Published On: Thu, May 3rd, 2018

How Klopp ironed the creases to put Liverpool on verge of European glory

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Earlier this season, Liverpool was an impulsive yet flawed entity. The attack flooded forward with blurring speed and helped forge one of the most entertaining teams on the continent, but the oven was left on high and the house keys were forgotten on the backseat of a taxi. It was a plan bereft of common sense, and questions were being asked of Jurgen Klopp.

Fast-forward a few months and Liverpool is in a Champions League final after seeing off Hoffenheim, FC Porto, Manchester City, Roma and others since the competition’s last qualification phase in August. It’s the result of Klopp wanting his players to sink before they swim. Rather than harking back to his own experiences from guiding Borussia Dortmund to the 2013 final, the German wanted his players to live and learn. “The only way to win something is to go the whole way. Football is as in life; if you are not ready to lose you cannot win,” he opined before Wednesday’s match at the Stadio Olimpico.

Related: Liverpool topples Roma to book Champions League final date

Initially, perhaps due to his oft-affable demeanour, Klopp seemed to be absolved of criticism. Liverpool’s rudderless voyage back to the summit of English and continental football was blamed on the recruitment of Michael Edwards, promoted to the role of sporting director in November 2016, or John Achterberg, the goalkeeping coach who had overseen Pepe Reina‘s decline on Merseyside and couldn’t smooth out the errors of Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius. The Reds were putting on a show, but it lacked the gumption required for clinching major silverware. It was unpredictable football to satisfy neutrals, but not Liverpool fans reared on tales and episodes of European and domestic prosperity.

It seemed each momentous result would be sedated by a home draw against a team like Burnley or, perhaps most shamefully, Sam Allardyce’s negative version of neighbour Everton in December – a consistent inconsistency that began to breed non-believers in Klopp’s regime. Liverpool’s steep ascent back to Europe’s elite looked to have taken its most severe tumble when Philippe Coutinho left for Barcelona.

But by then, Klopp was on the cusp of making an overdue decision. Karius had been sufficiently bashed around by rugby tackling pads to grow used to the rigours of English football, and was installed as the club’s first-choice goalkeeper during January. “Loris needs to deliver and he knows that,” Klopp warned, but his manager’s trust has greatly improved Karius’ game, particularly in his decision-making. He has often excelled when charging to snuff out through balls.

The biggest development has been in the centre of defence, though. On too many occasions Dejan Lovren spent matches forlornly floating around like a marooned Corn Flake at the back; it was soon obvious after his 2014 move that Jose Fonte barked orders in Southampton‘s defence, and Lovren did as he was told. He needed a leader alongside him.

So before Coutinho sought the Camp Nou’s bright lights, the Anfield hierarchy had grossly and uncharacteristically overpaid for a player. Liverpool has recorded clean sheets in 47 percent of matches in which £75-million man Virgil van Dijk has appeared. Before the Dutchman arrived, that figure stood at 39 percent, with three or more goals conceded on five occasions.

What is clear is the communication that now exists in Liverpool’s backline. Van Dijk is an assured presence, and Lovren is therefore less likely to be dally in possession. The Croatian decisively walloped 11 balls from danger in the Italian capital on Wednesday, more than any other player. However, Van Dijk has previously attributed the stronger base in the lineup as a consequence of Klopp’s philosophy entering fruition. Liverpool is still top-heavy, but it is manageable and simply a by-product of gegenpressing.

“Overall, the left-back, right-back, centre-backs, Loris, midfielders, and forwards are putting in the work, and then on the training field with the manager. Everyone around us is fantastic and should be proud of how we defend and how many goals we have scored,” Van Dijk told the Guardian’s Andy Hunter last month. “Without the help of everyone else, Mo (Salah) would not have so many goals. Everyone is doing their bit.”

Liverpool has grown up. Klopp has maintained the cartoonish, scuttling appeal of his frontline – very much the trademark of his philosophy – but the whole squad has now matured through trial and error. Liverpool possesses the practicality needed to make the most telling statement on offer in European club football.

In the space of a few months, Liverpool has evolved into a team that, when looking at the relentlessness of much of the club’s continental run (especially when compared to Real Madrid toeing tightrope to reach the Kyiv showpiece), should make it the favourite to triumph in the Champions League final on May 26.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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