Expectations surrounding Liverpool somewhat overplayed
If Jurgen Klopp’s side make the top four this season, the German will have done well
Liverpool’s German manager Jurgen Klopp gestures to the fans following the victory over Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty
Jürgen Klopp cupped his ears. It was a couple of minutes after the final whistle at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium on Wednesday night and Klopp was on the far side of the pitch from his dugout, grasping his players and celebrating with Liverpool’s vocal travelling support. He wanted to hear more.
This was a good scene for Liverpool. The players had removed their lurid yellow jerseys and handed them to fans. Klopp is a big smile of a man and the face of the club –it was beaming again.
The 3-0 victory, during which Liverpool’s forward line displayed some of the slick interplay for which it has become known, brought an end to what goalkeeper Simon Mignolet later described in a corridor as “a couple of rough weeks”.
There was relief in the air, and the whiff of cannabis you get at some matches suggested at least some fans were relaxed.
But there was more than mere relief.
The win took Liverpool into second place and did nothing to quell the notion that they could be champions. The Klopp buzz was back.
Yet that notion should still be taken in for questioning, if not quelled.
Those rough weeks Mignolet mentioned featured a 0-0 draw at Southampton, a 2-0 win over Sunderland, a 4-3 defeat at Bournemouth – when Liverpool were 3-1 ahead – and a 2-2 draw at home to West Ham last Sunday.
It was 5/12 in terms of points for Liverpool, whereas it was 12/12 for Chelsea over the same period. Then the whiff in the air was of angst.
Ironically, Mignolet was one of the red beneficiaries of the mini downturn. On Tuesday he was informed by Klopp that he would be going back into the team in place of Loris Karius.
Karius had become, unintentionally, the centre of a tea-cup storm including Jamie Carragher, the Nevilles and other people paid to talk/shout. Karius had spoken himself – in a most reasonable manner.
But he had not convinced at Bournemouth or against West Ham. Klopp’s message is that, at 23, Karius’s time will come.
The engaging big German – Klopp, that is – had made a short-term decision with long-term intent. He was keen to remind us that this is his job, “the Liverpool project”. This is a man, remember, who in July signed a contract extension that will keep him at Anfield until 2022.
Of course, we can say few contracts in football are fulfilled, but Klopp’s intent is plain. He is intelligent, normal.
Such common sense does not always come across amid other aspects of Klopp’s personality – his likeable excitability and the reaction that engenders among others. Cupping his ears only adds to that.
But it also means that when Liverpool fall short, even in a small, short-term way, the pang of disappointment is stronger than it should be.
In Klopp’s first full season, Liverpool are ten points better off than this stage last season, when Brendan Rodgers oversaw the first eight games. That’s a significant improvement.
It has lifted Liverpool to second in the Premier League and raised expectations, but what needs to be recalled is that the club finished 21 points behind the champions, Leicester City, only in May.
Liverpool came eighth last season – eighth. They were six points off the Champions League – effectively seven when taking goal difference into account.
This is a difficult quality to sell to a fanbase waiting since 1990 to be called champions of England. When Adam Lallana guided in the sweet third at Middlesbrough, it was Liverpool’s 40th league goal of the season. That, too, creates excitement.
But it does not aid perspective. The league is about May, not December, and the fact is Liverpool have finished in the top four once in the past seven seasons.
And what team did Liverpool beat on Wednesday? If Boro do not go down, they will not be far off relegation.
The bench should also provoke circumspection.
With Coutinho, Matip, Sturridge and Can injured, Klopp named three teenagers on it. It was not for the first time and as he said on Monday: “I love our young players. They are brilliant, but yesterday was not a game to bring them in. West Ham bring on Carroll and we bring on . . . Ben [Woodburn] or Ovie [Ejaria] ? That makes no sense.”
It is the kind of line sometimes turned into a “plea” for January funds, but it was actually a show of realism.
Klopp lacks experienced bodies. Sadio Mane was as important as anyone on the pitch on Wednesday and he will be at the Africa Cup of Nations in January. Mane leaves after the Manchester City game at Anfield on New Year’s Eve.
Quite an occasion.
Before then, there’s another – at Goodison Park on Monday night. It is Klopp’s first taste of Everton-Liverpool as he was appointed after last season’s game finished 1-1. That proved to be the end for Rodgers.
Liverpool might take 1-1 now. It would be a point to add to Klopp’s construction work. It could take them into the top four next May. If so, that should not be considered disappointing.
2. Derby on the rise
On October 12th Derby County were 20th in the Championship, two points above relegation and had lost faith in Nigel Pearson. It seems a long time ago.
Derby appointed, or reappointed, Steve McClaren and today Derby are fifth in the Championship, ten points off automatic promotion.
The Rams won 1-0 at QPR on Wednesday night to move into the play-off positions. It was their seventh win in a row. McClaren did not think his team had played well at Loftus Road, but they won.
Tom Ince scored the goal, and he is one of the better players in the Championship. It is notable how few genuinely high-quality individuals there are in the division.
This should play to Derby’s strengths – a player like Will Hughes stands out – and also to McClaren’s.
Mocked at Newcastle last season by the public, privately McClaren was undermined by a preening element in the dressing room that he could not control.
At Derby there should be no such behaviour, which should aid someone whose forte is always said to be coaching rather than management.
Whatever it is, McClaren and Derby County fit each other. Admittedly that is not the best explanation for noticing they were 50-1 to win the division last Saturday. Now they are 40-1.