Six weeks after taking the reins from Brendan Rodgers, there was a moment that truly announced Jurgen Klopp’s arrival in English football.
While a 3-1 win over a down-and-out Chelsea side at Stamford Bridge showed undoubted promise, Liverpool’s 4-1 mauling of Manchester City at the Eithad Stadium two games later – back when Manuel Pellegrini’s side were the setting the pace in the Premier League and firm favourites for the title – was something truly special.
It was the game in which Klopp’s much-lauded style of play from his Borussia Dortmund days and his enigmatic style of management appeared to truly take effect on a lukewarm Liverpool squad inherited from Rodgers.
Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana combined in attack to a scintillating degree; pressing high to win the ball off City’s shaky defence and marauding to Joe Hart’s goal with irresistibly fluid passing moves.
Liverpool were three goals up within 32 minutes and the performance became a template for what many envisaged from Klopp’s Liverpool – not only energetic, attacking football at ferocious velocity, but also huge results against the Premier League’s top clubs.
That was the prevailing theme from Klopp’s first full season at Anfield as well. Incredibly, Liverpool went the whole campaign without losing a single game to the rest of the big six, averaging two points per match. They became the side most feared by divisional rivals, not least because their style of pressing was the direct antithesis of what the rest of the big six were doing on the most part – focusing their efforts almost entirely on retaining possession and inadvertently allowing themselves to be picked off.
But this season, something has drastically changed; from six encounters thus far, Liverpool have taken just six points off their big six competitors and rather than handing out heavy thrashings like we saw at the Etihad Stadium in November 2015, the Reds have found themselves on the receiving end.
The Etihad Stadium was in fact the scene of their most humbling defeat of the campaign so far – annihilated by City in a 5-0 drubbing – and that was soon followed by a 4-1 loss at Wembley to Tottenham Hotspur. The paradox was once Liverpool’s ability to obliterate those closest to them in the table but come unstuck against the Premier League’s more workaday sides; this time around, the Reds are yet to lose to any side outside of the top six, but have only beaten Arsenal.
Despite this, history suggests Liverpool are still the best-placed side in the league to end City’s unbeaten run when they travel to Anfield this weekend. The Citizens have only claimed one top flight win at Anfield throughout the Premier League era, and lost during their last four consecutive visits. Likewise, Liverpool have only ever lost one league game to a big six rival at home under Klopp’s watch – a 1-0 defeat to Louis van Gaal’s laborious Manchester United back in January 2016.
Tactically too, Liverpool are one of the few teams capable of playing Pep Guardiola’s side at their own game – something the vast majority of the big six simply haven’t attempted this season, instead opting to park the bus with disappointing results all-round. They have the energy to press as relentlessly as City and the speed on the counter-attack to exploit the space behind their pushed-up backline. Combine the two with the fact City are still relying upon error-prone centre-halves – particularly John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala – and Liverpool appear well-equipped to take something from Sunday’s game, especially while backed by a vibrant Anfield crowd.
“Since Klopp’s arrival the players have always stepped up in the bigger games and mistakes were few and far between. It gave the team a solid base to build from.
“This time around, however, we’ve seen individuals have shockers against Spurs, City and Arsenal. Klopp’s tactics haven’t been that bad when you look at how he’s set his team up. He’s just been let down by certain players.”
Sam McGuire, Football Whispers
And yet, Liverpool’s underwhelming return against the big six this season remains difficult to ignore. Football Whispers’ Sam McGuire believes individual errors have been the biggest problem, something that certainly rings true regarding the reverse fixture in August when Sadio Mane was sent off for a high boot.
But it feels as if there’s been something more systematic at work than simply players who performed so admirably against top teams last season suddenly falling afoul of personal mistakes. Whether it’s the balance of the starting XI, the way Liverpool approach the match, the personnel involved or the height in which the Reds press, lessons must be learned from this season’s slump against the big six.
The crucial positive for Liverpool though, is that they know they still have the potential to beat their closest rivals – City included.
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