IF, for once, the “European night” atmosphere was lacking on Wednesday it was because there was a strong whiff of déjà vu mixing with pre-Bommie Night sulphur in the November air.
There was a sense, predominantly in the crowd, that the evening – despite a whole 12 years since Istanbul – was laced with a “been there, done that” mentality. A feeling of familiarity breeding a level of contempt for Champions League football so soon after reengaging with the elite competition, is rather typical of a modern, largely subdued Anfield crowd.
But, after missing out so frequently in recent years and all still to play for in Group E, maybe the listlessness in the stands stems from the imprinted domination of Europe during the Rafa Benitez epoch. Maribor were no Internazionale, AS Roma or Barcelona, but for a facile midweek win against the less glamorous you could equally read AS Monaco, Anderlecht, PSV Eindhoven or Bordeaux – all vanquished without fuss or the need to raise The Kop roof.
If the patient, pedestrian, probing of the first half was overly cautious – and somewhat dispiriting for the punters – the second half saw the tempo raised from adagio to allegro and a requisite pace for sterner European tests ahead. The same, pragmatic approach to a first 45 minutes of football was also evidenced last weekend against Huddersfield Town before Liverpool upped the ante and moved noticeably higher up the pitch in the second period.
If there was an air of familiarity in two 3-0 victories, there were many echoes of the Benitez era than so far in the broadly more helter-skelter reign of Jürgen Klopp. The recent drubbing at 4-1 Wembley might have been responsible for waning confidence, affecting the speed and intuition of The Reds’ football, but there were also the first signs of Klopp’s team adopting a more cautious approach.
The first halves against Maribor and David Wagner’s Terriers saw full backs Alberto Moreno and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez less inclined to push up, even if against Huddersfield Jordan Henderson was beseeching Gomez to be a more advanced outlet for his passing.
Whether a more safety-first initial approach – and a proliferation of sideways passing – was more by accident than design is possible too. Confidence is the game’s most critical, unquantifiable resource and the pain inflicted at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur has undoubtedly had an impact on the surety of Liverpool’s play.
Similarly, a midfield three shorn of Phil Coutinho’s invention, but combining the more prosaic qualities of Henderson’s running, Gini Wijnaldum’s shielding, James Milner’s shuttling and Emre Can’s occasional liking for a scrap won’t always inspire and prompt but should offer a more natural defensive screen.
In this instance, three workaday performers across the middle of the park ought to at least replicate the solidity offered by Benitez’s insurance of two holding midfielders. It wasn’t completely down to the limitations of the Tykes and Slovenians that neither were able to lay a glove on The Reds’ rearguard.
However, Klopp’s admission after both matches that the opening phases hadn’t been quite to his liking was perhaps telling that adoption of Benitez’s more cautious modus operandi is some way off yet. Nonetheless, experience of Rafa’s belief and success in the low-key controlling of football matches is an ace missing, thus far from Jürgen’s tactical pack but a trump card which might need dealing against the bigger fish in the Champions League pool.
In many ways Klopp is the complete antithesis to Benitez. One is emotional and demonstrative, the other a cool, calm and collected presence but not averse to the instructional. Klopp rides the wave of football matches which manifest in his urgings, while the Spaniard takes notes and remains semi detached. Rafa is innately more conservative, with Jürgen not so risk averse in philosophy but where Benitez is more experimental than the German with substitutions, Klopp traditionally prefers to wait until all avenues of his first picks have been explored before considering change.
As if to confirm their intrinsic differences, a studious portly Latin in a suit and waistcoat to disguise a widening girth, contrasts with an emotive, rakishly thin Teutonic athlete bouncing round in on-brand trabs and trackie. While Klopp’s glasses are likely to fall off at the sounding of victorious final whistle, our former leader will safely stow his spectacles away in an inside pocket.
All that said, to pigeon hole Klopp as a mere motivator, keen on inclusion and team spirit alone, is to damn him with the faintest of praise, and equally to label Benitez a cold fish who cares not a jot how many disciples reside in his dressing room is the legacy of an Anfield spell when his media perception was in complete contrast to the respectful billing he now enjoys.
There are more ways than one to skin a cat in this managerial lark and neither man lacks in their own respective brand of charisma. Both are thinkers and strategists of the highest order but it’s worth remembering that both have charted paths to UEFA Cup and Champions League finals and that such journeys are never plotted without great precision and lateral thinking, albeit that one might have contemplated matters sipping at a Rioja while the other sampled the hops of a decent lager.
In terms of Liverpool in the Champions League, there are yet more contradictions which apply to both bosses. Benitez’s reputation for watchfulness was nowhere to be seen when The Reds, right from the first whistle, tore into Juventus back in 2005 and Real Madrid in 2009; those years spanning the golden European era for which he is most fondly remembered. If Klopp can learn anything from his foreign predecessor as The Reds progress in Europe, it is that the Anfield midweek crowd remains – despite Wednesday’s application of the mute button – the bedrock of this club’s continental might.
Jürgen would do well to draw on Rafa’s defensive blankets and insurance policies where necessary but if he’s to feed off Anfield’s most raucous incarnation, and slay Barcelona and Real Madrid plus the Premier League Anglo-Saxon European quartet, remaining true to his up-and-at-them approach and high-tempo attacking football is the best way to energise his 50,000 plus cheerleaders.
Benitez was sufficiently tuned to the Anfield wave to recalibrate his natural inclinations in Europe but for Klopp the challenge is keep mindful of his attacking philosophy which will transform the pings of Maribor pin drops into the constant beat of a Scouse drum once the big boys show up on our doorstep from February onwards.
Surf the wave in a good way, live in this moment and all can be pretty cool. And, come Kiev in May, maybe, just maybe we can revisit a glorious sense of that old déjà vu.