THE death of hope. The January-February requiem for a season. So often the case. The ground hog campaign. It’s a very familiar cycle. August’s boundless optimism, yielding to September’s anxiety, making way to an October-November of expectation ebb and flow.
By the time Christmas arrives things are typically getting a bit messy. Any bad day early in the New Year and cards are getting marked. It’s been this way for 25 years.
So here we are again at that familiar staging post. We’ve lost as many as we’ve won now for weeks. It’s a ratio that isn’t getting us anywhere. We need the catalyst of a big win.
Arsenal, midweek, blinded by the Anfield glare, is the sort of platform you would script.
It feels much more like the kind of Champions League quarter-final or title decider you would get geared up for on a bristling and bracing L4 night. Surely there’s drama ahead. Surely there’s goals in them hills.
So it’s a big game, this. A really really big game.
Is it that season definer?
Yes, it probably is.
Liverpool are past the stage where we can say a quick winning run of four or five games (like that’s ever been a casual occurrence) will correct it all. Liverpool need the big result. Actually, we need the two big home results against both Arsenal and Manchester United this week.
Four points would lift us hugely, six and we would be on the shoulders of giants.
Six, and Exeter in the Cup becomes the game I’ve waited all my life for. I’ll be up that morning like an “I’ll believe in literally anything” five-year-old on Christmas morning. Every Liverpool FC-related matter would matter.
Often enough, Liverpool sides have had the common decency to display the requisite sense of occasion in these circumstances. These dark, clear-skied winter evenings that Anfield has always felt made for.
The mind wanders back to a night when even Alberto Aquilani was able to raise the roof (scoring v Spurs under the lights in 2010). To Mario Balotelli’s last goal for Liverpool (Tottenham again the guests) last February. To that Champions League quarter-final (vs Arsenal in 2009) that looked lost, and was then snatched back by the never legendary Ryan Babel with just seconds to spare.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal won’t have read this script, nor should they. They are top of the league and they’ve got a league title to win.
Arsene will tell his lads that back in the day his champions would rock up to Anfield and put Liverpool to bed.
Ours was always a scalp they’d like to take as wrote.
They come up north this time without the artillery that might ordinarily have us quaking. Main main Alexis Sanchez won’t make it, and a few others are nursing knocks and niggles. They also remain an enigma of a team. The Premier League standard bearers one week, same old flatter-to-deceive merchants the next.
The November reverse at West Brom and December 4-0 flattening at Southampton evidence that Arsenal are still nearer being one of the manager’s endless works in progress than being one of his finished products of distant yesteryear.
Arsenal weren’t good at Anfield last term. Fortunate to get a 2-2 draw, and according to Wenger still displaying signs of the shell shock that derailed them in the wake of 2014’s 5-1 scorching at the hands of Brendan Rodgers’ uber reds.
Football loves cycles. Years of never winning at a ground, and then you do it for fun. Years of our dominance. Years of theirs. We need Arsenal hearts to flutter again as they enter our cauldron. We want them to experience flash backs. We want that post-trauma spirit of 2014 to possess them once more.
For our part, we’re hardly in the finest of fettle, let’s be right. We remain a spluttering machine, seemingly purring for periods before stalling without warning.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool just can’t seem to get going. The manager will say, with huge justification, that his side have been injury ravaged in a pretty unprecedented way. He will add that he has had to manage this crisis within the context of the most claustrophobic of fixture schedules.
His job is more about putting fingers in dykes than about implementing any master plan, the emergency loan signing for Steven Caulker more evidence of this.
He has sought to fire the team with motivation and greater levels of fitness, but has found he can’t do right for doing wrong. Every electric display has come at a heavy cost, with player after player succumbing to repetitive strain injuries.
Two defining performances in five days is no small ask. If Liverpool can summon up the energy and passion to swamp Arsenal there is every possibility it will come at the price of a tame showing against Manchester United.
It isn’t as though Kloppo has a squad left to rotate. It’s more or less a first come, first served 11 plus a bunch of kids whose crowning achievement thus far has been living with the unmighty Exeter City for 90 minutes.
The good news filtering through is the return to match readiness of Jordan Henderson and Mamamdou Sahko. Captains and leaders both.
Word also that Jordon Ibe’s hamstring has been touched by the healing hand of the lord and that a four-week prognosis has become a four-dayer. “Ibeeeeeeeeee” is back. Most likely on the bench.
What’s a Klopp to do then ? Liverpool aren’t scoring goals, and therefore there is no kidding anyone that Liverpool can put out a front three or four to frighten any Premier League defence.
Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke are just about the only fully fit attacking players available to the manager.
History tells us Benteke has goals in him, but he needs help. Lallana has yet to register a league goal and Firmino has all of one to his name.
Liverpool don’t look the kind of ruthless machine that can bide its time, wait for its moment, and cobra-like strike and steal a goal.
This Liverpool need to throw a blanket over the head of the opponent and smother it.
If Klopp has any luxuries in his currently available mob it is in the central midfield positions. Henderson, Joe Allen, Lucas Leiva, James Milner and Emre Can are all fit and represent his full compliment of options in the position.
The manager may feel that selecting four of these combative five would represent an interesting alternative to looking for more penetrative solutions. In short, outrunning Arsenal may be the best way of outgunning Arsenal.
This approach would negate the pressure to start with Benteke who is hardly in the form of his life and not showing much evidence of being part of our counter-attacking armoury.
An effective midfield of six bodies then, with Firmino as a nominal spearhead, could be the best way of at a minimum protecting the starting result and as a maximum of providing a platform of dominance from which to go on and win the game.
Wenger would surely relish facing a more open and artistic home team than a more stoic and aggressive one. He doesn’t want to face an elite version of Stoke.
In his press conference Jurgen hinted that he fancies the tactical tit-for-tat with Wenger and that he is more than content to go full-scale industrial for this one.
When the team is tannoyed and Milner’s name is crackled out into the Anfield night, the TV men will speculate that “Milly” will be bound to be putting in a more creative and offensive shift. They’ll be wrong.
They’ll wonder if Can might play an attacking role as he has once or twice did for Germany’s Under-21 side. They’ll be wrong to wonder that, too.
They will see front threes where none will exist.
Kloppo will be playing a front 11. A defensive 11. A midfield 11.
Just got this feeling. Arsenal can embarrass Liverppool. But they won’t. They’re going to get bludgeoned.
That bludgeoning 11: Mignolet; Clyne, Toure, Sakho, Moreno; Lucas, Can; Milner, Henderson, Lallana; Firmino.