red or dead? | 

Liverpool used to be the best, now they can only thrive by beating the best

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA/Reuters© PA

Jurgen Klopp has been experimental this season with his formations, but the tried and trusted 4-3-3 was used in Tuesday’s win over Napoli© PA

Experimental: Jurgen Klopp© REUTERS

Richard JollyUK Independent

There is a theme of Jurgen Klopp’s footballing philosophy. He doesn’t want his side to be the best team in the world, he will say, but he wants them to beat the best.

Go back a few months and there was a case for anointing Liverpool the planet’s finest. But not now, when they have lost to both Nottingham Forest and Leeds, and when they are below Fulham and Brighton in the league table.

But twice in an otherwise troubled campaign, Liverpool have defeated possibly the outstanding side in the global game. Like Manchester City, Napoli came to Anfield unbeaten: in their case, with 13 straight victories, including away wins at Lazio, AC Milan, Ajax, and Roma, with a historic demolition of Liverpool in Italy, with 50 goals already this season. They departed with their now familiar loss: much as it does for City, Anfield feels the final frontier for the Neapolitans.

None of which definitively means Liverpool are back. Their season has been too much of an obstacle course to suggest as much. They may fall flat on their faces again. They could be tripped up at Tottenham on Sunday. Their victory over Napoli was nothing like as emphatic as their evisceration in the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. It took two late goals at Anfield whereas they were four down after 47 minutes in Italy and it could conceivably have been seven.

But there was a sense in which Liverpool came full circle. Two words of Klopp’s post-match inquest in the depths of despair and the bowels of Napoli’s concrete house of horrors assumed a particular pertinence. One made more headlines. “We have to reinvent ourselves,” he said. Reinvention suggested something more dramatic but Napoli were beaten not by something new, but something old.

Klopp has experimented of late, trying 4-2-3-1, 4-2-4, a flat 4-4-2 and a midfield diamond, but Napoli were beaten with the aid of a return to his trademark 4-3-3. “The system we played most often and which is familiar to us when we played well,” he said. “We had to change a couple of things and give the boys some new things to think about.” But a glimpse of something different produced mixed results: a win over City playing 4-4-2 and a defeat to Forest, overcoming Ajax in Amsterdam with a diamond and losing to Leeds in Liverpool. The shift back to 4-3-3 may not yet be permanent, but Liverpool found solace in their past. “It is always on the table for us,” Klopp added. “There’s no difference to a diamond really. But defensively it is a big difference. We have just to figure out what is best for us and which players are playing.”

And the best element for Klopp lay in a word Liverpool’s previous Champions League-winning manager also used to repeat. The German and Rafa Benitez are very different but each wants his teams to be compact. It was something Klopp lamented time and again in Naples; that, he said, the match “was the least compact performance I saw from us for a long, long time”. Come the rematch and he reflected: “Being compact makes all the difference. All of a sudden, we have challenges in the right places. All of a sudden, we are difficult to play against. The distance was there.”

The emblematic figure in that turnaround was not the scorers – Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez; not even a player who completed the game. James Milner struggled in that stretched midfield in Naples, which seemed to consist of three players separated by vast spaces, at times running in different directions. Come Liverpool’s revenge mission and Klopp appeared to have reverted to the triple workhorse model of a midfield, operating utterly unspectacularly but in harmony. It was a method they long used to smother opponents. It is a shape that suits the personnel in Klopp’s squad.

“We had some good games in the other system, especially in the Champions League as well where we played really well in the 4-4-2, for example,” he argued. “That is the only positive thing what happened so far in the season. That we played well and won in different systems: not often enough but at least a couple of times.”

One win, even against a side with a plausible claim to be the world’s best over the last three months, was not enough for him to get carried away. The damning reality is that Liverpool now have more wins in the Champions League than the Premier League this season, and only one point less.

There have been sporadic reminders of what they can do, frequent examples of frailties. “We don’t doubt the quality,” Klopp said. “I don’t think anyone doubts the quality but that is a little bit part of the problem as well. So we show inconsistency.”

And arguably they have prospered in the two games when they have felt underdogs. It suits Klopp’s mentality, the willingness to scrap and to stop the more fancied team. But, in the Premier League anyway, Liverpool have won too rarely when favourites. And them being the best involves beating the rest. (© Independent News Service)

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