IN the summer, I chronicled that one of Jürgen Klopp’s prime tasks this season was to eradicate the fear factor that has held The Reds back in recent seasons.
It could also be argued an issue with players’ mentality at Liverpool stretches back much further — the “weight of the shirt” an ever-increasing burden with each passing year without a League title.
In my July piece, I also concluded that Klopp’s debut season was sabotaged by a brittle team ethic — that players were, perhaps unconsciously, playing for themselves; fearful of their futures under the new manager.
Credence was given to this idea in that a number of players had exhibited marked improvements in their own game under Klopp — Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi to name but a few — but without a significant upturn in league results.
The hard evidence came in the detail of an eighth place league finish, and ongoing issues surrounding the players’ “character” were on show in two lame cup final performances.
The early signs, four games into a new season, are that the psychological sands are shifting. Leicester last weekend had the hallmarks of the performance and mentality Klopp craves. There were a few stand-out showings from Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge but no clear man of the match. To use an old Brendan Rodgers-ism, the team was the star.
However, there also seemed be a wider sense of leadership, belief and mental strength on show at the new-look Anfield. The men of Rodgers’s legacy — much maligned for their backbone in some quarters, but never by the manager — have now survived the summer cull.
That in itself is a vote of confidence, and for Adam Lallana we’ve seen him take his improvement — formed on the basis of hard yakka last term — to a new plane, on which he is beginning to exhibit his more creative gifts. In fashionable parlance he’s now delivering regular numbers, despite playing deeper than last season.
Even Simon Mignolet — the “darling” of the crowd — is showing greater resolve. More decisive and aggressive in the air, he took a clattering from the prehistoric boulder that is Robert Huth’s face against Leicester and just got on with it.
The more his legions of detractors spout their bile, the more I hope Big Si avoids a relapse. The clamour for Loris Karius is understandable but God help him if he isn’t the second coming of Sepp Maier.
A more serious point is that playing in front of a Kop that hates you requires fortitude and while he will never be the surest custodian there’s something courageous to admire in Mignolet’s stay of execution.
Jordan Henderson, now free of the heel complaints that dogged his captaincy, suddenly looks a more natural leader. Barking instructions throughout, perhaps responsible for the call that triggers the “press”, the skipper was also constantly in the referee’s ear last Saturday.
A savvier Liverpool, a dirtier, more unpleasant Liverpool will be proof the team is growing in personality.
In an interview last week, Henderson bemoaned the injuries that not only ruined his game but hindered his captaincy so often did he had to cede the armband to James Milner. Milner is redoubtable but not particularly expressive and Henderson’s fully-fledged return offers the team some bark to a midfield that on the surface lacks traditional bite.
At the back, Joel Matip, an impressive home debutant, not only showed composure on the ball but offered support for Lucas Leiva in the wake of his grave error. The crowd, with a higher percentage now veering firmly into Klopp’s believers’ camp, also helped but Lucas — very much the senior pro — responded in kind. Winning a big header moments after Jamie Vardy’s tap-in, he was flawless thereafter — his seniority obvious, his serenity infectious.
Lucas, with his assured but progressive passing from the back (evidenced by involvement in three goals at the weekend) is an interesting alternative to Lovren. He brings calms over the Croatian’s occasional chaos and lacks nothing in the combative side of the game. Sometimes, teams and selection evolve by accident and I for one would prefer Lucas, especially with his combined gifts for reading the play in front and experience.
With Lovren, Phil Coutinho, Emre Can and Divock Origi all pushing for starting spots, first-team places are at a premium right now. With players more assured of their Liverpool futures and growing into the Liverpool shirt, healthy competition for places is beginning to outweigh the fear of rejection.
Maybe that’s what is required before individuals can show their true selves in a burgeoning team unit; exhibiting resolve, personality and grit that many thought absent, but as young footballers took their lives on a path to a professional career and a contract at Liverpool.
We often forget, when accusing them of lacking bottle, these are the elite lads who shook off the competition of a thousand wannabes to get where they are.
At Liverpool, under the microscope of a saturated media and global millions, environment is key if these talents are to thrive and realise their potential. Klopp seems to be succeeding in this respect and make no mistake, this is a gifted squad of players. Arguably, Liverpool are playing the most exciting football in the League and if those thrills can unite with nous and hard heads, the sky is the limit.
Nothing is ever solved overnight and there are still flaws in our make-up. Consider the 10-minute flap at Arsenal, the brainless frustration represented in 80 per cent of impotent possession at Burnley and the lack of conviction in not seeing off Tottenham.
That said, at the Emirates the Reds recovered their composure to see out the game and finished the stronger at White Hart Lane.
There are signs those familiar mental aberrations are becoming less frequent but when there is meltdown we’re also learning to recover. Shaking off the calamity of Leicester’s goal last week was a microcosm of a side learning to keep its head.
Klopp’s influence continues to grow and as much as he will attend to tactics, organisation and shape he will be mindful to water the blossoming confidence of his charges.
We’re still some way short of establishing Fortress Anfield under the shadow of the new Main Stand but Leicester was a start. Leadership and gumption will be required against teams performing better than the relatively limp Champions.
Klopp, the arch motivator and psychologist will make light of the weight of the Red shirt and instead be looking to empower it — home and away.
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