Klopp’s good guys heading in right direction despite failings

Liverpool’s uncynical approach is laudable as Chelsea expose recurring flaw

Whenever Liverpool and Chelsea meet these days it does not take long for memories to stir of the clubs' epic encounters over the past decade or so, and as their most recent meeting entered its final stages, it was arguably their most famous that sprung to mind. May 2005: Champions League semi-final, second leg. Luis García's "ghost goal", the Kop rocking and glory for the team in red.

What took place at Anfield on Saturday was nowhere near as significant or stirring, but for the hosts the aching desire to hear the final whistle so they could celebrate a 1-0 victory over the team from Stamford Bridge was similar, and as the minutes ticked away it appeared they would get their wish. But then Willian struck to cancel out Mohamed Salah's opening goal and for the second time in four days Liverpool had blown a lead.

This one may not have been as calamitous as that against Sevilla but it still stung and almost immediately raised questions about the team’s ability to close out a contest.

It is now 22 times in 120 matches since Jürgen Klopp became manager that Liverpool have dropped points from a winning position. A habit has formed, and the accusations thrown at the German’s squad is that they are mentally weak and not savvy enough. Klopp defended his players against the former in Seville and following this game was on the defensive regarding the latter in attention-grabbing fashion.

“The day somebody thinks like this [in my team], with not being a proper sportsman and being fair, then I stop,” he said. “If it’s not okay that we try our best, then something is wrong.

“I’ll give you an example – the problem with the elbow. When I played I got five broken noses and there was not one time on purpose. I just took it. Now they [players] are all on the ground. That’s not my kind of game. You have to be smart, but if you don’t hear a whistle you stay up. And if you stay on the ground and there’s no whistle, then what happens? They go on playing.”

Is noble enough?

There is a nobleness to Klopp’s approach that will please the purists but fuel the view that Liverpool are not streetwise enough to compete for major honours. For sure this group of players rarely fake an injury to eat up time, or foul an opposition player for the same reason, or “get in the referee’s ear” to sway him in their favour.

It is telling that Liverpool have collected only 15 yellow cards in 13 Premier League games this season, the fifth-lowest in the division, while during the previous campaign they had the second-lowest with 54. Not all bookings are collected for cynical behaviour, but some are, and this trait that is not striking in Liverpool’s make-up. As Klopp said: “We try to close games down but not in a cynical way.”

In assessing Liverpool’s failure to win their past two matches, other issues need to be looked at, including Klopp’s in-game tactics. Against Sevilla he claimed his side’s inability to “carry on playing football” was behind their lost 3-0 lead, yet surely as manager it is his responsibility to ensure that does not happen. Not for the first time he made relatively late substitutions, bringing Emre Can and James Milner on when the hosts had clawed two goals back and were on top.

Curious decision

Against Chelsea, Klopp made the curious decision to revert to a 4-1-4-1 formation after Liverpool scored, with Salah the lone frontman. The Egyptian is fantastic but he is no Mick Harford when it comes to holding the ball up and, not surprisingly, Chelsea found it easy to exert sustained pressure. A goal was coming and it eventually came, albeit in fluky fashion.

To some extent Liverpool are England’s whack-a-mole club: as soon as one problem subsides, another rises up. At the start of the season they were not clinical enough, but then started scoring, at which point their defence again came under scrutiny.

They tightened up, at which point their mental strength and manager’s game-management have been called into question. All of which are fair enough but should not take away from the fact Liverpool are a very good team who are doing pretty well right now, domestically as well as in Europe.

Failings needs to addressed and some players simply need replacing, but Liverpool are progressing – how quickly is in the eye of the beholder. As far as Klopp is concerned, they are not only on track but doing things the right way. – Guardian