With Benteke’s goal-scoring record against Liverpool over the years, few would have predicted a clean sheet against Crystal Palace yesterday. The media, pundits and football fans were ready to apply further pressure on the club when the team sheet was released. Five changes?!?! Are you sure Jurgen?!?! You don’t see that too often in the premier league – especially against an opponent who won on their previous three visits to Anfield.
No Lallana, no Coutinho, no Emre Can (fans favourite for some odd reason), no Moreno & Lovren (not fan favourites for so many reasons), no Clyne, no Trent Arnold-Alexander, Salah on the bench – bloody hell, you might have mistakenly thought this was a league cup game. If you were nervous before the match, you had every right to be outright terrified at the prospect of Benteke towering above a back four consistent of Gomez, Klavan and debut boy Robertson.
To the disbelief of LFC fans all around the world, Klopp has repeatedly suggested that he is happy with the current squad. They are looking to bring a couple of faces in perhaps, but if they don’t, no worries, let’s go with what we have. After yesterday, I’m starting to believe he wasn’t joking.
During our atrocious period last season post-Christmas, I lost count of the number of debates I participated in around trying something different – we desperately needed to. A return of one win and two draws against Sunderland, Plymouth (twice), Southampton (twice), Swansea, Wolves, Hull and Leicester City is not good enough for a relegation battling team, let alone for a club that at one point in the season had aspirations of a title challenge. A number of players dipped in form; Coutinho was returning from injury, both goalkeepers were being brutally criticised in public, Origi started showing why he was voted the worst player in the French top division, Emre Can was playing with an injury, Milner lost the confidence and momentum he had gathered in this new role and became so predictable, Bobby looked like he had nothing left in the tank (worryingly with half a season left), Mane was absent due to his participation in AFCON, plus a universal blueprint was established by clubs to sit back and watch us self-destruct defending set pieces/counter attacks whilst being deficient of creative ideas ourselves. Klopp needed to address all of the above…
The obvious place to start would be the left-back position but I’ll come back to that in a moment. I’ll begin with the goalkeeping situation – if ever you required proof to why competition for places is healthy, Simon Mignolet is the living example. He has been outstanding (as well as a top professional). Careers have been destroyed for less in comparison to the criticism he has taken, but kudos to him for fighting back and cementing his spot as the number one. The signing of Karius and the faultless displays by Danny Ward at Huddersfield have undoubtedly helped him. I also can’t help but think his confidence has grown significantly game by game by not being forced to play out of the back as much as he was under Brendan Rodgers – he was just not suited to that style of play, look at Claudio Bravo at Man City – it’s soul destroying! If the mistakes do reappear for Simon Mignolet and he starts costing us points like he used to, then Karius or Ward will come in with something to prove. That’s a good situation to be in. Also, both will be focussing intently not to let their performances drop because they know Simon has the character to come back as he is now proven.
Left backs – Ah how good is it to see a naturally left-footed player being deployed in that position! Finally! No offence or disrespect to Milner, for a midfielder playing in that position, he was nothing short of outstanding last season. It was never going to be a long-term solution. Cutting back onto his right every time to pass or cross the ball (even though he had started off the season with variety i.e. going onto his left) just became too predictable and that extra split second makes a significant difference – attackers have to check their position when running into the box, midfield receivers are closed down quicker and the opposition is less often caught out of position. The balance on the left side needed addressing – please enter Andrew Robertson.
Robertson was excellent yesterday. He was pumped up and out to impress on his LFC and home debut – he certainly didn’t disappoint. The quality he possesses in that left foot is extraordinary. Some of the crosses into the box were of the highest quality and he can mix them up too; some were whipped, some flat and drilled, others more lofted… very impressive! Fans can be forgiven for drooling over a performance like that when a new signing comes in and delivers (no pun intended), you can’t help but feel excited about the future. However, I would like to provide everyone with a few words of caution. We’ve been here before, please do not get carried away after one performance! For all the great deliveries into the box, he didn’t provide an assist (he should’ve got a few) and during the course of the season, it’s the actual output, not the “what if or should have” that will be accounted for. Moreno’s first few performances for LFC were exceptional, I remember a lot of pundits at the time suggesting that we had uncovered a gem in a position that had been a problematic area for us since the days of John Arne Riise. Do you remember that goal vs Spurs at White Hart Lane Albie scored? Yes, that was worth drooling over too and was very exciting! We all know what happened next – he has been unable to eradicate basic mistakes in his game defensively. For all the good attacking prowess Robertson showed yesterday, he did make a number of errors defensively. And that’s fine… he’s young and developing (hopefully), but the mistakes weren’t scrutinised yesterday because they were left unpunished. On another day against a more prominent opponent, they will be noticed and they will be punished. For those of you who think it’s the end for Moreno should think again – there’s a reason he was picked against Watford and Hoffenheim over Robertson – it’s a long old season and if we are successful as a club, then potentially we will be looking at 50 or 60 odd games. Robertson can’t be expected to play all of those! Do not write off Moreno… Klopp certainly hasn’t. In my opinion, Klopp has been quite shrewd. Alberto Moreno now has no excuse but to deliver when required upon, again a sign of competition within the squad being beneficial to the team.
For all the plaudits Robertson received yesterday (rightly so), how impressive was Joe Gomez at right back? If Clyne thought he had a problem on his hands with TAA, that’s just been intensified even further with Gomez looking somewhat back to his best. He was sharp, mobile, aggressive, powerful and positive – a very good all-round performance. Again, the competition for places can only help drive performance levels upwards – if you don’t perform, there are hungry & determined replacements ready to come in. The versatility Gomez provides in being able to play anywhere across the back can’t be underestimated in a long season, especially if he performs to the levels he hit yesterday.
I don’t want to focus too much on Coutinho. If reports of him saying he doesn’t want to play for the club again are true – sell him and forget him. Sorry but I’ve lost all respect for him because of the way he has handled this transfer saga. This guy below is the star now.
This does move me onto a topic that I’m sure will divide opinion – the Liverpool midfield. I have openly voiced my discontent over how the midfield trio of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Emre Can collectively performed against Watford and Hoffenheim. I know a lot of LFC fans who worship Emre Can and label him as the best midfielder at the club, a future captain, a beast – I couldn’t disagree more. I think he is too inconsistent within games, he makes a lot of basic errors on the ball and off the ball, he is too laboured, his head down Yaya Toure style bursts sometimes gain yards but I’m struggling to think of a time where it actually led to something more meaningful. It’s great having that presence and a big powerful physique, but if you don’t know how to use it then it’s of no value to the position. He will be excellent in some games, no doubt about it, he’s playing with some very good players, for a very good manager and that’s why it’s important to keep him as part of a bigger squad. However, the best midfielder at the club? Future captain? Get out of here!
The same applies to Wijnaldum in my opinion. He had a good season last year when we were playing one game a week. Hoping now there will be quite often three games a week, I think he will struggle to cope and goes missing way too often in matches – come on Gini! We aren’t playing hide and seek out there! For all the stick Henderson has taken this week (from myself included), he was very good against Palace in the second half. I saw in a WhatsApp group this morning how they don’t want the “cowardly Henderson” – really? He is someone who gives his 100% to the club in every game he plays. Yes, sometimes he goes into his shell and keeps the game simpler than it needs to be but he portrays that intensity Klopp desires from his players more than anyone. Henderson > Wijnaldum > Emre Can! Regardless of who you think our best CM is, I firmly believe that if we had got our business right over the summer (signing Naby Keita and if Coutinho stays), then our best XI would see two out of that three drop to the bench.
Furthermore, I saw a lot of tweets yesterday during and post-match about the lack of creativity in midfield. Sometimes I question whether I’m watching the same game or am I missing something or are the perceptions of the viewers just that wide apart? Milner for me was extremely effective in midfield yesterday. He has better situational awareness than Emre Can and probably adds to the reason why Robertson’s defensive frailties were less obvious because he is able to provide adequate cover! His energy in midfield will for me always be welcomed in games such as yesterday. But the argument here was about the lack of creativity in midfield?! Against Watford last week we had 13 shots on goal. Against Hoffenheim in midweek, that number was only 9. Yesterday versus Palace, that number was 23! I would be disappointed if Liverpool created that many chances in a game and didn’t win. Comparatively, you can argue how creative the midfield trio of Dier, Wanyama and Dembele are? Maybe only slightly more than ours if you are measuring individuals against each other but do Kane, Alli and Eriksen appreciate all the work they do to allow them to flourish? You bet they do! I’m pretty certain Mane, Firmino and co would show the same appreciation for our midfield yesterday – they put a lot of effort into breaking down Palace, and if the midfield provides sufficient cover to the defence, the result more often than not will be a win! Clean sheets can’t be undervalued – it’s what successful teams are built around. Hence why the addition of Van Dijk would be invaluable to this attack minded club.
If individuals can’t come into the team at home (against a Palace side that was beaten 3-0 by Huddersfield a week ago) and show their qualities, then it would make me doubt whether they are able to play at this level at all? Fortunately, and expectedly enough, they did show they can play and contribute at this level! Robertson, Klavan, Gomez, Milner and Solanke all contributed yesterday. The emergence of Solanke and the returning Danny Ings should give Origi a much-needed kick up the back side. Sturridge is an option again. Grujic didn’t get game time yesterday, yet another exciting prospect. Bobby showed that he can play in that advanced CM position if need be. Salah looked threatening. Clyne and Lallana to come back into the fold. There are so many different combinations that can be deployed by Klopp – the versatility is there for everyone to see. Maybe there isn’t a plan B, but Plan A seems to have countless possibilities.
We as LFC fans need to be patient and tolerant towards our club. Going from a game a week last season to three games in a week provides different physical and mental challenges for these players. Comparing against the corresponding fixtures last year, we are already a point better off.
After a draw and two wins with injuries, squad rotation and Coutinho not being available, if there is anything I’ve learnt from this week, it’s to take Klopp seriously when he speaks about the qualities within this current squad. With additions such as Van Dijk, Ox, Keita (however unlikely they may all be) that will further assist the current personnel in acquiring results week in and week out. No repeat of last season’s January and February months, please!