Our Liverpool blogger Dave Tindall reflects on Jurgen Klopp’s four years in charge and looks ahead to Sunday’s massive derby clash at struggling Manchester United, in his latest Red Letter…
With Jurgen Klopp celebrating four years in charge at Anfield, I’ve read a number of pieces in the last week reflecting on his tenure so far.
So I decided to join in the anniversary fun, rewind to October 2015 and check out what I’d written about him in this very column. Had I predicted that we’d have won a couple of Premier League titles by now? Was I wary that he was being overhyped?
That Red Letter was penned before his opening match – away to Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs.
Here’s a few excerpts and how they panned out.
Then: “Everything about Klopp so far has been brilliant. He’s ridden into Liverpool, swished his cape, flashed those startling set of gnashers, headed out into town to mix with the locals and, quite simply, charmed the pants off everyone. He can do no wrong.”
Now: Well, the gnashers are even more startling after he visited Roberto Firmino’s dentist (true story) and went brilliant white (even then, that was a few grades down from Bobby’s). He’s still charming everyone and, yep, he can do no wrong – both on and off the pitch.
Then: “Klopp is where it’s at right now while, by contrast, Jose Mourinho looks tired and irritable. You’re old hat Jose. We’ve heard it all before. If Klopp and Mourinho were placed in opposite corners of a locked room and the doors were let open, the fawning press pack would all scamper towards the German rather than the Portuguese.”
Now: You didn’t exactly have to be Nostradamus to see that Jose’s joie de vivre was going. He was falling out with his Chelsea team at a rapid rate and would get sacked a couple of months later – something Klopp probably helped accelerate by guiding us to a 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge in just the German’s second away game in charge.
Then: “Like most Liverpool fans, I’ve spent the last week speculating on potential starting XIs (for Klopp’s opener at Spurs). How about Mignolet in goal, Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho and Moreno the back four, Can and Lucas as the ‘2’, Milner, Coutinho and Lallana as the ‘3’ and Sturridge up front. Then again, what about Ings? He should fit into Klopp’s style. And what does he do when both Benteke and Sturridge are fit at the same time (if that ever happens?).”
Now: Wow. Where to start?! Our current back five is light years ahead of that one. And, up front, back then I’m scratching around wondering what to do with Sturridge, Benteke and Ings instead of what LFC fans do now and just behold the wonder of Mane, Salah and Firmino. Milner is still with us but Lallana is a fringe player so it’s been revolution not evolution over Klopp’s first four years.
Then: “Don’t underestimate the not very sexy story this week of Zelko Buvac being granted a work permit. Buvac – known as ‘The Brain’ due to his tactical knowledge – is Klopp’s trusty assistant manager.”
Now: For a while, it seemed as if Buvac was a vital cog. But since his 17-year working relationship with Klopp ended for “personal reasons”, we’ve been far better off, showing far more consistency and winning more games than ever. The removal of ‘The Brain’ has helped not hindered. The lobotomy has been a success.
Then: Tottenham’s team that day: Lloris, Walker, Rose, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Lamela, Dembele, Alli, Chadli, Eriksen, Kane.
Now: In other words, it was packed with current first-teamers. Klopp’s opening game ended 0-0 but we moved on; they didn’t.
Old Trafford Test looms
When you’re at the top, every game seems of utmost importance in the Premier League these days. You can’t ever afford to drop your guard. Man City have done it a couple of times and suddenly they find themselves eight points behind us.
But there are key games and there are key games and the one at Old Trafford on Sunday seems in the season-defining bracket.
Our failure to beat Man Utd there last season was pivotal in terms of the points difference it made. We dropped two in a 0-0 draw and lost the title by one. You do the math.
But the manner of that stalemate seemingly adds to the ‘if only’. United were surely there for the taking, especially as they had to make three first-half substitutions to weaken their team even further. In the end, neither side could find a goal; it was literally a nothing game.
However, as frustrating as it was, a bit of context goes some way to explaining that day. Basically, United weren’t playing as badly as many remember and our purring engine had been reduced to a chug.
Before that 0-0, United had won 11 of their opening 13 games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. True, they’d been schooled by Paris St Germain at Old Trafford which suggested we could do the same but there was certainly a bank of confidence at United that had yet to erode to the levels it did later. That was shown in their next three games – nine goals scored in victories over Crystal Palace, Southampton and, eye-poppingly, away at PSG.
As we only lost one Premier League game last season, no obvious dip ever took place but if there was a sticky patch, it was definitely around this time.
From January 30th to March 3rd, we drew five games out of seven. Three of those were 0-0 stalemates – at Old Trafford, at home to Bayern five days earlier and then in the derby clash at Everton. We were lacklustre in all three, not deserving to win any.
If all that seems like a string of excuses, there aren’t any this time. Although, it’s hardly been a happy hunting ground, if Liverpool can’t put one over this limping United outfit, it will be a massive opportunity missed.
Of course, as a fan, there’s the natural feeling that the United boys will all raise their games for this one match. And that Mo Salah’s inability to score against them will hamper us again.
Usually, there’s also the sense of foreboding that David de Gea will have a blinder and turn what should have been a 2-0 win for us into a 0-0 draw. However, the Spanish goalkeeper’s injury on international duty in midweek adds to the belief that the cards are stacked in our favour.
The last time it felt we were so much better than them heading to Old Trafford was the near-miss 2013/14 title season. That was in March 2014 and came during a nine-game winning run – a time when Luis Suarez was unplayable, Daniel Sturridge was on fire and Steven Gerrard still massively influential.
They came into the game with two wins, two draws and two losses (to Stoke and Olympiakos) in their last six.
The result: Man Utd 0-3 Liverpool. Two Gerrard penalties and a third from Suarez. There were no raised eyebrows. This seemed like confirmation of what everyone knew.
Ahead of Klopp’s first game against Spurs four years ago, I said I’d go with my head and predict a draw (I went 1-1 although it was actually 0-0).
The head this time says we beat United 3-1. I desperately hope the old noggin knows what it’s doing again this time.