From title contenders to PL strugglers – can Klopp halt Reds’ slide?

Date published: Tuesday 31st October 2017 10:50

Our Liverpool blog returns and Dave Tindall looks back on things from a year ago, when Liverpool were top of the Premier League table.

A year ago this week, Liverpool had just beaten bogey team Crystal Palace 4-2 at Selhurst Park to pull level on points (23) at the top of the table with Manchester City.

In our first game in November, we smashed Watford 6-1 at Anfield to go top on our own. Title talk was in the air despite warnings from pragmatists to dreamers to keep perspective and not get carried away.

And yet there was reason to go on some mental flights of fancy. Jurgen Klopp had made a huge difference since taking over a Reds side going nowhere under Brendan Rodgers. He’d guided us to two cup finals the previous season and now it was time to turn our attention to the Premier League.

Klopp was making a superb job of it. Those thrilling days of the Suarez 2013/14 season were being rekindled and one Achilles heel – struggling at home against weak opposition – seemed to have been cured. We were thrashing teams at Anfield. Capacity had been increased. The stadium was bouncing.

However, the BBC report from that 4-2 Palace win reiterated a now familiar warning, even if many Reds fans rather wanted to rather gloss over it:

“Despite their brilliance in attack, Liverpool’s defence remains a weakness, with Lovren twice allowing James McArthur to level before the break.”

Ex-Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy offered this: “The number of chances they create is because of the energy they have. They remind me of the Newcastle team 20 years ago, Kevin Keegan’s side of Beardsley, Ferdinand, Asprilla and Ginola. The one thing that needs to improve is the defence.”

That would be the Newcastle team that entertained but won nothing.

Klopp, meanwhile, offered this in his post-match press conference: “The defensive error we made for the first goal is because we are not at the limit of our concentration. The aggressiveness was not there at the start of the game. But I saw a lot of wonderful things offensively.” Sound familiar?

‘Nothing has changed and yet much is different’

A year on from sitting at the Premier League summit, LFC supporters find themselves in difficult waters. Nothing has changed and yet much is different. The defence is just as bad but the hope of winning trophies has started to disintegrate. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Our attack simply can’t compensate for the deficiencies at the back and we know there have to be changes. On what level and to what extent divides supporters. Some can’t see Klopp ever fixing them.

I’m long enough in the tooth to know that moods alter and fortunes fluctuate quickly and if we needed a reminder that a week is a long time in football, we’ve just seen it.

Had I written this column in the wake of our 4-1 hammering at Wembley, I’d have been eulogising about Spurs and how Mauricio Pochettino was proving that without the mega-riches of Manchester City, Man Utd or Chelsea it was still possible to organise a defence, cash in on attacking prowess and sustain a title challenge.

Since then, Spurs have blown a 2-0 lead and crashed out of the League Cup 3-2 to West Ham on that same Wembley turf and then done nothing to quieten the accusations that they’re much diminished without Harry Kane by firing blanks in a 1-0 loss at Old Trafford with their star striker absent.

Perhaps Tottenham aren’t the bees knees. Man Utd lost at a Huddersfield side who we brushed aside on Saturday. Chelsea have already lost to Burnley and Crystal Palace this season. Arsenal are Arsenal, oscillating between good and bad but always flattering to deceive.

Obviously I have nothing to throw at Man City as they’re 12 points clear of us and (shakes head) have a +29 goal difference compared to our +1. But for all Liverpool’s tripping up and stupid moments this season, we’re back to sixth. Just three points behind Chelsea and Arsenal and four adrift of Spurs.

Curiously, of the 92 teams in the four divisions of English football, we have the second best defensive record at home having conceded just once. Add in a bit of last season and we’ve kept clean sheets in six of our last seven Premier League games at Anfield.

And this is the same defence which has shipped a Premier League-high 15 goals on the road in only five away games. How on earth are these stats possible? Football is weird.

Let’s not kid ourselves though. The numbers can be twisted however we like, but the bottom line is that optimism about our Premier League campaign is far, far reduced from the levels of 12 months ago.

Oh, by the way, do we remember what happened after we’d gone top by putting six by Watford? I’ll tell you. We went to Southampton and were held 0-0 thanks to a superb defensive performance by Virgil van Dijk. We should have bought him in that January’s transfer window never mind this one.

Liverpool’s best XIs in the 2000s and 2010s

Rafael Benitez: Big fan of Gayle

On a related note, a friend and former work colleague posted something on social media this week asking for opinions on Liverpool’s best XIs in the 2000s and 2010s.

While it was easy to fill the attacking slots, I was alarmed by how much of a struggle it was to create a decent defence in this decade.

An ageing Jamie Carragher still made the 2010s XI and Pepe Reina remained in goal but no-one could come up with anything apart from Moreno or Milner at left-back and Nathaniel Clyne at right-back.

The idea that Klopp inherited a problematical defence really hit home when I started Googling my mind for recent members of our back four. The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t been able to train it into a good one, something Rafa Benitez did to an unbelievable level. Djimi Traore in a Champions League-winning defence is still beyond incredible.

One thing that gets forgotten in the glory of Istanbul 2005 was just how poor we were in the Premier League that season.

Fifth doesn’t seem that bad but 58 points?! We got 76 points last term under Klopp in his first full campaign.

Champions League hope

Perhaps if the Premier League isn’t our bag this season – although the bookies still say we’re 6/4 to make the top four and, you know, a lot of 6/4 shots actually land – we can still look to the Champions League.

Although five points from three games isn’t setting the world alight, we played some wonderful stuff at home to Sevilla, should have hammered Spartak Moscow and scored a record 7-0 away win against Maribor.

European nights at Anfield are always magical – unlike the library of that first-half against Huddersfield – and Klopp’s record against the big teams has to be admired. You can argue that some of the top Premier League managers (Guardiola, Pochettino) have worked him out a little but European managers haven’t had the same head-to-head experience to learn from.

Maribor were one of the worst teams I’ve ever seen at this level and should be easy fodder at Anfield on Wednesday night.

But after that? Who knows? Klopp won’t be able to send a team to Juventus and get a 0-0 (as Rafa did in the quarter-finals in 2005) but he has weapons that Benitez couldn’t call upon and the two-legged wins over Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal a couple of years ago in the Europa League surely bode well.

Brendan Rodgers pretty much gave up on the Champions League the last time we tried to contest it in 2014.

Klopp won’t do the same and getting results such as a 7-0 away win makes headlines around the globe as well as boosting the feel-good factor that will ultimately benefit the domestic campaign.

Even if it all ends in a 5-0 defeat away to PSG in the last eight, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy the ride although, if I’m honest, part of that want to relish it now is due to the growing uncertainty over us being a Champions League side next season.

Come back November 2016. I want more of your giddy optimism.

Dave Tindall

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