ONCE the final whistle blew at The Emirates last Sunday, and particularly once the flap of the last half hour was reduced to a mere detail amid a dazzling Reds’ performance and a cracking day out, the scoreline I took home with me was Arsenal 1 v 4 Liverpool.
I paused the highlights at 4-1 the following day, for that was the real story of the match, and only now that the euphoria has subsided am I beginning to ponder the significance of conceding those three goals.
After the match, Jürgen Klopp admitted that while “scoring four goals is wonderful, conceding three is the opposite of emotions”. The four goals were indeed all wonderful, as was Liverpool’s attacking pace, threat and sheer penetrative brilliance.
The opposite of wonderful is “awful”, and yet awful isn’t a word that summed up Liverpool’s defending as a team, aside from Alberto Moreno’s madcap half-hour and Dejan Lovren’s deliberate attempt to unbalance himself by voluntarily “amputating” his own arms and deflecting the second goal past Simon Mignolet.
Throughout the 90 minutes plus, as a whole and particularly when it really mattered at 4-3, Liverpool, often screening the defence well, held Arsenal at bay — comfortably.
However, there will be days when we come under more sustained pressure. Given the uncertainty of the first-choice personnel in the one area of a successful team which is seldom rotated — the defence — there remains the nagging prospect of an unhealthy tally in the goals against column.
Only Nathaniel Clyne is a nailed-on back four selection looking ahead. Once Klopp perms any four from Loris Karius, Mamadou Sakho, Joel Matip, and James Milner (or perhaps the lesser-spotted, yet-to-be-recruited first reliable Liverpool FC left-back since Steve Nicol) plus last weekend’s quintet, we will have a clearer idea of how the German wants Liverpool to defend.
There is little doubt surrounding how he wants us to go forward — rapidly, vertically, and in numbers; with a mix of width and directness. We saw all of that in those three outstanding second-half goals.
Crucially though, we’ve yet to really find out his preferred balance between attack and defence.
While Jürgen lamented the concession of three goals at Arsenal, and like any manger cuts deeply at the notion of sloppiness, he is increasingly exhibiting all the facets of an attacking football philosophy. High defensive lines, aggressive pressing and counter pressing, midfielders flooding the penalty area and lots of goals — the most by any Premier League team in 2016.
If you want to make this case further, examine the proportions of Liverpool’s summer investment and compare an inexpensive young goalkeeper and free centre-half with significant, if not bank breaking, expenditure on a midfielder with an eye for a goal, and a front three player with pace to burn.
Like everyone else I was blown away by Sadio Mane and was quietly very impressed by the forays of Gini Wijnaldum.
Some of the signs of Klopp’s attacking intent were in place last season, once the turgid late autumn and bleak mid-winter were out of the way.
While Klopp made sense of the football club (not least its peculiarly schizophrenic crowds), a new league, a new language and the quirks and qualities of his players, he struggled to maintain the excitement of his honeymoon period.
By early spring though it was raining goals, not exclusively in the right net and continuing right through until the end in Basel, but Klopp’s attacking blueprint was becoming visible.
Sunday at the Emirates has only reinforced those impressions.
Klopp, however, isn’t Brendan Rodgers. Looking at Dortmund’s consecutive Bundesliga triumphs in 2011 and 2012, Borussia conceded just 22 and 25 goals respectively in 34 games.
Against better opposition in the Champions League (during their run to the final in 2013) Dortmund conceded 14 goals in their 13 matches.
Against Malaga in the quarter finals and Real Madrid in the semis, Dortmund threw the Wesfalenstadion kitchen sink at their opponents in performances reminiscent of those we’re already getting a flavour of under Kloppo.
It is advisable that Klopp isn’t like his predecessor. Or indeed, like Roy Evans. Both left Liverpool with reputations sullied by the Anfield patrons despite both offering the best attacking football seen since our last league title in 1990.
It’s interesting to consider that while he always spent big on goalkeepers and defenders, Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson’s prime tactic was to outscore the opposition — often by lashing as many wingers and forwards on the pitch as was reasonable.
In Europe, where a greater tactical finesse was required at the very highest level, he floundered more often.
Conversely, and concurrently, Gerard Houllier won a shedload of silver, but was castigated, then hounded for an overly-negative approach by Liverpool fans.
Rafael Benitez probably had the right balance — his 2008-09 team scored 77 goals and conceded 27 in achieving 86 points. But he had his detractors throughout and his alleged conservatism was blamed for “blowing” a league title his managerial nous put Liverpool in contention for.
I’m amazed one of his critics never staged a play at the Liverpool Empire called The Shackles.
Liverpool fans are hard to please, and while the club and fans’ anthem remains You’ll Never Walk Alone, it’s just as well that Gerry Marsden never composed something melodic to Win the League or Fuck Off.
Back to the present day. For all the attacking verve on display in our opening fixture, Klopp will crave a sturdier defence. He might even want a few 1-0 wins; the stuff of title winners.
When he left Daniel Sturridge on the bench at Villareal last season the manager explained that he wanted more solidity. He opted for the same striker-less front three at Arsenal and instead of tame defeat saw a “False Nine” Liverpool tear the Gunners’ rearguard to shreds.
I wonder what Sturridge in particular, Danny Ings (who was on under-23s duty) and to a lesser extent Divock Origi think of their starting 11 prospects this season? The irony is that an attacking Liverpool team might be at their most potent without a recognised striker.
With Emre Can still to return and Wijnaldum therefore another contender for an advanced role, some big hitters are going to miss out.
Klopp is on record as not wanting to rotate for the sake of things and he has little opportunity to offer cup football as a sop to those who aren’t picked. His man-management skills will be honed on this issue as he strives to ensure a harmonious substitutes’ bench.
However, his priority still lies with sorting, or “organising the defence” as some self-professed experts like to put it. It’s a massive priority because up front we look bloody fantastic and it is all very exciting.
He may already have this worked out, but we need to conclude on exactly what we’re doing at left-back, settle on a keeper when Karius is back, and decide on a centre-back partnership that might not necessarily be the one foreseen by either the fans or Jürgen himself.
Some Liverpool fans, armed with their thesaurus of blame and array of synonyms for “gung ho”, won’t tolerate another title ship going aground on the rocks of a shoddy defence.
A clean sheet in wet and windy Burnley will do for starters.
See you at Turf Moor and Up the Reds.
For podcasts on every Liverpool game this season, transfer gossip, the lowdown on new signings and more, subscribe to TAW Player for just £5 per month. Minimum sign-up is just one month. If it’s not for you, all you’ve shelled out is a fiver! More information here.
Our latest free show post-Arsenal is here – just press play!