When Jurgen Klopp was quizzed about his start as Liverpool manager, after suffering only one defeat in his first nine games, his answer was what we’ve come to expect from the chummy German. It was both engaging and funny, but it also belied the perfectionist within.
Despite overseeing a steadying of the ship after the choppy start to the season which cost Brendan Rodgers his job, Klopp was still apparently still fixated on his only defeat – a 2-1 loss at home to Crystal Palace, where Scott Dann nodded home a late winner after Liverpool failed to defend a corner.
What was to come, though, probably painted Klopp as anything but a perfectionist. Almost two full years later, the Liverpool coach has yet to sort out perhaps the most glaring problem his side have faced in that time: their ability to defend set-plays.
That problem has become a trope of late, and one which has led to a situation where even Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp were moved to leap at each others’ throats over what the answer to the problem actually is.
Will a new, dominating centre back solve the problem by taking charge and heading the ball clear? Or will an expensive new centre back be just as powerless to stop the madness as Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are currently. The image of a shiny new £50m signing looking bemused as Liverpool’s zonal marking system fails once again is surely the kind of thing that would take some of the shine of Klopp’s aura.
Since even before the first defeat of Klopp’s tenure at Anfield, Palace have seemed like Liverpool’s bogey side. That defeat back in 2015 made it two defeats in their last three games against the south Londoners. Today, that record stands at four defeats in their last eight games. It’s certainly a club Liverpool haven’t enjoyed facing in the last few seasons, and Palace could, this weekend, become the first away team to win four consecutive games at Anfield since Arsenal managed it in 1935.
And yet, this time should be different. The received wisdom suggests that, after replacing Sam Allardyce with Frank de Boer, it will take time for Crystal Palace to make the transition. Sure enough, last weekend’s attempts to change their game dramatically and play out from the back and playing a more sophisticated style of football ended up in a 3-0 defeat at home to a newly promoter Huddersfield Town.
To make matters worse for De Boer, he’ll now have to travel to Anfield and face Jurgen Klopp, just a week after suffering such a heavy defeat to the former Borussia Dortmund coach’s old number two in David Wagner. It was the hard-pressing Huddersfield midfield that did the damage with Palace’s uneasiness on the ball, and a trip to the home of Wagner’s mentor feels like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
On the other hand, it would be wrong to suggest that De Boer’s side were so bad as to merit a 3-0 defeat to Huddersfield. That’s not to say that they didn’t suffer a terribly humiliating defeat, nor is it to say that they’re not going to face the same sort of problems at Anfield that they so clearly couldn’t deal with at Selhurst Park last week.
But it is to say that Palace may not be quite so bad this time. And with the likes of Andros Townsend and Christian Benteke in the side, Liverpool will certainly have to be wary of counter attacks, even if Wilfried Zaha is sidelined for the next few weeks. And, as always it seems, set-pieces are a worry.
This is a game where we’ll see if Klopp is indeed the perfectionist he seemed to be when he first arrived, or whether his answers focusing on the negatives were simply easy to say when his team were winning games. And against an opponent who seem like they are there for the taking, there’s always a possibility of slipping up by taking the victory for granted. But after the last three meetings at Anfield, Liverpool really shouldn’t be making that mistake again.