Liverpool 2017-18 Premier League end of season review

Job done. For the first time since 2009, Liverpool have achieved back-to-back top four finishes and have guaranteed their place in the Champions League for the 2018-19 season, courtesy of the fact that 4th place in the Premier League automatically qualifies four the group stages.

Granted, it became a slightly more complicated task than it ever needed to be, as points were spurned against the likes of Everton, West Brom (from 2-0 up), Stoke, all of which could be attributed to a combination of tired legs from the Champions League exertions and the selection of players whose lack of minutes this season meant they lacked any kind of rhythm.

The defeat against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge set up a potentially nail-biting final day for the second season in a row, only for Antonio Conte’s side to buckle with just a point from the final two games versus Huddersfield and Newcastle, thus making the task at hand a whole lot more comfortable for Jürgen Klopp and his players.

Yet Liverpool still had a job to do against Brighton, not least to make certain of top four, but also to regain some lost momentum in recent weeks ahead of the Champions League final in Kiev in less than two weeks time. As final days of the season go, this was just about the perfect afternoon in every respect, as Liverpool became the only side in the entire English Football League to finish the season unbeaten in the league at home.

An emphatic 4-0 thrashing, with Mo Salah breaking the record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season (32; his 44th in all competitions), while Dominic Solanke and Andy Robertson bagged their first goals for the club. Klopp was even able to substitute the entire front three in order to avoid any unnecessary risk of injury, giving valuable minutes to the returning Adam Lallana, who appeared sharp and will be an important asset to have as an option on the bench against Real Madrid.

There should be absolutely no underestimating what an achievement this is for Liverpool. While top four is often treated as the minimum expectation, the reality is that there are six strong sides in this league now- including two financial behemoths in the Manchester clubs- and that to finish in the top four is a difficult feat in isolation.

But to do so while also reaching a Champions League final with a squad down to its bare bones due to injuries to the likes of Joel Matip, Emre Can, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez- and until recently, Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne- is a remarkable accomplishment which deserves enormous credit.

The physical and mental energy this group of players have expended in order to reach the Champions League final has been vast, such that there has been an inevitable drop off in the league form. To haul themselves over the line- and to do so in the end with a five-point cushion over Chelsea- represents another season of significant progression, despite the slightly lower points tally in comparison to last campaign.

To put this into context, no English side has finished in the top four AND reached the Champions League final since 2011. On top of that is the fact that Liverpool have by far the lowest net spend out of any of the top six clubs since 2014, with £18 million. Spurs are 5th in that period with an overall net spend of £50 million, while Chelsea (£119 million) and Arsenal (£166 million) still linger well behind the two Manchester clubs, both of whom have a net spend of over £400 million in the same period.

What Klopp has done since his arrival in 2015 is to bridge this financial divide through astute signings and improving players on the training ground, building an identity and a distinct brand of football which has produced some of the most scintillating and memorable performances of any Liverpool side in many a year.

Consider that Liverpool’s two first choice full backs this season have been an £8 million signing from relegated Hull City and a 19-year-old academy product, both of whom have been outstanding and look set to be permanent features of the side for the foreseeable future.

We’ve witnessed Loris Karius display the kind of form which earned him his impressive reputation in Germany, while James Milner’s magnificent midfield renaissance has been another unlikely success story in a season largely dominated by the sheer and utter genius of a certain little Egyptian signed from Roma for what is now a scarcely believable £36.9 million.

It’s an individual season from Salah which goes down in the history books having surpassed even the very wildest of expectations. It’s now almost laughable to think that there were some doubts and concerns from some corners when Liverpool were initially linked to him. 44 goals, 14 assists and several cabinets full of individual accolades- including the prestigious PFA Player of the Season, and of course the Golden Boot- Liverpool have themselves a bonafide, world-class superstar who must now be considered alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the highest echelons of the elite bracket of the world’s finest footballers.

He’s scored virtually every type of possible goal, both against the lesser sides and in the biggest games in high-pressure moments, while his goalscoring exploits have also been astonishingly consistent across the course of the campaign, scoring against 17 different sides in the league (another record) with his longest goalless run being just three games (which has only happened on two occasions). There aren’t really enough words to describe his genius.

It speaks volumes of Salah’s brilliance that Roberto Firmino has developed into a world class number nine with 27 goals to his name, and yet finds himself only the second best player for Liverpool this season. The Brazilian’s unique skillset mark him out as the perfect fulcrum of this Liverpool attack, as it is Firmino’s movement, pressing and linkup play which creates the optimum environment for Salah to thrive.

Sadio Mané, meanwhile- Liverpool’s Player of the Season last time out- has somewhat been overshadowed by both Salah and Firmino, enduring a patchy first half of the season before finding his groove and adapting his game to fulfil the role of a quasi-number-ten link man between midfield and attack, knitting play together and taking up unorthodox pockets of space in slightly deeper positions, rather than playing as an out and out winger. His sheer intelligence- as well as his obvious physical and technical assets- make him such a precocious talent who remains a vital cog in the machine Klopp is building.

It speaks volumes of what Liverpool have achieved that Philippe Coutinho’s name has hardly been mentioned since his £149 million move to Barcelona in January- a decision which has seen the side move on to another level in his absence. While many were deeply concerned about the lack of a direct replacement at the time and the potential impact on Liverpool’s top four and Champions League prospects, Klopp has been absolutely vindicated in letting a player go who had made it clear he did not want to be a part this project any longer.

In came Virgil van Dijk, whose impact in his first half-season since his protracted transfer from Southampton finally came through, has been nothing short of sensational. The Dutchman has been entirely unphased by his status as the most expensive defender all time, such that the £75 million price tag is barely ever spoken about these days.

Winning 72.6% of his duels, van Dijk has the highest duel success rate of any player in the Premier League and on top of that, his Xabi Alonso-esque raking passes and Jamie Carragher-esque leadership and organisational qualities have made him a tremendous acquisition, fully justifying Klopp’s choice to stay patient and wait for his man, rather than sign an alternative centre back in the summer.

Although van Dijk alone has not been the saviour to all Liverpool’s defensive issues, he has certainly played a significant role in transforming the back line and instilling a new sense of assurance and confidence in the way Liverpool defend, such that set pieces are no longer a cause of panic.

Quite incredibly, Liverpool have conceded the fewest goals (22) of any side in the last 29 league games and have therefore had the best defensive record in the league for 75% of the season after the early hammerings against Man City and Spurs away from home. It’s a stunning statistic and one which defies the general narrative around Liverpool’s defensive frailties, and one which, if Liverpool can continue and build upon next season, could be the crucial difference in sustaining a serious title challenge.

The other obvious area for improvement lies in the number of points dropped at home by drawing games against the likes of Burnley, Everton, West Brom and Stoke. A few penalty decisions wouldn’t go amiss, either, as Liverpool end the campaign having won just one penalty at Anfield (fewer than Spurs), with some quite staggering fouls completely ignored by referees who appear hellbent on ‘proving’ how they won’t be swayed by the Kop- an absurd and worrying trend.

There has been a plethora of joyous moments to saviour, from Ragnar Klavan’s 94th minute diving header winner against Burnley away, to the second-half blitz which demolished Man City at Anfield, to Salah’s stunning four-goal haul against Watford in the snow. Upon reflection, those two 2-1 victories against Leicester City and Burnley either side of New Year’s Day stand out as pivotal games in terms of defining how the remainder of the season played out, as Liverpool dug in and scraped out 6 points despite being well below their best level.

The only real sour note come the end of the season is the cruel injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose debut season has been a pleasure to watch, overcoming much initial scrutiny and unjust criticism to become an integral part of the side, bringing pace, drive, dynamism and creativity to the midfield, forging a hugely promising relationship with Salah.

Reports suggest that Chamberlain won’t return until November at the earliest, which is an enormous blow both for the player, who now misses the Champions League final and the World Cup (in which he would probably have warranted a starting spot), as well as Liverpool. Both on and off the pitch, he has shown himself to be a class act, immersing him in the values of the club and becoming a genuine favorite among the supporters.

We find ourselves at what feels like a critical juncture in the club’s modern history, living through what is one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating periods supporters have experienced in a long while. Most importantly, none of this feels like the end of the road, or a flash in the pan, rather it is just the latest step forward in a journey of perpetual progression under Klopp which has seen the club catapulted back among Europe’s elite, and well on the way to re-establishing themselves as a regular Champions League outfit.

For prospective transfer targets, it’s a hugely attractive proposition and there can be few players in world football- other than those already at the very top clubs- who wouldn’t want to be a part of this project, playing alongside this group of players for this manager. Klopp has restored that elite status and with Champions League football on offer once more, one can expect a couple of significant acquisitions to follow in the footsteps of the incoming Naby Keita in the coming weeks.

Whatever happens in Kiev now, Liverpool have already achieved their basic objective at the start of the season and have yet another European campaign to look forward to next season. There is an ever growing sense that something truly special is brewing and while Pep Guardiola’s centurions will present a formidable obstacle once, there is every reason to believe Liverpool are positioning themselves for a serious title tilt as City’s strongest challengers next season.

The Reds are on the march.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man City 1-2 Liverpool: Match review

Liverpool. Champions League semi-finalists. The first time in a decade. Back among Europe’s elite. The only English club remaining in the competition. From 32 teams down to four, and Liverpool are there, dining at the high table once more.

You don’t have to step back very far in time to a point where Liverpool supporters wondered whether these days would ever arrive again. The memories of Rafa Benitez, Istanbul and Athens felt increasingly consigned to the past, as opposed to something Liverpool could realistically hope to achieve one more in the near future.

It’s difficult to overstate the scale of what Jürgen Klopp has achieved here. When the quarter-final draw came out, pitting Liverpool against the bookies’ favorites for the competition in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the odds were stacked heavily against Liverpool. It was in every way, the toughest possible scenario.

This City squad is the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the game. That point is worth emphasizing. They’ve strolled their way to the league title and already have one domestic trophy in the cabinet this season. For Sheikh Mansour, Guardiola and the players, Champions League glory is the essential objective in their quest to transform City into a genuine European powerhouse.

Liverpool, by contrast, steeped in European heritage, have walked this road before. In the first leg, Anfield showed how this identity endures, harnessing a unique, collective willpower beyond anything any other English club is capable of producing.

The first leg was beyond a Liverpool supporter’s wildest expectations. Yet the sense of anxiety heading into the return leg was fever-pitch. The possibility of throwing away a historic European night, surrendering such an unlikely 3-0 advantage, was a prospect too excruciating to contemplate.

When you think of the worst possible scenario, Gabriel Jesus follows that very script with the early goal every single Liverpool supporter was dreading. What followed was up there with the most nail-biting, stomach-churning halves of football you are ever likely to witness from a Liverpudlian perspective.

Wave after wave of City attack, Guardiola’s unorthodox, front-heavy formation suffocating Liverpool with an ever-tightening vice-like grip of immense pressure. Any time Liverpool did manage to get hold of possession, the ball was like a magnet, immediately sucked straight back into City’s control once more. There was no way out.

Bernardo Silva rattles the post from distance. There’s a couple of penalty claims from Raheem Sterling. Leroy Sané has a goal controversially chalked off for offside. Liverpool rode their luck to an extreme at times, but solace could be found in the fact City had not managed to build on their 1-0 lead when the referee blew for half-time.

That whistle came at the perfect time for Liverpool and whatever Klopp said, or tactically tweaked, a different side came out in the second half, playing with a renewed sense of bravery and determination to see this job through.

It was always the case that Liverpool needed to find the back of the net just once to put the tie more or less to bed. While the supporters were consumed by nerves, this mantra will have remained at the forefront of those on the pitch wearing red. No need to panic. Score once, and it’s over.

When the opportunity finally arrives, in the 56th minute, there is no other man on that pitch with the clarity of mind and technique to execute what will go down as an iconic Liverpool goal. It’s a sublime demonstration of skill and composure from Mo Salah, who stands still, drinking in the adoration of the rapturous away end, the coolest man in the stadium.

It was he who started off this two-legged victory, and he who finished it off. It’s what separates the great players from the very top bracket of world class. Stepping up in the most crucial moments, deciding the fate of contests of this magnitude. As soon as that ball nestles in the back of the net, City are down and out. There is no coming back.

Roberto Firmino adds the sheen to a stunning victory by sliding home the winner on the night, ensuring that Liverpool would not merely secure their passage to the semi-finals, but do so with a statement of intent that will have the continent stand up and take notice.

That’s three wins against Guardiola’s City in a matter of months. Twice in a week. The symbolic and psychological aspect of this is significant when it comes to challenging City next season. They are not the indomitable force many assumed only weeks ago.

There are so many individual performances to pull out, worthy of individual praise. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old academy graduate, repeatedly targeted throughout both legs, emerges as one of the standout players from the tie. It’s a quite incredible display of maturity which announces his arrival as a player capable of performing on the very biggest stage, whose future is without limits.

In Andy Robertson, Liverpool have a left-back who five years ago was playing in the Scottish third division, signed for £8.5 million from relegated Hull City. He too emerges as one of the outstanding players from this tie, a remarkable success story for Liverpool’s scouting department, embodying the tenacity and resilience which saw his side emerge triumphant.

Let’s talk about Dejan Lovren, also. This is a player who has been written off time and time again, widely lambasted by supporters and the wider media, deemed not good enough to play for a club of Liverpool’s stature. On the night, he is Liverpool’s man of the match, delivering an immense performance of bravery and focus on the biggest night of his professional career. It’s a display worthy of tremendous credit, a demonstration that he is capable of performing at the very highest level.

Alongside him, Virgil van Dijk is involved in City’s early goal, but is an island of calm and assurance thereafter, commanding those around him and marshaling the defence with the authority of a player very much living up to his status as the world’s most expensive defender.

In midfield, Klopp was without arguably his two first-choice central midfielders in Jordan Henderson and Emre Can- the two figures you would probably most want to start when protecting a 3-0 lead. Instead, Gini Wijnaldum- signed as an attacking midfielder from Newcastle just two seasons ago- was tasked with shielding the back four, up against two of the finest playmakers the Premier League has ever seen in David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.

On either side, there’s James Milner, having a midfield renaissance beyond all expectations as he enters the twilight of his career, covering more ground than any other player. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, widely ridiculed when he first arrived at Liverpool, playing his first season as a central midfielder, putting his body on the line for the cause.

The front three need no description of their own.

It’s nights like these that players and supporters live for. It’s why Liverpool are a European heavyweight. For all City’s superior financial resources and superstar individuals, they could not match it, despite throwing everything at it.

When every Liverpool player is standing their, in front of the away fans at the end, clapping along to ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ and celebrating with the supporters, it’s a really rare and special moment. For many of them, it’s probably the best night of their professional careers and they’re choosing to share it with the fans, drinking it in.

When their players are walking off the bus to the sound of a megaphone blaring out pop music, into a shiny, spaceship-like stadium lined with plastic flags, it just isn’t the same. Atmospheres like that produced in the first leg at Anfield do make a difference. That kind of thing cannot be fabricated by corporate attempts to artificially generate something of the sort.

There is something strange about this City side, so supreme in their title triumph, but now with a prevailing sense of a season which promised so much, now somewhat underwhelming. It’s almost as if they are so used to winning comfortably, that whenever anything goes wrong- as has happened three times in the past week- it does not compute, and they malfunction.

As for Liverpool, there is nothing left to fear. Of course, Roma are now the favorable draw for the semi-finals, but having conquered the previous favorites for the competition, Liverpool have demonstrated that they are capable of beating anyone and they will continue to believe that is the case.

There was an excellent quote from Klopp after the game, as he said:

“The Champions League is not about perfection. It’s about the result.”

It’s a message worth reiterating. Liverpool will likely have to beat either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid if they are to make it Number Six in Kiev in May. Both of these sides are individually superior, but as both Liverpool and Roma have shown this week, that matters little in this competition.

Liverpool are just three games away from European glory now. There is every reason to believe they can go all the way. They have already surpassed all expectations.

Whatever the conclusion of this tale, it’s been one to savor.

 

Liverpool 3-0 Man City: Match review

These are the nights upon which Liverpool has built its European heritage as a club. Manchester City arrived at Anfield with the most expensively assembled squad in the history of football, managed by a man who is widely regarded as the very best in the business. It’s important to place this context at the forefront of analyzing this tie.

Much of the pre-game talk suggested that City were simply too good a football team to be overawed by the occasion, intimidated by a vociferous, hostile Anfield crowd on a European night. History has shown countless great sides crumble under such atmospheres. As it turned out, City would be no exception to that tradition.

Just imagine being on that coach. The extra confidence boost it must give you to have 50,000 fans roaring you on like that before, during and after the game. And then the opposite effect for the City players.

The sea of red passion which lined the streets of Anfield transferred to within the stadium, a wall of ear-splitting noise orchestrated by 50,000 supporters hellbent on doing absolutely everything possible to influence the outcome of the game. Intimidate the visitors, inspire the players in Red. That’s the mantra of all this- and it worked.

City began relatively brightly, up until Mo Salah opened the scoring in front of the Kop after 12 minutes to send the crowd into raptures. Guardiola’s side disintegrated both mentally and physically in the 20 minutes that followed; a collection of world class footballers having the greatest season of their careers, transformed into a quivering wreck of nerves- regularly misplacing simple passes- by a unique chemistry of supporters and players performing in tandem to their very highest level.

That first goal only happens because of Firmino’s determination to never give up on a loose ball, stealing ahead of Kyle Walker to prod a pass toward’s the lurking Salah. The Brazilian’s pressing was almost superhuman in the opening 45 minutes, to the extent that City simply could not play out from the back in their usual, calm manner.

There’s something romantic, mystical even, about 11 footballers driven on to such heights by an atmosphere like that, elevating themselves to a level with which the opposition- regardless of their wealth of quality- simply could not live with.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rattles in the second from 25-yards, City are not just unnerved, but their confidence completely and utterly shattered by the red storm unfolding around them. It’s an absolute thunderbolt from a player who was widely mocked for his transfer fee when joining Liverpool, now stepping up to the plate with a magnificent all-round performance on the biggest stage against the highest caliber of opposition.

City’s midfield of Fernandino, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have been virtually unplayable for much of the season; two of the best the Premier League has arguably ever seen, supported by one of the best anchoring midfielders around. Vastly superior in individual ability to Liverpool’s trio, they were unable to deal with the sheer relentless pressure they were put under throughout the first half. They were overrun and outplayed.

When Sadio Mané headed in Liverpool’s third on the night from Salah’s sumptuous chipped pass, the annihilation was complete. From that moment on, Liverpool had the commanding lead they could only have dreamed of. It would be a test of game management, discipline, and concentration for the remaining hour of the contest- qualities which Liverpool have long been accused of lacking, particularly against opposition of the highest quality.

If the first half was a demonstration of Jürgen Klopp’s blueprint of sensational, ruthless attacking football, the second half was equally impressive in terms of the manner in which Liverpool were able to dig in and withstand constant pressure from a City side desperately looking for an away goal to salvage a disastrous start to the tie.

Every single Liverpool player stepped up to the plate and made their contribution. Trent Alexander-Arnold put in one of the greatest performances by a Liverpool right by in many a year. He came in for plenty of criticism after recent games against Manchester United and Crystal Palace, and City clearly targeted him here with constant diagonal balls to isolate him one-on-one against one of the most precociously gifted wingers in world football at the moment, in Leroy Sané.

Trent dominated that battle all game, gettering the better of Sané time and time again with perfectly timed tackles, headers and interceptions. It was a remarkable display of maturity and passion from a 19-year-old kid, representing his hometown club, in the biggest game of his career, up against some of the most expensive footballers of all time. It was a performance to be proud of, in the extreme.

On the other side, Andy Robertson was typically terrific, exploiting Guardiola’s decision not to start Raheem Sterling by marauding up the left-flank throughout the first half. City could not deal with his bullish, driving runs, while he remained resolute as ever in his defensive duties in the second-half, effectively rendering City’s right-hand side impotent.

In the centre of defence, Virgil van Dijk delivered the kind of imperious display you would expect from the world’s most expensive defender, winning 100% of his duels and providing the commanding, composed presence which helped Liverpool successfully preserve a crucial clean sheet under immense pressure.

Alongside him, the much-maligned Dejan Lovren delivered the finest performance of his Liverpool career with aggressive, front-foot defending, constantly in the right place at the right time to clear any danger that came his way. He proved that he is capable of delivering at the highest level and he must now sustain this level if Liverpool are to progress further in the competition.

In front of the back four, Jordan Henderson gave a superb captain’s performance, snapping into challenges and breaking up play to stifle the threat of De Bruyne and Silva alongside James Milner, whose performances in midfield throughout the second half of this season have continued to surpass all expectations.

All across the pitch, there was quality and passion in abundance from Liverpool in order to manage the game so effectively after the first-half blitz.

This must go down as one of the all-time great Liverpool European performances; a display which will have made the rest of the continent stand up and notice. It’s a night of which the manager, the players and the supporters should be enormously proud. A collective spirit and unity that so few- if any- clubs are capable of harnessing to the same extent.

Importantly, the job is still only half done and the tie far, far from over. Liverpool, though, have put themselves in the best position they could possibly have conceived of at this stage. Something special is brewing.

Allez, allez, allez.

Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool: Match review

In many seasons of recent years gone by, Liverpool do not come back to win that game. Selhurst Park has felt like something of a cursed stadium for Liverpool ever since the infamous debacle at the end of the 2013-14 season, but since Jürgen Klopp has arrived he has now won three consecutive games there.

It’s a ground which is right up there among the most hostile atmospheres of any Premier League club and as an opposition player, it cannot be a pleasant place to play football for 90 minutes. To be able to rise above that and come out with three points despite a performance which was well below par, coming off the back of an international break, speaks volumes of the mental resolve this Liverpool side have.

There was the comeback against Leicester at Anfield in late December, when Mo Salah’s brace delivered a crucial three points after Jamie Vardy’s early opener. Again, away against Burnley, Liverpool found a way to grind out three points in difficult circumstances thanks to Ragnar Klavan’s stoppage time winner.

Here, it was Salah who delivered the killer blow to send Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace plummeting further towards the drop zone, while simultaneously ensuring what could prove a hugely significant victory in terms of securing Champions League football for the Reds again next season, opening up a 10-point gap on Chelsea before their encounter with Tottenham Hotspurs on Sunday.

There was a sense of deja vu when Palace took the lead after 13 minutes when Loris Karius collided with Wilfried Zaha who had reached the ball first. It was a tactic which Man United deployed effectively at Old Trafford, targeting Trent Alexander-Arnold with long, diagonal balls into the right channel, and one which Palace were able to exploit multiple times on this occasion.

Luka Milivojevic made no mistake from the spot, dispatching an excellent penalty into the bottom right corner. As is often the case against lower quality opposition, when they are given a lead to protect, they can prove very difficult to break down as there is little incentive to commit many numbers forward. In truth, Zaha carried Palace’s attack almost by himself, constantly tormenting Alexander-Arnold with a wicked combination of speed and trickery.

The first half’s major flashpoint came when Sadio Mané picked up a booking for simulation in what was the first of a number of controversial refereeing decisions in the game. Mané’s leg had clearly been tripped up inside the box, but it was his theatrical and delayed collapse to the floor which drew the yellow card, as opposed to a penalty.

As both Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness explained at half-time, it was both a clear foul as well as an exaggerated reaction by Mané, who delivered one of the strangest individual performances of the season in a number of ways.

Indeed, it was Mané who ghosted in ahead of Mamadou Sakho to stab home the equalizer early in the second-half after superb work by James Milner to lose his man and deliver the cross, as Liverpool came out of the blocks quickly with a point to prove.

Palace responded well, however, and began to crank up the pressure themselves with Christian Benteke missing a couple of glorious, gilt-edged opportunities to make his mark against his former club, displaying a lack of composure and confidence from a striker who has scored just twice in the league all season.

A further bizarre incident involving Mané came as he found himself hacked down on the edge of his own penalty area. It appeared an obvious foul, only for the referee not to award a free-kick. Mané then decided to pick the ball up- a clear, deliberate handball- for which the referee correctly awarded a subsequent free-kick, but astonishingly lacked the conviction to issue a second booking.

Klopp intervened soon after to remove Mané from the action before he got himself a red card in what was a very sensible change. Adam Lallana’s rotten luck continued as he was forced off with what looked like a serious injury only three minutes after entering the fray, but it was another midfield switch which significantly changed the complexion of Liverpool’s forward play.

The midfield had been lacking creativity and spark throughout, before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s introduction brought a much-needed injection of energy, drive and incision. Chamberlain had combined well with Milner to tee up Salah who was unable to get the final touch on the cross, but it was a warning sign of what was to come.

A draw would not have been a disastrous result for Liverpool here, but with the opportunity to make another significant leap towards securing a top-four finish up for grabs, there was never any chance of settling for a point.

Chamberlain delivered a precise, raking pass to Andy Roberston on the edge of the Palace penalty area, which the Scotsman cushioned perfectly into the path of Salah whose first touch and right-footed finish bore the hallmarks of a player who has the all-time Premier League record for goals in a season in his sights, bagging his 37th of the campaign in all competitions (29 in the league) to send the traveling Kop into raptures.

A crucial late interception from Virgil van Dijk and a last-minute tackle by Roberto Firmino, tracking back to his own corner flag, helped haul Liverpool over the line and withstand a barrage of long balls by a desperate Palace side to preserve the hard-fought victory.

It was one of those wins which feels very much like more than just three points, as Liverpool showed once again that they are capable of grinding out results on the rare occasions when their scintillating attacking play doesn’t quite click into gear.

It’s one more vital step towards that top four finish, helping maintain the positive winning momentum heading into the first leg of the Champions League tie against Manchester City. This was the first hurdle of a pivotal period for Liverpool, successfully passed, in the sweetest- if not most comfortable- of manners.

 

 

 

The revival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain under Jürgen Klopp

Rewind back to 31st August when Liverpool announced the signing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal in a deal worth £35 million. From the Liverpool side, there was a mixture of cautious optimism and heavy skepticism about the hefty fee for a player with more question marks than answers around his ability to be a key player at a top English club. From the Arsenal side, his departure was largely met with derision and bitterness, with Chamberlain lambasted for “jumping ship” to a rival side.

Indeed, there was a rampant surge of wild criticism and abuse in the immediate aftermath of his transfer, at which point Chamberlain was only making brief cameos off the bench with his confidence sorely lacking. He was being widely mocked for “swapping one bench for another”, with many already writing him off as a total waste of money.

It’s indicative of the sheer lack of patience and wider perspective in football that Chamberlain was given such harsh treatment upon his arrival before he even had a chance to prove himself. Moving to a new city, playing with new teammates and under a new manager with completely different demands and a whole different style of football to what Chamberlain was used to at Arsenal; it was always going to take him some time to settle in and adapt at Liverpool, especially with the amount of media attention following his transfer.

Fast forward to the present, after the initial teething process, and Chamberlain has established himself not only as a useful squad player, but as someone who has a great deal to contribute to the first team at Liverpool, both now and for many seasons to come.

His breakthrough performance came in January’s momentous victory over Manchester City, in which Chamberlain tore through the City midfield before lashing in the opening goal from outside the box, before setting up Roberto Firmino’s second-half goal with a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot through ball from a deeper position to carve out an opening for the Brazilian.

Chamberlain was full of energy, dynamism and quality on the ball against arguably the strongest side in Europe this season, going toe to toe with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan and demonstrating his ability to perform at that elite level. The focus for Chamberlain has long been performing at a high level consistently, rather than just in flashes.

He had done so throughout much of November and December for Liverpool, before going off the boil somewhat after his virtuoso display against the champions-elect. In the past couple of weeks, however, Chamberlain has regained his groove with a fine display in the 4-1 thrashing of West Ham, in which he dribbled past four players before sliding a pass through for Mo Salah to score in the second-half.

He followed that up with another classy performance against Newcastle at the weekend, providing the spark which ignited what had been a cagey opening against Rafa Benitez’ well-drilled outfit. Aggressively driving through the heart of the midfield, Chamberlain used his pace and awareness to create an opening, electing to pick out Salah rather than shooting at goal himself.

The Egyptian did the rest and from then on, Liverpool strolled through the game at a canter, with Chamberlain at the heart of a dominant and assured team performance, looking every inch at home in the central midfield position he claims to be his strongest.

Chamberlain looks a far more confident player now than he has done for some time, and that surely has to come down to Klopp’s role in helping him use his strengths in his preferred role as part of one of the most exciting attacking sides on the continent- in keeping with the German’s proven track record of developing and improving players through work on the training ground.

In terms of distance covered, Chamberlain is running 7.43 miles per game for Liverpool, which is over a mile more than he was managing at Arsenal in the opening three games of this season prior to his transfer, while he is also averaging 69 sprints per game, versus only 50 sprints per game at Arsenal, demonstrating the extent to which he has bought into Klopp’s high-intensity brand of football. The transformation already has been stark.

He’s also taking on 2.15 shots per game, versus 1.60 shots per game at Arsenal last season, upping his shooting accuracy from 44% to 64%, again demonstrating his increased confidence in front of goal, and while scoring his still an area he must look to improve in, his tally of three league goals (four in all competitions) has already surpassed his highest total for a single season at Arsenal, while he also has six assists to his name.

Positionally, he looks increasingly aware of his role in the midfield trio, thriving with space to drive into in front of him and able to use his ability to pick out an incisive pass to any one of the front three, which suits him far better than when he is tasked with playing further forward in a wide role. In the past couple of league games, he has shown his ability to help control the tempo in midfield by constantly showing for the ball and playing simple passes, picking his moments to drive forward and commit defenders.

Importantly, there is still plenty of scope for Chamberlain to continue developing and further improvements are surely likely once he has a full pre-season of training under Klopp, rather than arriving at an awkward time as he did this season. His progression so far has been greatly encouraging, having left a club which now finds themselves in something of a crisis, instead taking a brave career decision to become an important part of an exciting team who are on a steep upward trajectory.

Beyond his progression on the pitch, his maturity and intelligence in his handling of the media have been befitting of his growing stature and already it seems as though his teammates value his positive influence as a member of the dressing room.

Although he is still far from the finished article, Chamberlain deserves great credit for knuckling down and taking a bold career move which has so far paid dividends. There is every reason to believe he can be an integral part of Klopp’s plans for years to come.

 

 

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Match review

It’s often difficult to judge Portuguese teams in the Champions League. Based on their domestic form- top of the league and unbeaten at home, having conceded just 10 goals in 21 matches, Porto appeared to be potentially tricky opponents on paper, albeit a favorable draw for Liverpool.

What unfolded on the soaking wet grass, however, was a complete and utter non-contest, in which Liverpool, in their fluorescent tangerine kit, delivered one of the finest all-round Champions League performances from an English side in years. Indeed, this was one of the most accomplished displays of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure as Liverpool systematically and ruthlessly dismantled the hosts in an almost nonchalant manner.

The opening stages were somewhat evenly contested, with Porto showing some delicate touches on the ball- particularly through Yacine Brahimi, by far the most likely threat down the left-wing. Yet Liverpool had a confidence and assurance about themselves in possession- disciplined, yet fully capable of unleashing their devastating attacking weapons at any moment.

When the opening goal arrived 25 minutes in after Jose Sa fumbled Sadio Mané’s shot over the line following a driving forward run by Gini Wijnaldum, it felt as though it had been coming as Liverpool increasingly asserted their superiority across all areas of the pitch.

Mo Salah doubled the scoring just four minutes later, following in James Milner’s superb curling effort which crashed off the post, the Egyptian demonstrating the class and composure of a player brimming with confidence, safe in the knowledge he is right up there with the very best footballers on the planet at this moment in time.

Salah, juggling the ball over the keeper’s head, was always fully in control as he stabbed the ball over the line for his 30th goal of the season- a simply remarkable turn, all the more so by reaching the landmark by mid-February. He now needs just seven more goals to become Liverpool’s record goalscorer in a single season in the Premier League era, as he closes in on Robbie Fowler’s career-high tally of 36.

While Liverpool’s game management has left much to desire on several occasions when leading games this season, Klopp’s team never let up, working tirelessly off the ball, particularly through the pressing of the ever-industrious Roberto Firmino and the midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner who controlled the midfield to great effect throughout.

The third goal, arriving eight minutes into the second-half, was vintage Klopp football at its finest, with Firmino starting off a rapid counter-attack with a neat flick, before latching on to Salah’s perfectly weighted through ball, as an onrushing Mané anticipated the rebound from the Brazilian’s shot to tap in from close range.

Mané is a player who has been lacking in confidence for some time now, influencing games while not being anywhere near his peak level- his first touch and decision-making strangely lacking, in comparison to the virtually unplayable figure of last season. He needed a big statement performance, and this was the perfect way to do so, securing his hat-trick with a vicious drive from outside the penalty area for Liverpool’s fifth on the night, after Firmino had converted from close range after excellent work by Milner down the left.

It was a stunning demonstration of ruthless counter-attacking football, combined with total domination in every department. While scoring five goals away from home in a European knockout tie is an extraordinary feat in itself, the imperious defensive performances by Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren were just as impressive, as the duo ensured Porto’s albeit limited threat was contained in order to preserve a valuable clean sheet.

The Dutchman, in particular, not only showed his aerial prowess on countless occasions, but also his ability to play an integral role in Liverpool’s build-up play from a deeper position, spraying several excellent long, diagonal balls out wide to switch play quickly and accurately, thus creating gap’s in Porto’s shape to be exploited.

Andy Robertson, too, deserves enormous credit for another masterful performance at left-back, with the Scot increasingly looking like one of the best bargains Liverpool have discovered in years, combining defensive nous with boundless energy and consistently dangerous delivery from out wide in advanced areas.

While there is never any room for complacency in this competition, Liverpool have put themselves into the best possible position heading into the second-leg at Anfield where they will be fully expected to seal their passage through to the quarter-finals with minimum fuss.

This latest resounding victory- following the two 7-0 drubbings of Maribor and Spartak Moscow in the group stages- is yet another statement to Europe’s elite that Liverpool, when they click, are a force to be reckoned with in this competition.

Tougher tests will come, of course, barring a miracle from Porto in the return leg, but as the highest scorers in the competition, overtaking PSG this evening, no team will relish coming up against Liverpool in this vein of form.

 

 

 

 

Why Liverpool cannot afford to wait until the summer to reinvest the Coutinho money

It’s become a cliché line now that the January transfer window isn’t the right time to make signings, as the best players generally aren’t available and clubs will demand an extortionate premium to even consider selling their prized-assets half way through the season.

It’s a theory which, when you look at the actual evidence, doesn’t quite add up. Some of Liverpool’s best signings in recent years have come in January. Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho just to name a few of them. Virgil van Dijk has, of course, also finally completed his much-protracted transfer from Southampton to Liverpool for £75 million this month. Alexis Sanchez has joined Man United from Arsenal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way in exchange. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks likely to be heading to the North London club too. Chelsea are reportedly close to agreeing a deal for Edin Dzeko.

It’s simply a myth that important signings cannot be made in January. Ultimately, if clubs offer enough money for a player they really want, there’s nearly always a price at which a deal can be done- as ultimately proven by Barcelona’s successful £142 million move for Coutinho, which was enough to persuade Liverpool to part with the Brazilian at such a crucial juncture in the season.

For Liverpool, it is absolutely imperative now that at least a significant proportion of that money is reinvested into the squad in order to maximise their prospects of success in the remainder of the season. With the top four race still in the balance and upcoming ties in the FA Cup and Champions League, there is a huge amount at stake for Liverpool and while recent reports suggest Jürgen Klopp might be content to wait until the summer to bolster his squad again, Coutinho’s departure significantly weakens Liverpool’s chances of winning a trophy and qualifying for the Champions League.

Waiting until the summer while sitting back and watching rivals strengthen, risks Liverpool perpetually building for the future without quite doing enough to achieve their goals in the present.

In selling Coutinho, Liverpool effectively lost two players in one, given the Brazilian’s propensity to play either in the front three or as the most advanced midfielder. Liverpool now find themselves in a situation where they are almost entirely reliant on all three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah to remain fit and available for the rest of the season, which is highly unlikely. Even if they do, issues of form and fatigue inevitably come into the equation.

The drop-off in quality for attacking options beyond the first choice trio is stark, with Dominic Solanke and Danny Ings hardly of the required quality, with the former never having scored a senior goal in English football and the latter having missed nearly two years through injury. Daniel Sturridge, meanwhile, appears well out of the picture and has been strongly linked with a move away to either Inter Milan or Sevilla this month, which would only further deplete Klopp’s attacking resources. Even when fit, Sturridge is miles off the player he used to be before the injuries took away his explosive pace and razor-sharp finishing.

Liverpool cannot, therefore, leave themselves so vulnerable that one injury to any one of the front three would be disastrous. The argument that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Adam Lallana could fill that gap doesn’t hold much strength, given that both players do not supply enough goals or assists and are best utilised in the midfield positions.

With an initial £102 million banked from Coutinho’s sale, it would be negligent to jeopardise a season which holds so much promise, but is now so finely in the balance given the paucity of attacking resources at Klopp’s disposal beyond his first choice players. While January might not be the easiest time to find the best deals, it would be worth slightly paying over the odds for another premium forward option in order to ensure that Klopp retains the ability to rotate his forward options without losing too much quality- which has underpinned so much of Liverpool’s relative success so far this season.

With that in mind, here are a number of potential options Liverpool might look at- not all of the same style, and not all necessarily easy to acquire at this stage in the season- but players which, if Liverpool offered enough money for, could contribute significantly in the remaining months of the campaign.

1. The obvious choice- Thomas Lemar

It’s something of a mystery quite why Liverpool haven’t made their move for Lemar this month (unless they have done so in private without it being picked up by the English press). The Frenchman was strongly linked at the end of the summer transfer window and Monaco have continually made noises this month to suggest they would be willing to sell if the right offer came in, which recent reports suggest would be below the original £90 million figure quoted to Arsenal in the summer.

Lemar is not a direct replacement for Coutinho style-wise, but he could similarly operate as one of the wide options in the front three as well as an attacking midfielder. He’s more of a creator than a prolific goal scorer at this stage in his career, but at only 22 he has vast potential to develop further. His form for Monaco has been well below par this season, although injuries and persistent transfer links may well have a major part to play in that.

The idea that Liverpool might be prepared to wait until the summer for Lemar, if true, is a risky one, given that his price tag would surely sky-rocket if he has an impressive World Cup campaign with France. Even worse, were Liverpool to slip outside the top four spots this season, they would have absolutely no chance of landing a player like Lemar in the summer, regardless.

There have been rumours that Lemar would rather stay at Monaco this month to ensure regular playing time ahead of the World Cup- although he would almost certainly get plenty of game time at Liverpool were a move to materialise, given the volume of games that remain and the need for rotation.

If Liverpool could get a deal done this month, it would be a major boost ahead of the second-half of the season, allowing him half a season to settle in while immediately improving Liverpool’s attacking depth and giving Klopp the opportunity to potentially rest the likes of Mané or Salah in league games ahead of the Champions League, for which Lemar would be cup-tied.

2. The “Premier League proven” option- Riyad Mahrez

Liverpool have categorically denied their supposed interest in Mahrez this month, although this often been the case in the past before they have gone on to sign players. The Leicester winger has been consistently linked with a move ever since the Foxes’ title triumph in 2015-16, but it has never quite materialised. It’s clear that Mahrez would like to make the next step in his career and would surely have no qualms about swapping Leicester for Liverpool.

In terms of versatility, Mahrez doesn’t quite offer as much as Coutinho or Lemar in that he wouldn’t provide a realistic option in midfield, but he would certainly supplement the forward line with regular goals and assists from the right wing, significantly lessening the burden on Salah. At 26, he’s approaching the prime of his career and could still kick on a level alongside better players and Klopp’s proven track record of unlocking potential.

After an indifferent season last time out, Mahrez has been showing the kind of form which saw him named PFA Player of the Season in 2015-16 and has a wealth of experience in this league already. Mahrez also has the added bonus of being available for the Champions League if he were to join, although he would be cup-tied for the FA Cup.

It’s more of a gamble, but one surely worth taking and most likely Mahrez would not cost quite as much as the astronomical fee quoted for Lemar.

3. The previous target- Julian Brandt

Rewind to before last summer and Julian Brandt was widely reported as Klopp’s number one priority transfer target, only for the German winger to opt to remain at Bayer Leverkusen in order to keep up his guarantee of regular playing time, which would be more of a challenge at Liverpool.

It seems incredible now, but Salah appeared to be an alternative option rather than the very first choice and the Egyptian has quickly secured superstar status since his £36.5 million move from Roma with 24 goals already in his debut season.

Brandt, however, is surely still a player on Klopp’s radar and significantly he will be available for a free transfer in the summer of 2019 when his contract expires with Leverkusen. Were Liverpool to put an attractive sum on the table now, that could potentially tempt Leverkusen to take the money rather than lose one of their star assets for just the meagre reported £11 million release clause which comes into play in the summer, when they would also be at the mercy of Bayern Munich further asserting their hegemony in the Bundesliga by handpicking another excellent young talent.

The major sticking point would be the fact that Leverkusen are currently second in the table and chasing Champions League qualification- although as Liverpool showed with Coutinho and Barcelona, if the offer is big enough, more often than not there is scope for deals to be done.

4. The American dream- Christian Pulisic

Back in August 2016, Liverpool made a measly £11 million bid for Pulisic, widely regarded as one of the rising stars of the Bundesliga and the poster boy of American football. The diminuative winger has continued to build his reputation and is a player clearly admired by Klopp- and, apparently, by FSG who would be keen to have potentially America’s finest footballer of modern times from a commercial perspect.

Still only 19, Pulisic has already featured in the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund, also racking up 55 Bundesliga appearances and 20 international caps for the USA. He is still raw in many aspects- notably in terms of goal-scoring- but his sheer speed, supreme dribbling technique and versatility makes him a hugely promising prospect and one which would potentially be a key part of Klopp’s Liverpool side for years to come, while also being able to contribute in the short-term.

Dortmund are currently 6th in the Bundesliga, although only a point behind second place, but the propsect of not finishing in the Champions League places is more than possible and would be a factor in terms of convincing the player to make his move.

5. The wildcard option- Nabil Fekir

Fekir is enjoying a remarkable season with Olympique Lyon with 16 goals and 5 assists to his name in 19 Ligue 1 so far, who currently sit 2nd in the table behind PSG- against whom he recently scored in a stunning last-minute victory over the French champions.

Liverpool have not been strongly linked with Fekir before, but in terms of what he could offer he would bring a huge amount to the team. Able to operate across the forward line and as a number ten, Fekir brings prolific numbers from multiple positions and, crucially, could potentially operate in the central role in the forward line, able to drop deep and link between the midfield and the attack while also providing a goalscoring threat and creativity.

Liverpool don’t currently have an established, quality alternative to Firmino in that role and a player like Fekir would certainly bolster Klopp’s forward line significantly for the remainder of the campaign. At 24, again, he has considerable potential to continue to build on his current upward trajectory having recovered so impressively from a Cruciate Ligament injury which curtailed his 2015-16 season.

 

 

 

Liverpool 4-3 Man City: match review

It might take a while to appreciate just how phenomenal a game of football this was. For the neutral, it surely goes down immediately as an all-time Premier League classic- a hectic, scintillating demonstration of devastating attacking football from the two most thrilling sides in the country.

Man City’s hopes of an invincible season have been dashed, but Pep Guardiola’s side are still well on track to stroll their way to the title on a record-high points tally. No team has emerged victorious against them all season until now, with good reason. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have shown they are the only side capable of going toe-to-toe and playing them at their own game without getting torn to pieces. It took an immense showing of both quality and sheer effort to overcome what has, until now, proven an unstoppable force this season.

While City’s two late goals shifted the scoreline from a complete annihilation to a narrow victory, this was, in many ways, the finest performance from Liverpool during the Klopp era. Several momentary defensive lapses aside, this was a display of phenomenal verve and cohesion, such that City’s defenders had to cope with a degree of pressure they simply haven’t faced from any other side.

The midfield trio of Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain functioned hugely effectively as a unit to help stem the tide of City’s attacks while also driving forward and setting Liverpool on the front foot. Chamberlain, in particular, was simply magnificent throughout, delivering the finest performance of a blossoming Liverpool career- a player re-energised, re-motivated and clearly loving his football as part of this team.

His goal was illustrative of his new-found confidence, picking the ball up from a deeper position before aggressively surging forward and lashing a low, pinpoint finish into the bottom corner past Ederson for his fourth in Liverpool colours. It’s the kind of goal he would never have scored several months back, but one can only assume that his work on the training ground under a manager who believes in his ability and consistently deploys him in his favoured role have been integral to his upward trajectory, establishing himself as a key cog in the Klopp machine in the role vacated by the recently departed Philippe Coutinho.

While the Brazilian possessed certain qualities unmatched by any other player in the Liverpool squad, his defensive contribution while playing in midfield could often be called into question and left the side somewhat unbalanced at times. Here, Liverpool’s work rate to win back possession by closing City down relentlessly was evident from the first minute. They were hardly given a second to breathe.

Throughout the duration of the first-half, Liverpool were largely diligent in their defensive work, only to be undone by a momentary lapse in concentration with Joe Gomez caught out by a raking crossfield pass to Leroy Sané on the left flank. The German burst into the penalty area and fired the equaliser past his compatriot, Loris Karius, who ought to have done better at his near post despite the ferocious power of the strike.

For Liverpool to have expended so much energy and to play so well during the first half, only to go in level at the break, could easily have damaged morale. To keep up that intensity in the second-half against a City side with a knack of scoring multiple late winners this season would be an enormous task- but one Liverpool showed they were more than capable of stepping up to.

That spirit, grit and determination was embodied by the performance of Andy Robertson, who turned in one of the finest left-back displays from a Liverpool player in years. The Scot dealt superbly with Raheem Sterling- a player in the form of his life, constantly terrorising defences this season- with his tough tackling, well-timed headers and interceptions, as well as his lively foraging runs up the wing.

City, however, were starting to crank up the pressure, until Chamberlain set Roberto Firmino through on goal with a sumptuous through ball. The Brazilian still had plenty to do, however, proceeding to shrug off the attentions of John Stones, before lofting a sublime, curling chipped finish in off the post to regain the lead- a stunning piece of individual quality, heavily reminiscent of the kind of goal Luis Suarez used to score in his prime.

It takes Firmino’s tally for the season up to 17, and along with his colossal all-round contribution in terms of pressing, movement, link-up play and chance creation, the Brazilian is quietly establishing himself as one of the very finest players in the league this season. There’s not a single forward in Europe who executes the complex role Firmino takes up in Klopp’s system and this was just the latest evidence of why he is the perfect player to operate as the attacking fulcrum of this Liverpool side- full of quality himself, while also elevating the performances of those around him.

He’s simultaneously a creator, a defender and now an increasingly prolific goalscorer- with Firmino in the side, it almost feels as if you’re playing with more than 11 men. Just imagine having to defend against that.

In a remarkable nine-minute frenzy, Liverpool put City to the sword twice more, with Sadio Mané lashing an unstoppable left-footed drive into the top corner after excellent work by Mo Salah, before the Egyptian bagged his 24th goal of the season with a sensational 45-yard lob after intercepting Ederson’s under-hit clearance, to put Liverpool firmly in the driving seat.

Despite holding such a commanding lead, however, the game never felt quite over with City still pouring forward in numbers with so much attacking quality in their ranks. Liverpool are not a side built to shut games down by sticking ten men behind the ball, and sure enough Bernardo Silva- on as a substitute for Sterling- swept the ball home from close range with eight minutes of normal time to go.

Liverpool appeared to have successfully ridden out a late storm, only for Ilkay Gundogan to put hearts in mouths as he prodded in City’s third in stoppage time to make it 4-3. It would have been beyond devastating for Liverpool to throw away three points after such a gargantuan display of endeavour and that very nearly became the reality as Sergio Aguero flashed a header into the side netting in the dying seconds from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick.

Rather than elation, the immediate sense at the final whistle was one of enormous relief, having managed to hold on for what is by far and away the biggest win of the season, taking Liverpool on to an 18-match unbeaten run and now up to 3rd in the table, pulling ahead of Chelsea on goal difference.

To step up and deliver such a performance in light of the blow of losing Coutinho and without the presence of Virgil van Dijk speaks volumes about the character and depth of this Liverpool side, inflicting City’s first league defeat of the season in spectacular style. While the frenetic finale somewhat took the edge off what would have been an emphatic thrashing, there should be no underestimating just how big a win this is in terms of morale for the remaining months of the season.

The target for Liverpool should be to establish themselves as the most likely challengers to City for the title next season and on this evidence, they are more than capable of doing so. City will be well aware of that themselves, too, having faced their most uncomfortable ninety minutes of the season, by some distance.

Although there still remains plenty of room for improvement and upgrades in individual personnel, this is arguably the biggest statement victory under Klopp, overcoming what is unequivocally one of- if not the most- formidable teams in Premier League history.

It ought to be celebrated as such.

 

 

Coutinho’s departure: what it means for Liverpool going forward

So there we have it, at last. On 6th January, Liverpool confirmed they had reached an agreement with Barcelona for the transfer of Philippe Coutinho, with reports suggesting an initial, up-front fee of £105 million, followed by £37 million of plausible add-ons, taking the total package up to £142 million- making the Brazilian the third most expensive player of all time, after Neymar and Kylian Mbappé (£200 million and £167.5 million to PSG respectively). In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

Ever since the Neymar transfer in the summer, Barcelona have been aggressive to the point of outright disrespectful in their relentless pursuit of Coutinho, with the player clearly desperate to make the move to the Catalan club when the opportunity first arose. It didn’t suit Liverpool to sell in the summer, however, regardless of the fee- while Barcelona’s derisory offers were well below his market worth, anyway.

Back then, Liverpool didn’t have enough time to search for an adequate replacement and it was entirely in the club’s best interests to keep Coutinho heading into the new season. Had the offer been made right at the start of the transfer window, it may well have been a different story but such was the lack of time left that it never made sense to consider any of Barcelona’s offers. The cost was simply too heavy and keeping Coutinho- once is feigned back injury cleared up- would ultimately prove hugely beneficial in terms of his contribution to Liverpool thereafter.

For all the talk of the risks around forcing an unhappy player to stay at the club, Coutinho’s performances went up another level, regularly delivering world-class displays and prolific goal returns once he returned to the first team fold following his feigned “back injury”. In his 20 appearances this season (17 from the start), he has racked up 12 goals and 8 assists- thus averaging a direct goal contribution every game.

There are very few- if any- attacking midfielders of his ilk in the world capable of producing such impressive numbers, while also heavily influencing games in terms of his all-round contribution on the pitch. Coutinho has undoubtedly elevated himself to world-class status this season, having been previously a mercurial talent who only offered flashes of brilliance with a tendency to drift in and out of games.

Why, then, would Liverpool cash in on their prized asset this month, having fought so hard to resist Barcelona’s advances in the summer, with so much currently at stake? There’s a top-four spot to play for, along with the Champions League and FA Cup- for which Coutinho’s presence would enhance Liverpool’s prospects of success this season.

Liverpool held all the cards on this deal, with Coutinho having penned a new five-year contract in January 2017, with no release clause. There was never any obligation to sell right now at such a crucial juncture in the season and Jürgen Klopp’s overall project at the club. It didn’t need to happen.

Of course, it is simply impossible and counter-productive to keep hold of a player forever when he doesn’t want to be there. Mid-way through the season, however, seems an entirely unnecessary time to buckle to his commands, though. Liverpool could have dug in and kept Coutinho until the summer, before granting him his move at a time which would suit all parties.

That way, Liverpool would’ve benefited from his contribution for another five months, while the player would have been able to leave in a much more positive light than the toxic situation which has surrounded his protracted departure. Barcelona, meanwhile, have all-but-won La Liga already and cannot use Coutinho in the Champions League anyway. A January deal for a summer sale seemed like the obvious solution.

Yet when Coutinho decided to effectively go on strike, feigning another injury- this time his thigh- and refusing to travel to the club’s warm weather training camp in Dubai, the decision was made to cash in, rather than ride out the storm and dig in to keep him one more time. It’s a decision which ultimately prioritises the interests of the player and Barcelona, ahead of Liverpool’s own.

The ramifications of it are unclear, as of yet. It leaves a significant, gaping void in the squad, which needs to be filled this month if Liverpool are to maintain the positive momentum built up over the last couple of months. That means bringing in a high-quality replacement in January. With Monaco reportedly very reluctant to sanction any deal for Thomas Lemar this month, it’s not clear who that replacement might be.

There may well be a deal already lined up behind the scenes, of course, as was the case with the signing of Virgil van Dijk. One would think that given the amount of time Liverpool had to prepare for Coutinho’s eventual departure, they would have done all the groundwork to more or less tie up a replacement already. Whether that turns out to be the reality will become clear over the coming weeks.

What is abundantly clear, throughout all this, is that Klopp has allowed the deal to happen and therefore feels he is in a position to let a player of Coutinho’s quality to move on, without damaging what he’s building at Liverpool. For the FSG-sceptics, it might well seem that the Coutinho deal has effectively funded the Van Dijk acquisition, but all the evidence suggests that Liverpool were looking at Van Dijk well before Barcelona ever regiestered their interest in Coutinho. These owners are fully behind Klopp and thus the decision would not have been made without the manager’s approval.

Klopp’s statement explains his position very clearly:

“Players will come and players will go, that is football, but as a club we are big enough and strong enough to continue with our aggressive progression on the pitch, even when we lose an important player. We have never been in a better position in recent times, as a club, to react in the right way. We will use our size and strength to absorb moments like this and still move forward.

“I have been here long enough now to know in the history of Liverpool, key players have left before – but the club always goes on. You cannot transfer the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club, although I am sure there are many clubs who would like to buy it.

“I have so much belief in the talent we have here already and even more faith, together with our owners, that we will make continued investment into the playing squad, which will allow more growth and more improvement.”

He is absolutely right in saying that Liverpool have not been in a better position to build from a setback like this for a long time. This is not the travesty that was losing Fernando Torres or Luis Suarez, as Liverpool have three elite tier attackers in their armoury in Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. Coutinho’s loss is a heavy blow to take, but it need not be a fatal one.

Long-term, Klopp will have confidence in building a stronger, more balanced side, using the money wisely to buy players who want to play for the club and fit exactly into what he’s trying to achieve. There is a strong base to build from, and if smart reinvestments are made, Liverpool can move on from this and continue their upward trajectory.

In the short-term, however, it’s a major gamble for Klopp and one which could well define his time at Liverpool. Qualifying for the Champions League again this season is the bare minimum requirement, and to do so without Coutinho is now a much greater challenge than it would have been. That’s not to say it’s impossible- especially if Liverpool can bring in a quality replacement- but the task is undoubtedly more difficult now.

Importantly, any replacement would not be near Coutinho’s level, while they would need time to adapt, settle into the system and would also most likely be cup-tied for the Champions League. Clubs will also be fully aware that Liverpool have the Coutinho money in the bank and with it being January, they will surely look to drive up their prices should Liverpool coming knocking.

In the immediate-term, therefore, it’s difficult to see how Liverpool benefit from this, as Coutinho’s departure directly weakens prospects of success on all three fronts for the remainder of the season- even more so if a replacement isn’t brought in this month, with Klopp preferring to wait until the summer rather to get his ideal targets.

In terms of the player himself, the manner in which this has all unfolded is hugely disappointing- but perhaps unsurprising. It’s a well-documented fact that South American players ultimately tend to aspire to play for one of the big two clubs in Spain and for any player, an offer from Barcelona is one which cannot be turned down.

Coutinho has given Liverpool five years, but hasn’t won any silverware and approaching his prime years, he’ll want to be rectifying that fact by playing for a club virtually guaranteed of winning trophies year in, year out. Footballers have short careers, and for a non-local player with no pre-existing loyalty to Liverpool, it’s to be expected that he would do whatever necessary to make the move happen.

All that said, for a player who owes his development almost entirely to Liverpool, so widely adored by the fanbase, to fake injuries and make himself unavailable for the Champions League qualifier earlier in the season, and most recently the Merseyside Derby, is a real shame to see, and tarnishes his reputation to some extent.

While not quite on Suarez’ level, Coutinho is one of the finest players to have played for the club this century and it is with great regret, from a Liverpool perspective, that the best years of his career will be spent elsewhere. He will undoubtedly be a major success at Barcelona.

From a personal point of view, I’m hugely disappointed the deal was allowed to happen in January. I would’ve had no qualms with agreeing a deal to let him go in the summer, but such is the importance of the next five months that losing Coutinho in January places all that at great risk.

Ultimately, now, we have to trust that Klopp has a plan in place to deal with the loss of such a quality player without it derailing a season which holds so much promise. The focus has to be on securing a replacement as soon as possible- which doesn’t mean spending for the sake of it- but Liverpool cannot afford to wait until the summer to replace such an integral part of both their midfield and attacking options.

With 54 goals (many of which were phenomenal, long-range strikes) and 43 assists since his debut in January 2013, no player has contributed more than Coutinho in that time. It’s very easy to convince ourselves that everything will be fine and that his departure isn’t as severe a loss as many- myself include- suggest it to be, but make no mistake- Liverpool are bidding farewell to a truly outstanding footballer. That shouldn’t be downplayed. The coming weeks and months will fundamentally prove whether this has been a brave and well-calculated gamble, or a costly error.

Cheers for the memories, Phil. It’s a shame it had to end this way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burnley 1-2 Liverpool: A slice of Estonian magic kicks off the new year in style

Of all the ways to win a football match, this just about tops it. Having conceded a hugely disappointing late equaliser, facing the prospect of two painfully dropped points, to then go back up the other end and bag the winner in the 94th minute via a combination of the much-maligned Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan from an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain free-kick right at the death, is pretty much the perfect start to the new year. Such glorious scenes.

This time a year ago, Liverpool dropped two points as Sunderland equalised with a late penalty to draw 2-2, which set about a malaise which proved hugely damaging throughout January and February. It was a real momentum killer, crushing morale and sapping belief. This feels like the very opposite.

Aside from the precious three points gained, the psychological benefit of winning the game in such a manner is something which this squad will now carry going forwards from here. Twice in a matter of days, Liverpool have responded to setbacks against two tough, gnarly opponents, by digging in and showing a collective spirit and drive to eventually win the battle.

This was a battle in every sense of the word. It’s what Burnley do. They compete, they scrap, they make the game horrible. They’re better than any side in this league at doing it. Liverpool, though, stood up to the challenge and weren’t afraid to put themselves about and engage in the physicality of the contest.

A first half which was devoid of any creativity or fluidity from either side was merely the jostling match before the real fight in the second half. It was far from a classic Liverpool performance and the attack struggled to click in the absence of Phil Coutinho, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino. It was a performance of graft, rather than guile, for the most part.

Such is extent of individual quality within this squad, however, that a moment of brilliance was always likely to occur at some point. Sure enough, it came from Sadio Mané- a player enduring the first real rough patch of form in his Liverpool career. Collecting a superb, whipped cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mané swivelled and unleashed a rocket into the roof of the net to get the goal he so clearly wanted and needed. A stunning strike on his weaker foot to give his side the breakthrough- and what should also serve as a welcome confidence booster for a player who clearly has so much ability to influence a game, even when off the boil.

As has proven the case throughout this season- and much of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure- a 1-0 scoreline is rarely ever enough for Liverpool and despite defending resolutely for the majority of the game, it was no huge surprise when Burnley eventually found a way through themselves. A momentary lapse in concentration from Klavan and Joe Gomez was all it took for Johann Gudmunsson to pounce on a flick-on at the back post for the equaliser in the 87th minute.

Gomez was largely excellent- as he has been throughout the campaign thus far- but moments like this are a notable weakness of his and an obvious area for him to improve. Eradicating these kinds of lapses is all part of his development and will surely come with time as he gains experience.

It felt like another sucker punch, coming so late on, after so much effort had been put into maintaining the slender margin. Memories of Watford, Chelsea and Sevilla this season are still fresh and to suffer yet another draw having been so close to the victory line would have dealt a real blow to the general morale around the club, as well as the points tally.

And then it happened. A trademark, driving run by Emre Can won the free-kick, which Oxlade-Chamberlain- magnificent in his performance once again- curled it dangerously into the box for Lovren to nod across goal for Klavan to bundle in the winner. For a few seconds, there was a feeling of dread that Liverpool might be denied once more by an offside flag, but sure enough, it counted this time. Absolute euphoria ensued.

Wins like these don’t come around very often. Liverpool have produced two of them in the past few days and it is a huge credit both to the players and the manager- whose rotation throughout the Christmas period has paid dividends- that they’ve been able to haul themselves over the line when it would have been so easy to buckle and drop points.

It’s a moment of sheer and utter elation which ought to be properly cherished. Liverpool haven’t scored many late winners at all this season. To do so away, against Burnley, where very few sides will take maximum points this season, having made seven changes to the side who beat Leicester, is a real demonstration of the character of this squad- as well as the depth which allows the likes of Adam Lallana to come in and make such a positive impact on his return to the side.

Another win which feels very much more than just three points and one which builds on the momentum which has come with a 16-match unbeaten run and the feel-good factor brought by the arrival of Virgil van Dijk. This was the most perfect of ways to kick start 2018, a year which holds enormous promise for Liverpool as they continue their upward trajectory under Klopp.