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Ken Early: Klopp must find way of improving his finished product

Should fairytale title finish not materialise, Liverpool boss facing a real conundrum

Every so often you hear someone ask, “why isn’t there any good fiction about football?”

A good way to answer would be to compare the audience reactions to Game Of Thrones’ Battle of Winterfell last week, and Liverpool’s win against Newcastle on Saturday night.

In the first instance, critics complained that the main characters were safe behind an impenetrable layer of plot armour, the antagonists made a series of inexplicable mistakes, and the last-minute surprise twist did not follow logically from any known strand of the plot. Hardcore fans savaged the showrunners for ruining everything with their bad writing.

Compare this to the reception of the almost equally outlandish events at St James’s Park.


As a story, Newcastle v Liverpool had many of the same structural flaws – the apparent plot armour, the incomprehensible mistakes, the illogical hero grabbing the glory others had done more to earn. And the fans couldn’t get enough of it. Football matches thrive on what in fiction is called bad writing.

Liverpool's squad matches up pretty well to City's in defence and attack: it's the bit in the middle where City have the edge

The difference between fiction and football is fiction has to make sense. When people say of some crazy turn of events in football “you couldn’t make it up”, it’s seldom true: you could make it up easily – it just wouldn’t be believable.

“Unbelievable” is one of the most overused words when people talk about football and it’s almost never used accurately. When the thing literally happens before your eyes in real life the believability constraint is removed, and the most random, corny twists can be experienced as the purest drama.

“It’s just brilliant, it’s like a fairytale” Jürgen Klopp said.

Maybe the parallel he’s thinking of is that in fairytales people usually get what they deserve, and it was clear on Saturday night that Klopp still believes Liverpool will somehow win the league because they deserve it.

“I accepted long ago that we do everything, absolutely everything, the boys throw whatever they have on the pitch. So that means we will be champion or not, it’s destiny. It’s like this. Because we do everything, we cannot do more.”

And yet if the rest of the season unfolds as most others expect, Liverpool will finish with nothing except the knowledge they gave Manchester City more of a run for their money than most people expected.

How will they take it? How does a team keep going when they know they’ve given everything, they “cannot do more”, and still it wasn’t enough?

Falling short

Pep Guardiola thinks the most dangerous thing that can happen to a team is to succeed and be praised. That might suggest that falling just short might be the best thing that could happen to Liverpool in terms of next season’s prospects – sharpening their hunger and determination to succeed – but we know that’s not really how it works.

It hasn’t been Liverpool’s experience: they have finished second in the Premier League three times, and in the following seasons they finished 5th, 7th and 6th. They have found that failure harder to deal with than success, and even successful teams have only a few years before their force starts to ebb away.

Klopp has always been good at positive framing and it’s a safe bet he can get his squad in the mood to go again next season. The difficult part will be figuring out how to improve on what he currently claims is virtually unimprovable.

Liverpool’s squad matches up pretty well to City’s in defence and attack: it’s the bit in the middle where City have the edge. Liverpool don’t have any creative midfielder in the class of Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne or David Silva on his good days.

They had hoped Naby Keita would emerge as such a player, but his season was disrupted by injuries. Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson can give you a lot but they don’t open up defences, and City’s superiority in this area is the main reason why they have scored 18 more goals than Liverpool from open play (per statistics).

Set pieces have helped Liverpool to make up the difference – they’ve scored 20 to City’s nine – but an extra dimension of quality in midfield would help to close the gap.

The dilemma for Klopp is that the return to fitness of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain means he already has seven midfielders to cover the three midfield positions; if Fabinho is the regular starting defensive midfielder that leaves six players fighting for two places. If he wants to bring in a new player that means somebody has to go.

Another vulnerability was exposed last week when an injury to Roberto Firmino forced Liverpool to debut an entirely new tactical set-up in a Champions League semi-final against a team including Lionel Messi (whose continued domination at the highest level is another example of bad writing – if Messi was a character in a video game the fans would be screaming for him to be nerfed).

New recruit

Firmino has missed fewer than 10 matches through injury in four seasons at Liverpool – his resilience is one of the reasons they signed him – but in his absence it quickly becomes apparent that Liverpool have no other player who can do the things he does: defend from the front, link play, move defenders out of position, and score. What happens if he gets injured again?

Daniel Sturridge will leave in the summer which theoretically creates space in the squad and on the wage bill for a new recruit. But then you have to find a way to get him on the field. Liverpool’s front three almost always play when fit, which they usually are.

Firmino has started 84 per cent of the league games and played 79 per cent of the minutes, Mane started 89 per cent and played 87 per cent, Salah has been the most dominant of all, starting 94 per cent of the matches and playing 93 per cent of the minutes. Sturridge has played 12 per cent of the minutes, Divock Origi only 9 per cent, and Xherdan Shaqiri has managed 31 per cent, most of those in midfield.

It’s difficult enough to find players of comparable quality to the current front three, but Klopp also has to find ones who are prepared to spend a lot of time on the bench. In Rhian Brewster Liverpool have an U17 World Cup winner who is impatient for a chance. Klopp has to decide whether or not Brewster can cut it; if not he’ll have to go back to the market to find that rare forward whose talent is matched by his patience.

There are peripheral issues that Klopp could address. He could find a more composed back-up central defender than Dejan Lovren, but in terms of the first team, there are not many obvious improvements left to make. And yet improve it he must.

“Can you get more than 94 points? Not really,” he said on Saturday. But any team that wants to finish ahead of Manchester City will have to.