taken to him and are buying into what he wants, this team are on board, it would be nice if the Anfield crowd could get on board too. These next two months are huge, the opposition looks appealing, and the timing of injuries clearing up is perfect. Bring it on…