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Coordinated chaos edging Liverpool closer to new history

Michael Noone
CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
437   //    23 Apr 2019, 11:45 IST

Virgil van Dijk has been key to Liverpool's defensive transformation
Virgil van Dijk has been key to Liverpool's defensive transformation

History is the weaponized word so frequently used in an attempt to diminish the achievements of English football’s two most prolific trophy grabbing teams of the past decade, Manchester City and Chelsea.

In the midst of a perennial and bitter rivalry, supporters of Manchester United and Liverpool are together in their collective sentiment that City and Chelsea simply cannot be compared to their giant red counterparts. “They’ve bought their trophies, they have no history.”

Since Liverpool last hoisted the English top-flight trophy in 1990, history of course has not sat around reminding people what happened in the 1970s and 80s. The picture has changed. The World Wide Web as we know it was dropped into our laps. Turns out that has become a pretty big deal. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were a decade and a half down the line. MySpace, or the Brendan Rogers’ Liverpool of social media has been and gone. iphones were seventeen years away.

We’ve welcomed peace in Northern Ireland, six Prime Ministers, five US Presidents, and seven winners of the biggest prize in English football. Oh and the planet is close to death.

The chaotic global landscape we navigate today could be the perfect setting for Liverpool to finally give their fans a new chapter in their magnificent history. Fewer false dawns and former glories, replaced with “what the hell is going to happen next?”

Chaos seemed to be the hallmark of Jurgen Klopp’s team that came so close to Champions League glory last season. A magnificent, manic attacking trio collaborated to awaken cold, sweating defenders in the night. A pair of goalkeepers you wouldn’t fancy to keep a clean sheet if they were both allowed to tend the net at once and their goal was a five-a-side sized one meant every opposing team sensed they had a chance.

The defense was as reliable as an early 90s dial up internet connection. In a one-off game you could present a viable argument for them beating any team on the planet 4-0, yet over the season it was difficult to imagine them coming close to winning the league. Klopp’s recent managerial history suggested this was perhaps all he was capable of.

His enviably entertaining Borussia Dortmund team secured back to back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and were tiring just to watch; his ‘Gegenpressing’ style was lauded as somewhat revolutionary. His players worshiped him and as an aesthetic force they were captivating to see.

Klopp had to recruit smartly and cope with the looming ever-present awful reality that Bayern Munich would be hovering around his best players. For a while, he terrified the Bavarian giants and it was enthralling to witness. However, such a demanding style is always likely to come with a short shelf life and his team suffered the football equivalent of a caffeine crash, spending 2014 flirting with the relegation zone before finishing the season in 7th place.

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Klopp departed with a formidable reputation intact but with question marks about the sustainability and adaptability of his methods.

Yet for clues as to Klopp’s adaptability, we need not look any further than his playing career. He spent the majority of his career plying his trade as a striker before converting to a defender as time caught up with him and legs began to leaden. That transition is an apt metaphor for what he has done with the Liverpool team on course for a staggering 97 points at the end of this Premier League season.

Without doubt, it is a mighty help when you can splash 140 million pounds on a goalkeeper and a central defender. Alisson replacing Lorus Karius is akin to replacing Barry from Eastenders with Robert De Niro. Virgil van Dijk arrived for a staggering fee which shocked the masses, yet seventy-five million pounds looks like a bargain now.

Sometimes, the fee is irrelevant when the player is so magnificent. He was in a hurry to show us all that he is the best central defender on the planet. Those two players are luxuries all managers would love to be able to afford, yet the change in Liverpool this season from last goes beyond those two statuesque figures.

Mohamed Salah, while likely to end the campaign as the league’s top scorer in his “difficult second season”, has faced criticism for his seeming desperation to score in every game and how this has produced some questionable decision making.

The front three of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have, as a whole, perhaps not been as dynamic and terrifying as they were last season. This is not due to some inevitable drop in levels as many have suggested. They simply just don’t need to do as much work as they had to last season. They aren’t being told to do as much work. If they didn’t create and score almost every goal last season, Liverpool would have been fairly redundant as an attacking force.

They generally don’t get a lot of goals from midfield players, and they don’t get runners going beyond the strikers. Therefore Salah, Firmino and Mane had to press like maniacs, they had to sprint, charge, hustle and harry. They had to carry the team on their shoulders as they didn’t have regular goals and assists coming from other areas, and they had a defence and goalkeeper behind them whom they simply couldn’t trust.

The signings of Alisson and Van Dijk have unquestionably been the key to Liverpool’s new-found solidity in defence. Yet they don’t fully explain why the front three haven’t had to do as much work. For that, we look left and right.

The attacking brilliance of two fearless full-backs has eased the creative burden on the front players at the club and has meant that Salah, Firmino, and in particular Sadio Mane can spend more time in and around the opposition box and less time having to create chances as well as finish them.

Mane’s goal output, and interestingly the type of goals he has scored this season, is a notable change from last campaign. He is getting into more positions to finish off moves inside the box, get on the end of crosses, and finish more simple tap-ins than he ever has before.

Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold are so full of energy, so full of quality, and so full of confidence that they seem to bomb on endlessly in games. They have a personal assist battle going on and by the time the season ends, however glorious or heartbreaking it may be, they will both be in double figures for goals created.

This means that Alisson, Van Dijk and the rest have two more dangerous attacking outlets than they had last season at which to aim their excellent range of distribution.

The beautiful outcome for Klopp is he doesn’t have to ask his front three to come deep all the time, pull wide all the time, cover ludicrous amounts of ground and carry the entire attacking threat for the team. Their workload can be managed within games, which gives birth to a more durable style of play for a team so lauded for their attacking last season, yet derided for their inability to plug holes and keep clean sheets.

In shoring up the defence, albeit expensively, Klopp has changed the perception of himself as a manager and made Liverpool a truly ominous long-term threat to Manchester City, the Premier League, and indeed the Champions League.

Without losing much in the way of goals, Klopp has transformed the defensive capability of his team and has proven that he can be the man to create a new history for the club.

To consider the possibility that 97 points might not be enough to win the league this season is like getting six numbers but not winning the lottery.

Yet even if they can’t win it this season, the new found coordinated chaos is a threat to the Premier League for as long as Klopp is around. 

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