Jurgen Klopp’s first Liverpool game was against Spurs, but against them on Saturday they showed why they’ve become so good…
It looked like Adam Lallana was barely able to walk as left the pitch to be replaced by Joe Allen late in the game. Perhaps, more than any other Liverpool player he represented the team’s willingness to learn, to commit to the new manager’s ethos. Yes, it was raw, almost slightly shambolic, but there was no doubting the enthusiasm and commitment of this group of players. Yes, they found themselves tenth in the table and already lost two of their number, Joe Gomez and Danny Ings, to ACL injuries even before kicking a ball competitively under Jurgen Klopp’s management, but they were keen to impress, not yielding an inch to the hosts. Martin Skrtel spent the 90 minutes wrestling with Harry Kane so vigorously that, even if I couldn’t hear it, I could certainly feel their bones creaking as I sat scribbling at the back of the press box at the old White Hart Lane.
It finished 0-0. At the post-match press conference Mauricio Pochettino grew slightly impatient as he was pressed for advice for his newly-arrived counterpart. The journalists present certainly saw similarities in the playing philosophies of the two men. Although Spurs remained just a point ahead of Liverpool, it was easily recognised that they were significantly ahead in their development.
Pochettino did have a 16-month head start on Klopp. But even then it felt that catch Spurs would be the German’s first significant target. If Liverpool were to return to the big time, they would have to get past Tottenham Hotspur. And since that day the games between the two clubs always felt particularly significant, as Liverpool steadily overtook their rivals and left them trailing… well, by 28 points coming into Saturday’s match.
In August 2016, Liverpool finally outplayed Spurs. They felt slightly disappointed to only draw at White Hart Lane, which was by then missing its North-East corner as the new stadium went up around it. The rest of the season proved that it was, in fact, an excellent result, as Spurs won 17 of their other 18 home games, going on to finish second, ten points ahead of Liverpool in fourth. By then Liverpool already struck back, winning twice at Anfield. It looked like they will kick on but in October 2017 the Reds felt the full wrath of Pochettino’s revenge with his idol, Diego Maradona, looking on at Wembley.
Everything went wrong for Liverpool that day. Dejan Lovren’s lack of composure was ruthlessly exploited early on, Liverpool going two goals down within 12 minutes. Liverpool’s 4-3-3 system left Jordan Henderson isolated, boxed in by the four Spurs attacking players around him, with Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren hopelessly exposed behind him. By the time Klopp acted, hooking Lovren for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after half an hour, it was too late. Harry Kane, Heung-min Son, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli were running riot, humiliating their opponents. Ganging up on the lone holding midfielder became something of a thing for that Spurs team. Three months later they destroyed Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United when Paul Pogba drifted away from his position alongside Nemanja Matic, leaving the Serb fighting a battle he could never win.
By then Klopp’s team showed something which would serve them well in the years to come: a remarkable ability to use a great disappointment, a calamity even, to a grow stronger. Like the Hydra of Lerna, when losing one head Liverpool grew back two… or even three!
Aside from the issue with defending from the front, the disaster at Wembley in October 2017 made sure that Liverpool eventually addressed the problems at centre-back and with the goalkeeper. The sale of Philippe Coutinho not only paid for the eventual arrivals of Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker, world’s best in their positions, but also helped to find balance up top. The catastrophic Champions League final in Kiev in May 2018 was pretty much shrugged off as Liverpool managed a two-pronged assault on both the Champions League and the Premier League the following season. The latter ended up in the narrowest of failures against the best side of its generation (if not ever) but any feeling of disappointment was pre-emptied by the 4-0 mauling of Barcelona at Anfield, which itself came off the back of, yes, an awful result in the first leg. Liverpool swept into the Champions League final, where Spurs were swotted aside with ease. The victors’ parade in Liverpool would have given the ancients’ triumphs a run for their money.
As Liverpool grew stronger, Spurs weakened. It felt like the building of the new stadium sucked life out of the team. An exhausted-looking Mauricio Pochettino put on a brave face and hailed the new stadium after the 2-0 defeat of Crystal Palace in the opening game in April. He almost cried out for players to match this impressive new edifice but it was too late. The malaise ran too deep, psychological as well as physical. Pochettino withdrew into himself after the defeat in Madrid as a sense of ennui enveloped the club. After going 1-0 up in the first minute, Spurs were then battered at Anfield in October. The Argentine was gone within a month.
Liverpool powered on, devouring all comers, seemingly insatiable. Well, there were extra heads to feed, after all. Klopp’s players arrived at the new Tottenham Stadium as the champions of the world. They had won 19 out of 20 in the league. This week the Herculean task of stopping the monster fell to a familiar foe, wearing a tired look of someone who has seen it all. The day before Jose Mourinho was trying to rekindle the old fire by telling the assembled press that “in this room only two persons think that we can win. Maybe only two, but we believe. We have to believe.” A couple of seconds later it turned out that he was not even sure whether his press officer was a believer. Mourinho was all alone.
His players did not let him down, though at times it felt like they were getting a proper kicking, especially the debutant Japhet Tanganga, who was battered and bruised, fooled for the Firmino goal, left on his rear by Mane, yet kept going. His colleagues did too, refusing to be cowed by Liverpool’s keep-ball in the second half. Mourinho’s substitutions made sense and Liverpool were made to sweat in the closing stages, but even then, as Klopp pointed out, it was Liverpool’s own fault for not closing out the game earlier.
And that’s the thing; there are so many games when Liverpool aren’t perfect, yet they win. Spurs could fight bravely and neutralise one of hydra’s heads and another and another but there are always more, toying with the opponent, lashing out and, when required, defending like hell. Klopp was more than happy to talk up Alisson’s contribution in the final quarter of an hour.
None of the players who started for Liverpool in that first match in 2015 were on the pitch at 5:30 pm on Saturday but as the second half wore on, first Adam Lallana then Divock Origi came on to help secure the win. It looked like Lallana’s Liverpool career was petering out but we have seen more of him the last two months, since the equaliser at Old Trafford. And here he was, no longer haring around like those years ago but fitting in seamlessly with his wise movement and crisp touch, driving Liverpool towards that title. Never write off an old head.
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