Liverpool continue to punch with heavyweights while bowing to minnows under Jurgen Klopp
“Life,” says Forrest Gump in the film of the same name, “is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.” Season-ticket holders at Anfield would attest that the phrase is equally applicable to the experience of following Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The early evidence this season suggests that the German’s side have not yet shaken off the inconsistency which plagued them last year. A 4-3 victory over Arsenal on the opening day was made possible by a brilliant 20-minute spell at the start of the second half, but Liverpool had been poor in the first period and almost allowed Arsenal back into the game late on.
That victory was followed by a disappointing 2-0 loss to Burnley at Turf Moor, in which the visitors had over 80 per cent possession but failed to fashion enough clear-cut scoring opportunities.
Liverpool then responded to that setback with a positive display against Tottenham Hotspur, but their failure to finish off the match with a second goal allowed their opponents to take a share of the points.
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The top end of the Premier League looks set to be extremely competitive this year, with six different teams capable of winning the title. Liverpool are one of them — although a place in the top four is the club’s immediate objective — but they must first address the wild fluctuation in their performances from one week to the next.
Liverpool had some outstanding cameos within games in 2015/16. They were superb in the opening half-hour of their trip to Manchester City in November, which ended with a 4-1 win, while they also blew Chelsea away in the second half at Stamford Bridge. Three goals were scored within the space of 18 minutes in the 6-1 thrashing of Southampton in the League Cup, with four scored in a 13-minute period during the 6-0 defeat of Aston Villa.
Liverpool’s display in the second half of their Europa League quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund is the best example of all, when they launched an extraordinary comeback to turn a 4-2 aggregate deficit into a 5-4 victory.
The problem they encountered was an inability to produce such showings on a more regular basis. Sandwiched between those away wins at Chelsea and Manchester City was a 2-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace, for instance, while Liverpool were also comfortably beaten by Newcastle United, Watford and Swansea City.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest Klopp’s team is better suited to playing against the bigger clubs. “[Gegenpressing] is the best playmaker in the world,” Klopp, 49, once said while in charge of Dortmund, and his current team have certainly shown a lack of creativity when facing opponents who are content to cede possession if it means they can nullify the press by playing long balls forward.
That is part of the explanation for Liverpool’s inconsistency, and Klopp still needs more from the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino when it comes to unlocking deep defences this season.
Another reason is their defensive vulnerability, which has often undermined Liverpool’s overall performances. Football is a low-scoring sport and superiority in general play is not always reflected in the scoreline. Errors at the back — of which there have been plenty since Klopp took over — can therefore be decisive.
Liverpool will be reasonably confident of making it seven points from 12 with a win against Leicester City on Saturday, but there is no way of knowing which version will turn up. The oscillation between boom and bust will have to come to an end if Klopp’s side are to return to the Uefa Champions League this season.
Middlesbrough far from middling
The margins between success and failure can be extremely fine. On the final day of last season, Middlesbrough went head to head with Brighton and Hove Albion at the Riverside Stadium, with a place in the Premier League guaranteed to the victors.
After Cristhian Stuani had given the hosts the lead midway through the first half, Brighton equalised through Dale Stephens in the 55th minute. The momentum seemed to be with Brighton at that point, but Stephens was sent off soon after and the pendulum swung back in Middlesbrough’s direction.
The game finished 1-1, which was enough for Middlesbrough to go up on goal difference. Brighton, meanwhile, were beaten by Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-finals of the play-offs. The table never lies and Middlesbrough were worthy runners-up based on the season as a whole, but the outcome could have been very different had Stephens not been so rash in that split second of action.
Middlesbrough are certainly making the most of their time back in the top flight after a seven-year absence. They remain unbeaten after three matches, with a victory over Sunderland and draws with Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion lifting them into sixth place in the early standings.
The club recruited smartly in the summer, bringing in 11 new faces for a combined cost of just under £21 million (Dh102.6m). Aitor Karanka has been wary of changing too much, too soon, however, and Middlesbrough have been sensible in their search for the right blend. In the 0-0 draw with West Brom, for example, eight of the 11 starters had been at the club last season.
They have also managed to retain the defensive solidity that was the foundation of their success in 2015/16. Only two goals have been conceded thus far — and one of those was from a direct free-kick — and Middlesbrough have generally looked well organised and disciplined without the ball.
It has been a very positive start for Karanka’s charges, who have every chance of climbing even higher in the table when they take on Crystal Palace on Saturday.
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Published: September 9, 2016 04:00 AM