Seven games that turned Klopp’s Liverpool into champions

Liverpool have bloody well done it. There have been a few twists and turns in almost five years, mind. Here are the seven Jurgen Klopp games that took them from mid-table mess to Premier League champions.

Seven games that turned Klopp’s Liverpool into champions

Seven games that turned Klopp’s Liverpool into champions

 

Chelsea 1-3 Liverpool (31/10/15) There is unfortunately no official public record of the BT Sport pre-match discussion, so suggestions of ‘suspicious talk of false 9s and a lack of a focal point’ in their studio, as well as social-media feedback with regards to the input of certain co-commentators, will have to do.

If Trevor Francis could stop going on about how we "aren't playing with a striker"despite Firmino being used there plenty, that'd be grand

— Will (@akalasa_5) October 31, 2015

The Twitter response to Liverpool’s starting line-up for Klopp’s third Premier League game in charge was similarly distrustful, featuring observations such as ‘no striker is starting????!!!’, ‘Bobby as a false 9 what’ and ‘WHY NOT BENTEKE FFS’.

Hindsight is glorious.

But this was indeed the first occasion Firmino had led the Liverpool line, having been used primarily as a winger by Brendan Rodgers, before understandably floundering as a wing-back against Manchester United. Klopp actually read the instructions the Northern Irishman had tossed to one side and figured it might be worth a try.

How right he was. Liverpool fell behind within four minutes at Stamford Bridge to a Ramires opener and while the ostensibly defensive team selection was only dissected further, it held up to scrutiny. Firmino’s clever assist helped facilitate Philippe Coutinho’s equaliser, with the midfielder adding another goal before Christian Benteke confirmed the victory that would condemn the reigning champions to a sixth defeat in 11 Premier League games.

It was a vital insight into what Liverpool could and would become, the first tangible example of the devastation that can be caused by Klopp’s high-pressing, energetic style and Firmino’s selfless and supreme centre-forward play. There would be a few more wins to come.

 

Liverpool 1-2 Crystal Palace (8/11/15) But first, a setback. No sooner had Klopp guided Liverpool over their first bump than he encountered another less surmountable one. Their development over five years could be crudely viewed through the prism of home games against Crystal Palace: the title was effectively sealed with a dominant 4-0 win in June 2020; they were the last Premier League visitors to emerge victorious at Anfield in April 2017; a 2-1 defeat to Alan Pardew’s side in November 2015 provided an unexpected watershed moment.

A week after the clarity and coherence of that Chelsea performance came a confused and muddled display that arguably did more to shape the club’s future. Yannick Bolasie reprised his role as chief Liverpool tormentor by scoring first, before another Coutinho strike hinted towards a second impressive comeback in as many games. Then Scott Dann scored with eight minutes remaining; the Reds were beaten.

“Eighty-two minutes – game over,” Klopp lamented. “I turned around and I felt pretty alone at this moment. We have to decide when it is over.

“I am not disappointed about this, the fans leaving, they have reasons. But we are responsible that nobody can leave the stadium a minute before the last whistle because everything can happen.

“Between 82 minutes and 94 you can make eight goals, if you want, but you have to work for it. That is what we have to show and we didn’t.”

The manager laboured the point to much ridicule the following month after Divock Origi secured a 2-2 home draw against West Brom in the sixth minute of stoppage time. But given Liverpool’s propensity for late drama since, it was a genius way of calling on supporters to help.

 

Liverpool 1-0 Manchester City (31/12/16) That Klopp’s first two Premier League wins were 3-1 and 4-1 victories away at Chelsea and Manchester City feels apt. A 3-3 draw with Arsenal and 1-0 defeat to Manchester United in January 2016 encapsulated their initial struggles in both balancing defence and attack and breaking down stubborn, resolute teams. Liverpool’s next games against fellow Big Six sides included thrashing City 3-0, drawing 1-1 with Tottenham (twice) and Chelsea, beating Arsenal 4-3 and Chelsea 2-1, and drawing 0-0 with United.

So their New Year’s Eve 2016 hosting of City was something of an anomaly. The first Premier League meeting of Klopp and Pep Guardiola was characterised not by attacking abandon but tension and nervousness. Both were actually the closest challengers to Chelsea at the time and the victors would close to within six points of Antonio Conte’s rampant Blues.

That honour went to Liverpool, who scored a well-constructed goal through Georginio Wijnaldum in the eighth minute and did not have another shot on target thereafter. They instead sought to stifle their visitors and contain the considerable threat of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Otamendi.

December 2016 began with that chastening and callow 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth but ended with a mature, professional performance in a win over City. The less said about winter 2017 the better but Liverpool mastering the classical music of a hard-fought victory instead of relying on the usual heavy metal was proof of a team and manager slowly evolving.

 

Tottenham 4-1 Liverpool (22/10/17) Not that the sailing was uniquely plain thereafter. Klopp has typically toiled at Wembley, losing the 2013 Champions League and 2016 League Cup finals there with Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool respectively. His third competitive visit to the national stadium would be altogether more humbling.

The effect of Tottenham’s shellacking was twofold: Klopp could no longer ignore the fragility of his defence, while he surely started to countenance selling the ineffective and ill-fitting Coutinho. And the manager would waste no time in acting on both impulses that January.

Had Harry Kane not embarrassed and exposed Dejan Lovren to the point of a 32nd-minute mercy substitution, Virgil van Dijk might not have arrived on Merseyside when he did. Coutinho, meanwhile, made future bids of, say, £142m in add-ons, difficult to resist.

Liverpool actually embarked on what was then the longest unbeaten run of Klopp’s Premier League reign in the immediate aftermath, conceding a positively stingy 12 goals in those 14 games. The post-mortem was brutal but crucial.

 

Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City (14/1/18)

“It’s not that I said in the meeting, ‘Boys, it would help a lot if you win tonight and nobody speaks about Phil Coutinho anymore.’ We like talking about him, actually. I’m sure he is probably still jumping in his new living room in Barcelona, happy about the win. But, of course, it is important to show it is possible to play without him and we did that. So that’s a very important statement, absolutely.”

As curious as it seems more than two years on, there was substantial apprehension as to where Liverpool were headed without Coutinho. No supporter wants their team to be perceived as a selling club, a stepping stone to greater things. They want to be the final destination, not a service station en-route.

But Klopp took the plunge, accepted the offer from Barcelona and accepted the consequences. Van Dijk had joined, Liverpool were changing and Coutinho was a necessary sacrifice.

Their first game without him was quite the litmus test as an unbeaten City made the short trip to Anfield. Guardiola’s side were 15 points clear after 22 games and superior to an almost laughable degree, dropping eight points in their previous 30 matches.

Yet Liverpool tore them asunder. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain thumped them into the lead. Leroy Sane equalised. The two teams were level by the 58th minute and separated by three goals in the 68th as the runaway league leaders were pummelled into submission. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah scored, Anfield roared and the Fab Four was a distant memory. The Reds knew they had the better of England’s flagbearers in an isolated match – their Champions League quarter-final later in the year proved that – so it was time to replicate that over an entire season.

 

Newcastle 2-3 Liverpool (4/5/19) This might well be the outlier. But without it, would the chain reaction of Premier League disappointment, Champions League glory and title immortality have occurred?

Perhaps. But there was something visceral, deeper than just three more points, in their win over Newcastle on the penultimate day of the 2018/19 season.

It came three days after their remarkable campaign promised to end without a trophy. Barcelona had beaten them 3-0 in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final at the Nou Camp and, try as they might, Liverpool simply could not catch City in the Premier League. They had kept the pace with seven straight wins to close the season but Guardiola’s side were refusing to surrender their slender advantage.

Liverpool had to beat Newcastle, who had inflicted upon City their most recent defeat in one of six wins in seven home games, to keep the race alive. They led twice, through Van Dijk and Salah, only for Christian Atsu and Salomon Rondon to equalise in the first and second halves.

With four minutes remaining, the Reds were out of ideas. The injured Firmino did not even make the squad and Salah had been stretchered off with a concussion. Time had finally caught up to them – until Origi found the winner.

It was superficially meaningless as City would thrash Brighton on the final day to defend their crown. But it was symbolic of Liverpool’s attitude and mentality and preserved the momentum that carried though long into this season.

“Two of the world’s best strikers are not available tomorrow night and we have to score four goals,” said Klopp after the game. “It doesn’t make life easier but we will try for 90 minutes to celebrate the Champions League campaign to give it a proper finish.” Without that Newcastle game, there might have been no European miracle and less of a collective, singular determination to end 30 years of hurt.

 

Leicester 0-4 Liverpool (26/12/19) When did it become truly apparent that this, finally, was unironically Liverpool’s year? With November’s 3-1 win over Manchester City? When a reserve team swept Everton to one side a month later? The 2-0 victory against Manchester United, perhaps, when even those most fearful of hoodoos and jinxes forgave themselves a moment of celebratory weakness?

No, nope and nein. The point of no return came on Boxing Day as fans were treated to a belated Christmas present at the King Power Stadium.

Liverpool had no right to be so imperious that evening. “We are all kinds of exhausted from a very intense game,” said Klopp in the build-up. “We play again in five days so it’s a tough period.” The Reds had just been crowned champions of the literal world with an extra-time win over Flamengo in Qatar but the biggest test yet of their title credentials was to come.

Leicester were second, ten points behind, and had scored one fewer goal than Liverpool while conceding as few almost halfway through the season. It was a meeting between the league’s joint-best defences but they were far from equal 90 minutes later.

Liverpool dismantled the Foxes with all the precision and none of the frustration of a father trying to reassemble IKEA furniture. Away from home against their nearest challengers, with three different scorers, four vastly contrasting goals, five days to prepare, six shots on target and none conceded, it remains their most complete performance of a title-winning season, if not Klopp’s reign as a whole.

Matt Stead

 

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