With Liverpool revelling in what their manager, Jürgen Klopp, calls "the Mo Salah period", their marked defensive improvement has been overlooked. The changes provoked by a demoralising defeat at Tottenham Hotspur have underpinned an emphatic reaction, however, and face the fiercest examination since Wembley against Sevilla on Tuesday night.
Liverpool arrived in Andalusia in punishing form, flushing memories of Spurs out of the system by winning their last four games by an aggregate score of 13-1. A fifth consecutive victory would secure a place in the Champions League knock-out stage with a group game to spare. It would also be a significant statement, given that Sevilla have not lost at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán since November 22nd, 2016, when they were beaten 3-1 by Juventus. "It has been a really interesting journey in the Champions League so far," Klopp said. "But this is the game."
The Liverpool squad flew without the injured Joël Matip but with a sense of defensive security unimaginable one month ago. Liverpool's two league defeats this season, the 4-1 at Spurs and 5-0 at Manchester City, have inflated their goals against tally to 16 away from home – the division's worst – and helped maintain the narrative of a vulnerable rearguard.
Yet the defeat of Southampton on Saturday brought a fifth clean sheet in six Premier League home games this season and further evidence of a more defensive approach adopted by Klopp since Wembley. It will be required again in Spain, where a draw will be sufficient for Liverpool to qualify if Spartak Moscow lose to Maribor. Defeat, and an expected home win in Moscow, would leave everything riding on the Russian club's visit to Anfield on December 6th.
"Tottenham wasn't a good game," said Ragnar Klavan. "But after that we made our corrections and the last four games have been good. Everyone realised that we have to do everything together. We have a lot of quality in attack and we know the players in front are going to get chances in every game. It has always been defence first and then attack, and the manager has always tried to tell us that. But maybe in recent games he has put a little bit more emphasis on that."
Klopp has not abandoned any football principles to implement change, as Southampton, West Ham United, Maribor and Huddersfield Town can testify, and he is reluctant to divulge too many tactical secrets. Gameplans remain tailored to the opponent but the manager said: "There were a lot of things we changed to make us more stable." Sitting deeper at West Ham and curbing the attacking instincts of his full-backs, the former Sevilla player Alberto Moreno and Trent Alexander-Arnold, against Southampton were, he admits, part of the pursuit of stability.
“We had two or three situations where it was an individual problem,” Klopp said. “In all the other parts it was a team problem. Huddersfield was similar to West Ham. Huddersfield had no counter-attacks. That was the first really important step for us.
“For the West Ham game, with the knowledge of what West Ham had to do at home, we decided to sit back more. It was really difficult for the boys. That was different . . . Against Southampton we did it a little bit differently, it was more about the midfield. We built a little bit more up with the midfield, our full-backs were real wingers and our wingers were in the half-space. But it depends on the opponent.”
What has not altered is Klopp’s belief that defending, collectively and individually, starts in the head. He said: “Defending is about being focused. Focus on a situation. When we have the ball be an option to receive it or, if you cannot be an option, give protection. It is not about counter-pressing all the time. Yes, if we can counter-press, then do it. If not, go back and defend together. That is the thing we have lacked in one or two games and I think we are now a step further in this. Our ‘new’ maturity we will have to show 100 per cent in this atmosphere tomorrow.” – Guardian