If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’re probably feeling pretty sweet about yourself now aren’t you? Maybe you looked at that particular run of five fixtures at the start of the season and thought you’d do well to get any away victory against Arsenal, Spurs or Chelsea. You may have thought at least one of those games would result in a defeat. And it wasn’t as if they had a heavy artillery of summer signings that was convincing you things were going to get better.
For Jurgen Klopp and his men, getting 10 points from their first five fixtures – four of which were away from home – seems an impressive achievement. The three consecutive losses of José Mourinho’s Manchester United last week will also have added to the fans’ sense of merriment. Everything looks rosy in the garden. Except, of course, they have been here before, at least some moment in all of the last 26 seasons.
If Koppites are starting to dream about this season’s possibilities because they’ve done relatively well against some well established clubs so far, they really shouldn’t be. Last season they not only beat Chelsea away from home, they also managed a double over Manchester City. They didn’t lose to Arsenal or Tottenham either, and yet they finished eighth in the league.
If you are wondering why there seems to be disconnect between results and standings, all the evidence you need comes from what has happened thus far this term. Liverpool are the only team to have beaten Chelsea this season; fair enough, but then again, they’re also the only ones to have lost to Burnley.
Klopp has changed Liverpool Football Club and the way it is perceived. Whereas the side’s performances at the end of Brendan Rodgers’ reign seemed strangely lifeless, the German’s introduction of a high-pressing style has brought an increased sense of urgency and dynamism. On the face of it, he has revolutionised his team’s performances. And yet, his points per game record in the league is still inferior to Rodgers. Whereas Klopp has recorded a PPG ratio of 1.65 over the course of the last 11 months, Rodgers’ (aided and abetted by Luis Suarez in 2013-14 it must be said) record stands at an impressive 1.79.
In the increasingly tribal football world, where everyone endlessly mocks everyone else, Klopp is that rarest of things: an almost universally popular manager. While Rafael Benitez was derided as a “fat Spanish waiter”, Hodgson was deemed clueless, and Rodgers lampooned as deluded, Klopp seems to have all the bases covered in what people are looking for. As a person he’s charismatic, funny and stylish without descending to Mourinho levels of self-love.
His teams play fast, attacking football with lots of goals. There’s something hugely endearing about his hugging of players, his manic laughter at inexplicable moments in press conferences, and the continuous breaking of his glasses. It makes you wonder, if he was willing to shell out for a hair transplant, why he didn’t just decide to get the less expensive treatment of laser eye surgery as well? All jokes aside, with the exception of Pep Guardiola, he’s probably the man most supporters wish was managing their side right now.
And yet there are still flowers in the ointment. Liverpool’s performances last season followed a similar graph. After an unconvincing start, where they drew at home to Southampton and lost to Crystal Palace in Klopp’s first four games, a stunning 4-1 victory against Manchester City away from home was followed a few weeks later by a demolishing of Southampton 6-1 in the League cup. At that stage they were sixth in the league and looked primed to improve.
Of course, this was the point at which so-called ‘experts’ tipped them to win the title and, as sure as night follows day, it was also the moment things started to fall apart. In the following game all momentum was killed when the side meekly surrendered to a 2-0 defeat against a relegation-bound Newcastle. They followed that result up by scraping a draw at home against West Brom, before losing ignominiously to Watford 3-0. By the time the team had played Leicester City on in late December, they were no longer in title contention. Even a Champions League place, which may have come into focus more if they had not gone so far in the Europa League, never looked likely in the second half of the season.
Those three results before Christmas may have looked like anomalies, but if you think they weren’t exactly reflective of Liverpool’s season, you’d be wrong. In total they recorded a mere 10 points from a possible 18 against relegated sides. They also managed to draw at home with Sunderland and were defeated by the likes of Swansea and West Ham away from home. They even conspired to lose against Southampton from a position where they were two goals ahead. So, in reality, while obtaining points from stronger sides was not a problem, a lot of what may have looked like “gimmies” – at least from a neutral perspective – were often more difficult.
While Liverpool’s record against lower ranked sides has been sub-standard under Klopp, it’s important to stress it’s not only been his problem. In the opening eight games of last season, Rodgers’ side lost at home to West Ham and failed to beat Norwich. This was a trend that was seen repeatedly in his years at the club. Obviously, given the evidence, something about the mindset of the players doesn’t react well to being favourites.
And so, we continue on to this Saturday’s home clash against Hull. The Tigers famously only had 13 senior players at the start of the season, and whereas they have started well and bolstered their squad, it still doesn’t compare with the quality in the Liverpool ranks. On the basis of form and talent, it looks like a straightforward victory for the Reds. But then again, this is Liverpool we’re talking about. In their last four league meetings against the Tigers, they’ve won just once. And this was when Hull were fighting against survival. Now that they’re doing quite well, they may fancy their chances further.
If Klopp is worth as much in managerial terms as we all thinks he is, he will have spent all of this week drilling into his team, the importance of guarding against complacency. He will have underlined how these fixtures have proved a stumbling block in the past, and been working hard on the training ground at how to try and unlock a packed defence. While chances and goals flowed freely against Leicester, Liverpool couldn’t manage one against Burnley despite registering 81% possession.
You would assume, if the Liverpool attitude and tactical approach are correct, three points should be gleaned. And seeing as Hull are no longer managed by their peculiar bête noire (Steve Bruce) anymore, their task should be a good deal easier. But knowing their record in these type of fixtures, nothing is certain.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena