BEFORE this season began I speculated that Liverpool would challenge for the title. My logic was that Arsenal always finish fourth, Tottenham would be heartbroken at not taking Leicester to the wire last season — much as we were in 2014-2015 — and Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City all had new managers that would need a bedding-in period.
I also thought that Jürgen Klopp’s two-thirds of a season as Liverpool manager would stand him in good stead, with the German having discovered what life in the Premier League is really all about. Antonio Conte, on the other hand, would be learning on the job and Pep Guardiola would be in the same boat. Jose Mourinho knows the league well, of course, but I figured it would take him a while to buy all of the players he needs to win.
I wasn’t right about everything, who is? Certainly one of the big things I failed to take into account was exactly the extent to which the Chelsea players had downed tools under the Portuguese manager last season. In the end it didn’t take much for Conte to get them firing again and it turns out that title winners know how to win titles — who knew?
I also wonder the extent to which Klopp really got to understand the league last year. Let’s be honest, it was a ludicrous year in the life of the English top-flight. Leicester City won the title. Leicester — playing in the Championship as recent as 2014 — won more points than any other team in the division. Chelsea, who had finished outside the top four just once in the previous 13 seasons, had relegation form for most of the campaign and ended the year tenth.
Klopp could have been forgiven for thinking, ‘It won’t always be like this’. Perhaps when Tony Pulis’s West Brom team turned up at Anfield in December of 2015 the manager looked at all these six foot five lads and thought it was just another bit of craziness from a madcap season. No wonder he made his team celebrate in front of the Kop — they had just taken on a group of golems and lived to tell the tale.
The German’s attention was also skewed by our progress in the League Cup and the Europa League, with the former Dortmund boss probably thinking it would be great to win a trophy in his first season in England. The fact that we had a match every 12 hours for about six months won’t have helped him figure out how everything works.
Maybe the manager went into this season thinking he would get us to play better against the ‘lesser lights’ of the league. After all, he’d brought in some players that he wanted and had the summer to work with those players, too.
He could have taken the loss to Burnley as a sign that having loads of boss lads and asking them to just go and play their football isn’t always a winning technique. But then Liverpool went 11 games unbeaten, smashing 19 goals as Leicester, Hull, Crystal Palace and Watford were put to the sword — so he probably figured his plan was working.
Fast forward to the back end of April and Liverpool have lost just five games all season — equal to, or less than, the number of games lost by six of the previous 10 champions.
It’s not the number of losses that have felt like a let down, rather the teams that we’ve lost to. Fifteen points dropped to Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull and Leicester. Indeed, if you give us two wins against Bournemouth instead of a loss and a draw then we’re on the same points as Spurs and just four behind Chelsea.
In our last two games, though, it feels as though the penny has completely and totally dropped for Klopp. Whatever you think of the manager’s decision to go to five-at-the-back against Stoke, it showed that he was willing to try something different against that sort of team. The hybrid formation against West Brom didn’t totally pay off, but again it demonstrated the German’s willingness to try a different approach.
Was it just blind fortune? Would he have made the same decision if Adam Lallana, Sadio Mané and Jordan Henderson were all fit?
It’s more than possible that he would have stuck with his tried and tested method of playing all his boss lads. Yet in the week before the West Brom game, reports emerged from Melwood of the players working on set-pieces. At first it seemed James Milner had just taken one of his dreadful free-kicks when the ball fell well short of the bodies in the box, but when he did the same thing again two minutes later and Lucas got on the end of it it all made some sort of sense.
Leeds’ Chris Wood has been championed by The Anfield Wrap’s Neil Atkinson as a potential Liverpool signing, and laughed off by many, but would that be such a preposterous transfer?
We can’t say that the manager needs to figure out how to beat the dross one minute and then laugh at us potentially signing a lad who’s helped Leeds beat the dross the next. If there’s any truth whatsoever in the rumour then that might also signal a shift in Klopp’s way of thinking.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few matches.
Five games remain and they’re against Crystal Palace, Watford, Southampton, West Ham and Middlesbrough. With the exception of Southampton, they’re all the type of team that we’ve struggled to cope with this season. How will the manager approach them tactically? Will he opt for one thing at home and another in the aways?
I hope he keeps experimenting. Given our performances against the rest of the ‘Big Six’ this season there’s no reason why the Reds can’t compete for the title next time out. The only thing that’s stopped us doing so this year are losses or draws against teams that we really should be steamrolling.
Perhaps the manager didn’t learn how to take them on last season. Perhaps he has done as this season has worn on.
Five games away from Champions League football. Once we’re back there, it’s easy to envisage this manager of all managers helping us to stick around for a few years. Let’s just keep on beating the dross.