Liverpool fans were naturally left underwhelmed on Monday night as they witnessed Jose Mourinho sucking every molecule of life out of their side’s title-race-flirting start to the season like a baby dementor desperately searching for his mother’s Azkaban-guarding bosom.
Indeed, Red Monday wasn’t nearly as exciting as The Hunt for Red October, Red Dead Redemption, Red Nose Day or, well, anything else with red in the title, frankly. In fact, it was about as thrilling as watching red paint dry, on a wall that’s already been painted red.
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The comedown was inevitable, considering the euphoric high of Sky Sports’ relentless build-up, Liverpool’s scintillating attacking play during the first seven games of the season and their resulting rise to fourth in the Premier League table. Mourinho’s eleven-men-behind-the-ball game-plan of frustrating the opposition at every given opportunity quickly sobered everybody up at Anfield.
Yet, fans shouldn’t feel too disheartened, because the Northwest derby isn’t the game that will decide what kind of season Liverpool are going to have.
That may seem paradoxical, considering a win over Red Devils by a three-goal margin would have pushed them to the Premier League’s summit. But Saturday’s contest with West Brom will be a much greater indicator of Liverpool’s progress under Jurgen Klopp and whether the inconsistency that plagued them last season will continue to eat away at the club’s aspirations. Here’s why.
Think back to the same fixture last term – the image of Klopp and Tony Pulis nastily exchanging verbal blows on the touchline, the German grimacing, the Baggies boss red-faced with fury, is likely still imprinted somewhere on your subconscious.
At the time, it was Klopp’s largest dose of the Premier League at its most pragmatic; a bitter-fought 2-2 affair in which West Brom managed to gain a point from just 30% possession and four shots on target, two goals scored from headers met by defenders Craig Dawson and Jonas Olsson. It was a symptomatic defeat that reopened criticisms of Liverpool’s soft underbelly, of their woeful marking from set pieces and their inability to break down well-organised, defensive sides.
It’s not just a Klopp problem. Indeed, Liverpool’s winless run against the Baggies stems back to 2014, and they’re by no means the only example of the Reds struggling to meet expectations against lesser opposition. Gabby Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke running riot at Anfield in Aston Villa jerseys and continuous destruction at the hands of Crystal Palace, who’ve claimed three wins and one draw from their last six encounters with the Reds – including that title-bid-ending 3-3 in 2014 – particularly come to mind.
But as you can see above, it’s remained a prevalent trend since the German took the helm last year. Liverpool have claimed just three more points against those who finished in the bottom half than the top half last season in exactly same amount of fixtures, whilst losing more games and conceding more goals.
Compare that to Klopp’s record versus the top ten – particularly the Premier League’s traditional heavyweights. Since the German took Anfield in October last year, Liverpool have beaten Manchester City at the Etihad, Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United at Old Trafford and Arsenal at the Emirates. Clearly, Klopp’s philosophy works against the Premier League’s biggest clubs, even if Mourinho found a way to nullify it on Monday night.
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But faced with hardworking wingers like James McClean, a bully of a battering ram up front like Salomon Rondon and a back four entirely composed of centre-halves, and Liverpool tend to come up short.
No doubt, they’re as dangerous as any side in world football on the counter-attack – as were Klopp’s Dortmund – but when given time on the ball, when allowed to dominate possession, when forced to play in front of the defence rather than in behind, Liverpool’s attacking talents struggle to prove their quality.
If there’s one criticism that can be pinned to Klopp, it’s his failure to mastermind a successful ‘Plan B’ for such occasions, when the game isn’t stretched and teams aren’t letting the Reds press them into giving away the ball. Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino are all capable of providing moments of magic to unlock camped out defences, but Klopp’s emphasis on attacking at full speed appears to diminish their willingness to do so.
Pulis will have watched Dead Monday with a wry smile, because Mourinho’s saved him a good few days of tactical planning. Set up deep with two banks of four, a roaming central midfielder and a target man, and Liverpool will struggle to break you down. The latter has provided the perfect template for the former to follow when his side travel to Anfield this weekend, further validation that an overly defensive set-up can nullify Liverpool’s attacking threat at home.
But whilst drawing a North West derby, in which United tested the waters for twenty minutes before settling for a point, is more than forgivable considering the quality of the opposition and their determination not to lose, anything less than victory against a West Brom side who embody every aspect of the game that Liverpool continually struggle against will cast grave doubts over their title credentials.
Saturday’s game is the real litmus test of Liverpool’s season – definitive proof of whether they have the consistency to go all the way this year, or will remain simply the club for the big occasion.